Author Archives: Melissa Caruso

About Melissa Caruso

I'm the author of the Swords & Fire trilogy from Orbit Books, including Gemmell Morningstar Award shortlisted THE TETHERED MAGE (October 2017), THE DEFIANT HEIR (April 2018), and THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (forthcoming April 2019). I love tea, adventure, and the great outdoors, and I've been known to swordfight in ballgowns. I live in Massachusetts with my husband, two amazing daughters, three cats, and a Labrador. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds.

One Year of Published Authorhood!

Today marks the one year anniversary of the US publication of THE TETHERED MAGE. I’ve now been a published author for one whole year! WOO HOO!

If you want to get in the time machine, you can read my original post about my debut release  (with pictures).

But I thought that in honor of this anniversary, I’d offer you my list of Things That Are Actually Different In My Life Now That I’m a Published Author:

  • When people ask me what I do for a living, I get to say I’m an author! And then they look at me funny and try to figure out what that means and if I’m for real (whatever that means to them), and ask awkward questions, and it’s all needlessly complicated.
  • My fun hobby is now a job with deadlines. LIFE-CONSUMING DEADLINES. HA HA HA I DIDN’T WANT TO DO ANYTHING BESIDES WRITE EVER ANYWAY. THIS IS FINE
  • When I walk into a bookstore, sometimes (usually!) MY BOOKS ARE ON THE SHELF HOLY CRAP!!! THIS NEVER STOPS BEING AMAZING!
  • The default small talk topic at family gatherings has turned from “how are the kids” to “how are the books,” which is actually WAY MORE AWKWARD than you’d think
  • Sometimes COMPLETE STRANGERS make posts on the internet about my books keeping them up late at night or making them miss their train stop and IT GIVES ME LIFE
  • Where the fuck did all my Sharpies go?!
  • I never get to see my friends anymore because DID I MENTION THE DEADLINES (SOB)
  • BUT! My friends are awesome and understanding and POST SHELFIES WITH MY BOOKS IN THE WILD and squee about them with me and are in all ways THE BEST
  • Taxes, on the other hand, are THE WORST whyyyyyyyy so complicated ARGH
  • My teen’s geeky friends suddenly think I’m cool
  • Dread about whether I’ll ever be good enough to get published now replaced by even more crushing dread about whether I’ll live up to the expectations of my readers & publisher with the next book
  • Sometimes I’m just sitting there in my living room and I see MY BOOKS ON THE SHELF and I have to go pet them and sniff them and look, this is TOTALLY NORMAL

All in all, I have to say, it’s been PRETTY FRICKIN’ AMAZING. Happy first birthday to THE TETHERED MAGE, and I can’t wait to see what the next year brings!


Why Completing a Trilogy is Terrifying

Last month I turned in my second round of edits for THE UNBOUND EMPIRE! This means that while there are still more rounds of edits to go, the story itself is more or less finalized. What ultimately happens to these characters I’ve written about for three books is unlikely to change.

I have, essentially, finished the story—completed my very first trilogy.

HA HA HA THAT’S TOTALLY NOT SCARY, OF COURSE. I’M NOT SCARED. ARE YOU SCARED?

(Looks at what happens in Book 3)

…Actually, okay, if you care about these characters, MAYBE YOU SHOULD BE SCARED. MU HA HA HA HA!

But WAIT! There it is. The thing I’m here to tell you about. The thing I didn’t expect to feel on wrapping up my first series.

Guilt.

I started out writing THE UNBOUND EMPIRE like I’d write any other book, merrily puttering along, coming up with various OH NO terrible twists to raise the stakes, like you do. But there was one huge difference in writing this book versus every other book I’ve ever written: I was writing it after the first books were already published.

I had real, live readers already invested in the story.

As I drafted THE UNBOUND EMPIRE, I’d do something really mean to Character X…and then some lovely reader would post something saying “I love Character X and I hope they’re happy forever!” And I’d look at the book like um, wow, uhhh, hmm. Define “happy.”

I finally made my decisions about how things wind up with Amalia’s personal life…and then saw people shipping various mutually exclusive outcomes and was like oh, huh, I guess NO MATTER WHAT some people are going to be disappointed. Eek!

Now, of course I KNOW that the vast majority of readers WANT me to torment their favorite characters, even while at the same time they want them to be happy. Because reading is just weird like that, and it’s probably best not to think about why we’re like “NOOOOOO DON’T HURT MY FAVE” on one level while on another we’re like “YESSSSSSSSS HURT MY FAVE MORE.” I DON’T MAKE THE RULES. THAT’S JUST HOW IT IS.

And of course I KNOW that you have to be true to your story. What we ultimately want as readers is for the story’s ending to be the perfect ending for that story, even if it’s not the ending we wanted. Or thought we wanted.

Writing the ending of a story isn’t giving everyone their own favorite flavor of candy—it can’t be. (THAT’S WHAT FANFIC IS FOR.)

But that doesn’t make it any less intimidating when you realize that chances are good you will let someone, somewhere, down. It’s scary! And it wasn’t something I saw coming. (I can only imagine it’d be EVEN SCARIER if I wrote really grimdark stuff. Hats off to writers who do!)

I know I can’t give everyone the pony they always wanted, even though ALL I WANT IS TO GIVE MY READERS PONIES. Instead of a sparkly snuggle pony, you may get a pony with eyes made of fire and half-rotted bat wings and a mane like the midnight sky…I’M NOT SAYING YOU WILL…but that’s a thing that could happen. MAYBE THIS IS JUST WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I MAKE PONIES, ALL RIGHT? DON’T JUDGE ME.

Look, whether that metaphor actually makes any sense or not, the point is: I adore my readers. I want to give you a story you’ll love.

And it was scary to realize that to do that, I had to push aside everything I might know or be able to guess about what my readers want, or think they want, and instead write the story the way it wanted to be told.

As it happens, I’m pretty happy with how the ending turned out. I hope everyone else likes it, too! But if you don’t, well, feel free to make a different ending for yourself and believe in that one. I won’t mind.

I’m so excited to share this story with you! Is it April yet?


Dramatic Tension

(Yet another in the series of Twitter threads I’m translating to blog posts! Enjoy.)

So I know I talk a lot about how you need compelling conflict and stakes to have a gripping story. But on a line-by-line and page-by-page level, what keeps me reading is their more nebulous cousin, dramatic tension.

Basically, dramatic tension is what gives you that feeling of OMG I HAVE TO KEEP READING. It’s what keeps you up past your bedtime with a really good book.

But the really wild thing about dramatic tension is that it can come from SO MANY DIFFERENT SOURCES!

The obvious one is I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT! This is an especially great one to use with your chapter breaks—ending a chapter when your character has just been stabbed, or the main character’s dark secret has just been publicly revealed, etc.

But there are lots more, like:

  • I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED IN THE PAST (when you darkly hint at the Tragic Backstory Incident for a while rather than just dumping it up front)
  • I NEED TO KNOW WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON (when Mysterious Events are Afoot and we only have glimpses)
  • 

I KNOW A BAD THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN AND I’M DREADING IT (An inevitable confrontation or crushing revelation; an ambush the readers know about in advance but the characters don’t)
  • I KNOW A GOOD THING IS GOING TO HAPPEN AND I CAN’T WAIT (eagerly watching a romance build)
  • I KNOW A THING WILL HAPPEN BUT NOT HOW (In Hunger Games, the tension isn’t really over whether Katniss will win, but over knowing that for her to win, everyone else must die and she may have to be the one to kill them; you NEED to see how that plays out)
  • I KNOW A THING HAPPENED BUT NOT HOW (every mystery ever)

I could go on, but you get the idea…usually there’s something the reader NEEDS TO KNOW about the story or its characters, but what that thing is can be surprisingly subtle or complex.

Sometimes you can create MORE tension by letting the reader in on a surprise, so they’re anticipating it (either eagerly or with dread), than by just springing it on them out of the blue.

Sometimes withholding information for a little while can create tension through mystery (which can be a great trick in SFF to avoid early info dumps).

Ideally, you want your dramatic tension to operate on multiple levels, with different kinds of tension, short term & long.

One thing I ask myself when I’m editing is “What is keeping the readers turning pages in this scene/chapter? Why don’t they put the book down at the end of it?”

If I don’t have a good answer, I need to up the dramatic tension.


Drives and Goals

(This is another lightly edited Twitter writing craft thread which I’m posting on my blog for reference and so people can find it more easily. I hope it’s helpful!)

When I’m shaping a character arc for a book, I try to pay attention to both drives and goals. It’s crucial for a character to have both, and I often have to remind myself that they’re not the same.

A drive is a deep, underlying need that pushes or pulls the character through the whole story. It’s often the core motivating force of their arc.

It’s frequently a more abstract (but compelling!) thing, like seeking acceptance, recognition, love, atonement, justice, etc.

A goal is something more specific, like saving their little brother, defeating the bad guy, getting their crush to invite them to the ball, retrieving the lost artifact, etc. It’s what the character consciously & concretely wants to do and is taking actions to try to accomplish.

Goals operate at a large and small level. You’ve got big book-long or even series-long ones (defeat Voldemort), but also wee little scene-level ones (don’t get caught by Filch before you get back to Gryffindor common room).

Goals can and do change, while drives don’t unless something really dramatic happens to fundamentally change the character. A drive change is a big deal and a major character turning point.

A fair chunk of your character’s goals will be all tangled up with their drive.

Many goals will be a direct and clear result of a drive. Like, my drive is to protect my family, so I’m going to have to defeat the dark lord because he’s threatening them.

But sometimes goals and drives conflict. Like, my goal is to become a master swordswoman because that’s what my mom wants, but my drive is to find acceptance and I tried theater and the cast is my new family and I can’t do both and WHAT DO I DO?!

Or a character might think they want to find the powerful artifact to destroy it so no evil can use it, but really their drive for glory and recognition is pushing them to take it for themselves and they just haven’t acknowledged it yet.

I’ve found that when I fool myself into thinking a drive counts as a goal, the character will lack agency.

(Hmm, what’s her goal? Gaining public recognition after a life of being overlooked! NOPE. That’s a drive. Her concrete plans for steps to get recognition are goals.)

Conversely, if a character has goals but no underlying drives, their arc lacks heart.

(Especially watch out for this with villains! She wants to conquer the world, sure, but WHY? What inner forces push or pull her to do this?)

Conflict is all about drives and goals smashing up against each other, internally or externally. Those conflicts drive your story.

Story is just character in motion. Drives are what put your character in motion; goals give that motion a vector.

And then everything crashes into everything else and makes beautiful explosions!


Editing Process for THE UNBOUND EMPIRE

I just turned in my second round of edits on THE UNBOUND EMPIRE! During the first (structral) round of edits, I posted a Twitter thread about the process. Here’s a lightly edited version of that thread:

When I was young and foolish, I thought revising/editing was just what I now understand to be line edits and copyediting. Cleaning up awkward phrasing, picking stronger words, fixing errors, etc. And that’s all great! But that comes pretty late in the game.

Working with a publisher, I have official cycles of edits where I’m turning in drafts and then I get feedback at increasingly granular levels from my editors. But on my own process was pretty similar, just without hard deadlines at which I had to stop and call it a draft.

The first big phase is structural edits. These include the main building blocks of the story. I’m looking for stuff like:

  • Characters whose arcs need strengthening
  • Weak subplots that need to be expanded, merged, or cut
  • Pacing – major chunks that move too fast or slow
  • Stakes: I can ALWAYS raise the stakes after the first draft
  • Agency: I ALWAYS need to give my characters more of it after my first try
  • Does what everyone is doing even make any sense (given their goals)
  • Relationships: are they compelling & do they develop

I’m looking at the bones, the shape of the story. I try to pull WAAAAAYYY back and squint and see what it looks like.

If my story is a drawing of a dog, this is the part where I make sure it has the right number of eyes and legs and that everything is roughly the right size, and that it doesn’t have a fish tail or bug wings—NOT when I’m doing shading effects and lovely fur textures.

THE UNBOUND EMPIRE is probably, of all the books I’ve ever written, the one where I’ve done the best job on basic structure on the first try. So at the structural edit phase, I also worked on some stuff that I might otherwise hit in a second pass, like:

  • Internality: Making sure we’re immersed in the character’s FEEEEELINGS and I’m not just coldly describing what’s happening
  • Convenience: Removing coincidences that further the plot and making sure everything happens because of actual reasons that are driven by the story

Other things that I often wind up rubbing in deeper in a second pass (after the structural one) include:

  • Voice (especially making sure my characters all sound different when they’re speaking)
  • Clarity (I need feedback to get this right—seeing what readers are confused about)
  • Transitions – I always write terrible transitions from place to place or arc to arc in early drafts and struggle to fix them later!
  • Page-level pacing: tightening rambly bits and drawing out intense bits more
    Setting – making sure it’s immersive & evocative

My drafts used to get much shorter in edits as I found all kinds of redundant or unnecessary stuff I could cut. (I especially had this terrible tendency to write “let’s talk about what we’re about to do” and “let’s talk about what we just did” scenes.)

These days my drafts tend to get longer as I add more emotionally meaningful scenes that advance character relationships and internal plot to round out all the OMG ACTION DANGER! type plot scenes. Draft 2 of Book 3 is probably going to be about 25K words longer than Draft 1. (Update: It was about 35K words longer than Draft 1.)

Only after all this stuff (which can be 1-2+ full edit cycles with feedback from editors or beta readers, and 2-5++ full drafts) do I get to the level of doing line edits and polishing language.

Usually at this point only like maybe 20-50% of my first draft remains.

Since getting a publisher (YAY!), I’m lucky enough to have editors involved giving me feedback for each major cycle, which is incredible. But before that, I got feedback from beta readers & CPs at similar points, and then from my agent. Good feedback is essential for perspective.

In my teens and 20’s, I would have been horrified to hear about all this work! Revision sounded super boring. But somewhere along the way, I realized that revision is just MORE WRITING, which is fun.

The first time I write a scene, it’s like practice. Maybe I’ll knock it out of the park on the first try! But at least as often, on the next pass I’m like “Nah, I bet I can do better than that.” And usually I can.

As an example, there are at least two key scenes near the end of THE UNBOUND EMPIRE that I rewrote nearly from scratch three times to get them right! The second pass was okay on each of them, but I thought I could do better and they were important scenes, so I gave it another try.

What’s your editing process?


Book 3 Writing Process (So Far)

This month I turned in my first round of edits for Book 3 of Swords and Fire, yay! I thought it might be fun to share a bit of what the process for writing it has been like so far.

First phase: Brainstorming. This was my first time writing the conclusion of a trilogy, and the brainstorming process was very different. I came up with a whole checklist of plot threads or relationships for which I wanted to give a satisfying conclusion, moments I wanted to happen, etc. I also knew I wanted to escalate the stakes appropriately for the last book in the trilogy, and I literally made a list of really bad things that could happen for inspiration. (I didn’t use ALL of them, I promise.)

Second phase: Plotting. I had to pull all those ideas together seamlessly into a coherent story with a clear through line and emotional arc, which was a daunting task! I’m still editing this book, of course, so whether I ultimately succeed remains to be seen, but I’m cautiously pleased thus far.

Third phase: Drafting. After all that brainstorming and plotting, my deadline was not getting any farther away, and I had to race along at a pretty wild pace. I followed my usual pattern of getting 10K-20K words done and then restarting with a new draft, and then getting 50K-70K words in and realizing I need to go back to the beginning and start another new draft again.

This actually works really well for me. The first restart happens because at first I’m just feeling my way into the book and flailing around, and after I’ve got a grip on what the hell I’m doing I can start over and be more on target on the second try. The second restart happens when I’ve gotten far enough in that I’ve realized ways I can improve the book structurally, but those structural changes are significant enough that they’ll change the way the rest of the book unfolds. I’ve done this for all three books in the trilogy, one way or another, and I think it’s really improved the final results.

Fourth phase: Revision plan. After getting feedback from my editors (both my amazing editor Sarah Guan and my equally amazing UK editor Emily Byron), I had lots of input to process. Plus I had my own list I’d been keeping of changes I either ran out of time to make in the first draft or thought of after turning it in. And on top of all that, I have certain types of analysis I always run at this stage (after completing a first draft): looking at stuff like through line, stakes, agency, the arcs of each major character and each major relationship, individual plot arcs, etc. I take each big structural piece and try to look at it separately, making sure it holds up on its own if I squint at it and ignore all the other fluffy story bits clinging to and obscuring it.

I then took my pages and pages of notes on things I wanted to change and turned them into a concrete scene-by-scene revision plan. For instance, I might take something vague and general like “increase agency” and then look at my scene list and go “Ooh, in this scene I can make this whole plan Amalia’s idea instead of something presented to her by others,” or “I can make this dangerous encounter something she initiates herself, knowing the risks, rather than something sprung on her by surprise.” I turn that into a revision outline which I know I won’t stick to completely, but which is there to organize all my ideas to make the book better (including how I’ve decided to address my editors’ notes) so I can refer to it as I revise.

Fifth phase: Structural edits! I went through the whole book in order, addressing my editors’ comments as well as my own ideas to improve the book, scene by scene. I added scenes, deleted or moved scenes, edited scenes, and rewrote a whole bunch of stuff from scratch. I’ve found I can often do a better job on a second try even for a scene that’s working okay already, so there were a LOT of scenes I rewrote with the same basic beats, just sharper and better.

The schedule for this round of edits was REALLY tight for me, so I didn’t get to take a second stab at some new scenes I may not have nailed on the first try, or to go back and work in some stuff that would lead up to later events better. And my brain kept very helpfully going OOOH OOH OOH I HAVE THIS GREAT IDEA FOR A SCENE YOU COULD ADD AND A THING YOU COULD DO up until literally the night before edits were due. I was like, THANKS, BRAIN, COULDN’T YOU HAVE THOUGHT OF THIS A MONTH AGO? But no. So that stuff will have to go in next round! That’s the thing about working with a publisher…you’re always going to keep thinking of more ways to make the book better, but at some point they need to take it from your grabby writer hands even if IT’S NOT PERFECT YET WAAAIIIIT OMG because they need to actually have your work in their hands to take their turn and work their magic.

Book 3 was about 110K words at the end of draft one, and is now 145K words at the end of draft two. In addition to those 35K new words, I also rewrote large chunks of the existing wordcount. But it’s still mostly the same main plot points in the same order, because the structure was reasonably decent on the first pass for this one. Editing is a strange alchemy.

I’m really excited to share this book with everyone! Once it’s ready, of course. There are more rounds of edits coming, and lots more work to do.


Let’s Talk Agency

Every first draft I’ve ever written has had agency problems. Which sounds like a bunch of guys in suits with dark glasses should be pulling up in a black van and hustling my draft into the back, but it’s nowhere near that exciting. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite of exciting.

Agency is, basically, your character’s ability to affect the plot in pursuit of their goals. It’s something I think a lot of writers struggle with, and I think it can be especially difficult in fantasy because a lot of our favorite tropes steal agency from the main character. Fantasy tends to have the plot kicked off by a villain doing Bad Things, and often that villain continues to drive the plot forward doing More Bad Things, and all our character can do is run around putting out fires and trying frantically to stop Yet More Bad Things from occurring.

This feels pretty natural, right? For me, at least, when I first come up with a plot, it’s often a series of nasty surprises the characters must deal with. I love the “OH SHIT!” moments SO MUCH, and I often build my plot around those to some degree—and they can turn out to be some of the most intense moments in the book. But there are some problems that come with lack of agency.

One of the most important is that it undermines character. Moments of choice are vital to defining character; but if I’m too busy dodging assassins and following prophecies as if they were cake recipes, I’m not making any important decisions. Having goals and motivations is also central to character, but if all my goals are created for me by the villain (stay alive, save my friends, protect the village, etc), they don’t illuminate much about who I am, and what inner drives propel me forward.

For this reason, lack of agency also sabotages the story’s through line. The main character’s pursuit of their goals is the thread running through the entire story, the current that pulls the reader inexorably onward and keeps them turning pages. If our hero doesn’t have personally significant goals to actively pursue, and is just reacting to a series of events—no matter how exciting—the story falls flat between those events. Like, WOW, thank goodness we escaped those assassins! Now we’ll, uh, sit around drinking tea and talking about what a close call that was and how we wish we knew who was trying to kill us until the NEXT exciting surprise happens, I guess. (My first drafts are often SUPER GUILTY of this.) This drops the tension on the floor, leaving the reader with nothing to draw them onward.

So, okay, agency is important! How do you check whether your main character has it? Ask yourself these three questions, both in general and on a scene-by-scene level:

Does the character have a personally important goal (with something at stake and serious consequences if they fail to attain it)? This doesn’t even have to have anything directly to do with the main plot. Maybe the main plot is to defeat the dark lord, but what our hero really wants is to find her missing sister, or for her parents to finally accept her, or to show the world that her invisibility device can WORK, dammit, so they’ll never laugh at her again.

Are they taking actions to pursue that goal? We need to see them doing stuff to try to get what they want, and not just sitting on their hands hoping someone will hand it to them, or letting some mentor figure drag them along the path to victory.

Are the actions they’re taking having an effect on the plot? This doesn’t need to be the effect the character intends, mind you. Their plans can go horribly wrong, thereby saving you from a premature happy ending on page 75. Unexpected twists can derail or reroute their efforts, or their actions could even make things worse because they didn’t understand the true situation. But things should be different because they tried.

If you realize your character lacks agency in some or all of your book, don’t despair! Not only can you fix this, but fixing it often will take your book to the next level.

For instance, let’s say you have a plot point where your character gets captured. How the heck can getting captured be a result of them pursuing their goals? Well, maybe instead of getting captured when they’re jumped by kidnappers while walking down the street, they get captured when they’re in the midst of sneaking into the castle of Count Sardonico, looking for murder evidence, and WHOOPS he’s unexpectedly ready for them! Or someone in the party HAD to try to steal the thing behind the magical alarm wards, or there was this clue about your MC’s missing sister that she HAD to check out even though there were guards patrolling that area, etc…make it character-driven, so the choices your characters make are important. (Just make certain those choices are relatable and not plain old stupid. No one likes that guy who throws himself on the enemy’s swords because DRAMA.)

Or let’s say you need to drop a big stunning information bomb on your characters. (Your missing sister IS the dark lord! There is a traitor among you! Your entire world was MADE OF CHEESE all along!) Instead of having some mysterious figure swoop in and announce this, or having them stumble across the crucial info, have them obtain it in a hands-on way while pursuing their goals (even if it’s not the info they thought they were getting). Maybe they actively go spy on the bad guys to overhear their plans, or retrieve the ancient world-cheese artifact from antiquities smugglers, or trick the info out of the Dark Lord’s sinisterly charming lieutenant at a fancy party. It’s cooler if they have to work for it.

Some of my favorite moments in my own books have come from a realization that I needed to increase agency. It’s hard to give specific examples without getting spoilery…But for instance, there’s an, uh, decision Amalia makes at a party around the end of Chapter 4 in The Defiant Heir which has a huge effect on the course of the book. In my very first partial exploratory draft, this was a decision her mother made for her. But I quickly realized that it would be SO MUCH COOLER if she made it herself, and that one change made the entire book SO MUCH BETTER.

Obviously the antagonist’s actions are also still important, and it’s okay for our heroes to be caught completely flat-footed sometimes. But overall, it’s important to make sure our main characters are propelling the plot forward, not being dragged limply through it. Sometimes they may accidentally roll their Sisyphus boulder off a cliff instead of up the mountain (oops), or it may slip in their grasp and run them over as it tumbles back down the hill, but they need to keep trying. If Sisyphus takes a nap, the tension is gone, and we put down the story.