Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Guest Blog by Henry V. O'Neil - Give Yourself Some Room: Some tips for writing a book series

Please welcome Henry V. O'Neil to The Qwillery. Live Echoes, the 5th Sim War novel, will be published on February 28, 2017 by Harper Voyager Impulse.

Give Yourself Some Room: Some tips for writing a book series
By Henry V. O’Neil

I just finished writing the final novel in my military science fiction Sim War series, and it seemed like a good time to review the experience. It didn’t take long to see that I’d learned a great deal about writing a series, and I thought I’d share some of those tips with you.

When I started brainstorming the first book, Glory Main, I knew I wanted to write several sequels. I’ve been writing for some time, and so I’ve met a wide variety of readers, authors, and editors who’ve provided their own advice and wisdom. One of the common themes about beginning a series was to start small. The idea is to give yourself, your storyline, your setting, and your characters room to grow. I took that to heart, and it paid off.

Before I continue, this is only advice—not a rule. There are plenty of excellent stories (post-apocalyptic fiction immediately springs to mind) that start with the literary equivalent of an atomic blast. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (minor spoiler alert) begins with the destruction of the Earth, proving that a brilliant piece of fiction can literally begin with the end of the world.

With that said, there are many advantages to leaving yourself some room when you’re beginning a series:

  1. You’re less likely to paint yourself into a corner right from the start. When writing fiction, there’s always the danger that our made-up story contains boundaries we didn’t notice at first. While that’s tough enough in a book that hasn’t been released yet, it can be a major problem in a series. Discovering you’ve boxed yourself in while writing a draft merely entails a lot of rewriting, but learning you’ve done it in the already-released first books of a series can be a death blow. While starting small doesn’t guarantee this won’t happen, it certainly improves your odds.
  2. It gives your characters room for change, growth, and the chance to surprise even you. Regardless of the timeframe of your series, the characters are likely to experience challenges, mishaps, and successes. How they respond to these situations reveals a lot about them, while also advancing the plot. These events provide excellent opportunities for growth and change in the character experiencing them—so let them surprise you. Presenting the characters in their final forms at the beginning of the story can rob the reader of watching them grow, and cheat you of the chance to develop the character later, in ways you may not have anticipated.
  3. Your readers get to experience suspense, and to anticipate major developments. When you’re telling a story, it’s important to keep your audience’s interest. Presenting a knotty puzzle, a difficult quest, a bitter conflict, or a looming disaster can really pull your readers in—if only to see how it turns out. If the characters engage them, and the stakes for those characters are high enough, you can generate a genuine feeling of suspense. Don’t drag the story out, but don’t be in too big a hurry to solve the puzzle or resolve the conflict.
  4. You create the time and the space to take advantage of a different idea. Ideally, the brainstorming process never ends. Even if you began with a fully-developed concept of how the storyline will proceed, the mechanics of writing the series will often cause the tale to diverge from that original course. New and exciting ideas present themselves as the writing progresses, and it’s nice to realize you have the leeway to explore them.

So now that we’ve reviewed the advantages of leaving yourself some room, how might you go about doing it?
  1. Reveal only as much as you have to. There’s plenty of information to hand out in the first books of a series, so there’s no need to overdo it. Getting more specific than necessary can paint you into the aforementioned corner. The first book in my Sim War series, Glory Main, features four strangers marooned on a barren planet with no water, food, weapons, or any idea where they are. I wanted to write a true tale of survival, but this minimalist approach also helped me concentrate on the story. I certainly had to introduce the circumstances (a decades-long space war against an enemy that resembles humans so closely that they’re called the Sims) and the backstory for the main character (a politician’s son who volunteered for the war as an act of rebellion) but I didn’t go far beyond that. It wasn’t needed for the storyline, and it kept the tale focused on the very real issues of finding water, food, shelter, and a way off the planet.
  2. Provide enough action to keep the story interesting, but consider holding off on the really huge developments. This is a tough one. Your readers want to find out what happens, or get to the giant fight they believe is coming, and they’re only going to wait so long. Make the wait interesting by including smaller, believable conflicts and resolutions on the way to the really big moments. In the Sim War series I didn’t exactly follow this advice, largely because one of the early books moved toward a titanic battle sequence in a way that was organic and enjoyable. It helped that the enormous confrontation did very little to answer the deeper questions about the war, and the fallout of the battle greatly advanced the main character’s development.
  3. Expand the scope of the story naturally. No matter how hard you try to keep it simple, your tale’s complexity will increase as you write more books. So don’t be in a rush to resolve the major conflicts—you’ll reach them soon enough. My series presented a war set far in the future, with faster-than-light travel delivering space armadas to different solar systems, so it had plenty of big issues: Why are we fighting the Sims? Why isn’t somebody winning this thing? Is this war ever going to end? Questions like those will get asked many times, but definitively answered only once. It’s all part of the puzzle, and how that puzzle gets solved should be a ride the readers will enjoy.
  4. Be ready to adjust. One of the biggest pleasures I get from writing is the discovery of a plot twist or story development that I didn’t see coming. I usually write from some sort of outline, but I’m always ready to dump that plan as soon as the tale diverges from it. This can happen in a lot of fun and interesting ways: A minor character turns into a major player, and the tale needs to make room for him or her. The story keeps heading in a different direction, until I finally go along with it. A throwaway line of dialogue provides the inspiration for what amounts to a complete—and better—rewrite.

Don’t rob yourself of these chances and opportunities. Start small. Leave room for growth. Be open to a different idea. Tell the story.

Glory Main
The Sim War: Book One
Harper Voyager Impulse, July 29, 2014
      eBook, 320 pages
Harper Voyager Impulse, September 2, 2014
      Mass Market Paperback, 320 pages

We are closer to the Sims than we think …

For decades, mankind has been locked in a war with an alien enemy that resembles the human race so closely they are known as the Sims. Both sides battle for control of habitable planets across the galaxies—often at any cost.

Lieutenant Jander Mortas is fresh out of officer training and new to the war zone but eager to prove himself. There's just one problem: disaster strikes while he's traveling to his first assignment. He wakes to find himself marooned on a planet that appears deserted, with the only other survivors: a psychoanalyst, a conscientious objector, and a bitter veteran of a brutal slave-scout detachment. As the group struggles to reach safety on a nearby base, Glory Main, they discover a Sim colony—which could mean their salvation, or their demise.

Thrown together, they must fight the harsh elements, an ever-present enemy, and possibly each other.

Orphan Brigade
The Sim War: Book Two
Harper Voyager Impulse, January 6, 2015
      eBook, 384 pages
Harper Voyager Impulse, February 17, 2015
      Mass Market Paperback, 384 pages

The action-packed sequel to Glory Main

Life has not been easy for Lieutenant Jander Mortas since making it to the Glory Main headquarters—with a telepathic alien entity in tow. After turning down his powerful father's offer of a desk job as an ambassador, Jander is heading back to the war zone. After joining an emergency reaction force of combat veterans known as the Orphans, Jander must work hard to get his platoon in shape for the next deployment—while learning the ropes himself. Because disaster soon strikes, and the Orphan Brigade is shipped out to Fractus, a harsh planet invaded by the enemy—the Sims.

Meanwhile, Jander's sister, Ayliss, is on a mission of her own: to uncover a scandal that would bring an end to her father's dubious reign as Chairman of the Emergency Senate. But Olech Mortas is hiding even more than his children could ever know …

Dire Steps
The Sim War: Book Three
Harper Voyager Impulse, September 29, 2015
      eBook, 304 pages
Harper Voyager Impulse, November 10, 2015
      Mass Market Paperback, 304 pages

The third installment in the action-packed Sim War series

The Step, a faster-than-light method of travel, is humanity's greatest advantage in its interstellar war with the Sims. Olech Mortas, Chairman of the Emergency Senate, believes the Step could be used to contact an alien entity that might tip the scales in the conflict. And he's willing to risk his life to prove it.

Olech's son, Lieutenant Jander Mortas, has recently survived his first battle as part of the elite Orphan Brigade. The Orphans' new mission is to investigate suspicious Sim activity on the jungle planet Verdur—but what they discover there is far worse than anything they could have imagined.

Meanwhile, Jander's sister Ayliss has gone to the war zone as the governor of a new colony made up of discharged veterans. Ayliss soon realizes that she and the colonists stand in the way of both the Sim enemy and a sinister mining corporation with powerful allies.

All three members of the Mortas family are about to step into dire situations.

The Sim War: Book Four
Harper Voyager Impulse, November 29, 2016
      eBook, 384 pages
Harper Voyager Impulse, December 27, 2016
      Mass Market Paperback, 384 pages


Things are looking grim for the human Alliance against the Sims. A revolution on Celestia is draining the war zone of badly needed troops, and Alliance Chairwoman Reena Mortas is being blamed for the debacle. Her husband and predecessor, Chairman Olech Mortas, remains missing in the faster-than-light mode of travel known as the Step.

Jander and Ayliss Mortas are putting their lives on the line against the Sims, he with the hardcore Orphan Brigade, and she with the elite, all-female Banshees. But when the mysterious alien shapeshifter from Jander’s past reappears, he is sent on a secret mission that could possibly allow humanity to finally communicate with the Sims—and end the war.

Meanwhile, Reena’s attempts to find her missing husband are yielding surprising revelations from inside the Step that could answer two of humanity’s greatest questions. Who gave us the Step? What is making the Sims? In the penultimate book of the Sim War series, the truth of these hidden space entities begins to emerge.

Live Echoes
The Sim War: Book Five
Harper Voyager Impulse, February 28, 2017
      eBook, 384 pages


There’s new hope for resolution of the decades-long war against the Sims: the discovery of Omega, a mysterious planet far from the fighting. Reena Mortas, the embattled leader of the human alliance, is betting everything that Omega could unlock the mystery of what’s creating the Sims.

Meanwhile, her husband and predecessor, the missing-and-believed-dead Olech Mortas, has made contact with the aliens who gave mankind the faster-than-light mode of travel known as the Step. Existing in a different realm, Olech is re-living the most important decisions of his life—while trying to explain human contradiction to a being that looks just like him, known only as Mirror.

Olech’s children, Jander and Ayliss, are still embroiled in the war. Jander has rejoined the Orphan Brigade on the mineral-rich planet Celestia, where he comes to believe what many of the Orphans feel: they’re supporting the wrong side. Ayliss, fighting in the all-female Banshees, is soon thrown into the losing war against the Sims, not knowing that every Banshee in the Human Defense Force is slated for an all-out assault on Omega that could win the war—or get them all killed.

Live Echoes is the gripping end to the Sim War series, and finally answers its central question: Where did the Sims come from, and why are they bent on humanity’s destruction?

About Henry

Henry V. O’Neil is the name under which award-winning mystery and horror novelist Vincent H. O’Neil releases his science fiction work. A graduate of West Point, he served for nine years in the US Army infantry both stateside and overseas. His five-book Sim War series (Glory Main, Orphan Brigade, Dire Steps, CHOP Line, and Live Echoes) is available from Harper Voyager. His website is


  1. How do you balance "new" technology against "unrealistic" technology. Where do you get ideas for things that don't exist but may or should?

  2. Thoughtful and informative post, Henry. I'll keep these points in mind for my next series.