Author Archives: Melissa Caruso

About Melissa Caruso

Fantasy author of the Swords & Fire trilogy: THE TETHERED MAGE (Orbit, 2017), THE DEFIANT HEIR (Orbit, 2018), and THE UNBOUND EMPIRE (Orbit, 2019), as well as the forthcoming Rooks and Ruin trilogy, beginning with THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (coming June 2020 from Orbit). Melissa's debut, THE TETHERED MAGE, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award in 2017. Melissa loves tea, adventure, and the great outdoors, and has been known to swordfight in ballgowns. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two superlative daughters, three cats, and a Labrador. Represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds.

How I Accidentally Wrote a Love Triangle [SPOILERS for Swords & Fire!]

OKAY it’s been long enough since THE UNBOUND EMPIRE came out! I’m finally ready to make my tell-all post about Amalia’s romance arc in the Swords & Fire series! WOOHOO!!!!!! GET READY!!!!!!

BUT! This is SUPER SPOILERY.

DO NOT READ THIS POST UNTIL AFTER YOU FINISH THE UNBOUND EMPIRE. I mean it! You will be SO SPOILED, and not just on Amalia’s romantic choices. If you haven’t read the whole trilogy, STOP HERE.

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(No, really, this is INCREDIBLY SPOILERY. If you haven’t read THE UNBOUND EMPIRE, turn back now.)

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(Okay, you’ve read TUE? Yes? Almost there, then, keep scrolling!)

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OKAY! SO!!!

I never meant to write a love triangle. I swear. I don’t even LIKE love triangles! (Well, mostly. I can think of a few that were pretty cool.)

I originally wrote THE TETHERED MAGE as a standalone YA novel. In those early drafts, Amalia & Marcello wound up together at the end, yay! Happy ending!

…Yeah, so, obviously STUFF CHANGED. TTM became the first book of an adult fantasy trilogy. Amalia’s arc became something completely different—about taking responsibility rather than bucking authority. It couldn’t be a simple feel-good WOOHOO LOVE CONQUERS ALL, SCREW YOU MOM, I DO WHAT I WANT ending. And her romance arc had to span three books, not just one, so it couldn’t resolve so quickly.

So, okay, no problem! When I sat down to plot out Book Two, I figured aha, clearly I must give her a serious political courtship/marriage prospect. She’ll have to weigh love against duty! It’ll be great!

But I can’t just make him some jerk she should obviously reject, I thought. That’d be too easy. This has to be  a hard choice, pitting personal preference against political necessity. And then I thought OOOOOOOH, I’LL MAKE HIM A WITCH LORD!

And then HEH, I’LL MAKE HIM THE CROW LORD, CROWS ARE AWESOME.

(Yes, I do think in all caps, in fact, WHAT OF IT?)

And then I started writing Kathe and suddenly it was WHO ARE YOU WHERE ARE YOU GOING WITH MY PLOT WAIT STOP PUT THAT DOWN!!!

So yeah, Kathe kind of took off on me, and I wound up unexpectedly adoring him. BUT it was still clear to me (and you are welcome to disagree with me, seriously, it’s completely subjective) that Amalia would be happier with Marcello.

And then as I was writing THE DEFIANT HEIR, it kind of sank in that Amalia’s arc was not really about what would make her happy.

OH SHIT, I thought, I HAVE TO TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY. I wanted Amalia’s choice to be genuinely difficult, and for readers to not know what she was going to do, or even necessarily what they WANTED her to do. Which meant the choice had to be hard and unclear for me, too.

So I made a decision, partway through drafting THE DEFIANT HEIR: I was not going to make this choice now. I had NO IDEA if she would wind up with Kathe or Marcello. NONE. I wrote and edited the whole book not knowing. My editor asked me if I knew, and I was like NOPE. NO CLUE.

Then it came time to plot out Book Three. And I had to make my choice.

CRAP CRAP CRAP, I thought.

And also HEYYYYYYYYYYY I COULD DO A POLY ENDING! NO ONE HAS TO CHOOSE! EVERYONE WINS!

But I knew (and, uh, my agent reminded me) that would be a cop out in this particular case, much as I might consider polyamory a fine solution to many love triangles. That wasn’t where this story and these characters were going. It would be me just gratifying myself (okay, and some of my readers) and letting me and Amalia dodge making our choice.

(But, you know, if someone wants to write that fanfic, HAVE AT.)

So anyway, I did what any reasonable writer would do: I TOTALLY PANICKED. I wrote my agent an email basically going HELP I WROTE MYSELF INTO A LOVE TRIANGLE AND NOW I HAVE TO GET OUT OF IT WHAT DO I DOOOOOOO.

My agent (Naomi Davis, who is awesome, by the way) gave me all sorts of incredibly good advice about stuff like tying the romance arc inextricably into the story, upping the stakes, doing something unpredictable, and generally being REALLY MEAN…but ultimately threw the decision RIGHT BACK INTO MY LAP. (Where, to be fair, it belonged.) I wasn’t getting out of this one. I had to figure this out myself.

I knew I wanted to pull Marcello back into the center of the plot. I knew I wanted to up the stakes and make Amalia’s choice EVEN HARDER. And I knew that ultimately, what happened with the romance arc had to be an important part of Amalia’s overall character arc. It couldn’t be, like, her fun little dessert plotline where she just has to choose which delicious flavor of ice cream she wants today.

Aaaaand that’s when I got the horrible idea of turning Marcello into a chimera. I was actually partway through a draft where that was TOTALLY NOT A THING, and suddenly here was this idea which would CHANGE EVERYTHING. The whole focus of the book, Amalia’s arc, the ending, everything.

Part of me was like NOOOOOOOO! THAT’S TOO MEAN! I LOVE MY CHARACTERS AND WANT THEM TO BE HAPPY! DON’T DO THIS!

So of course, I knew I had to do it.

And that made it EVEN HARDER to decide who she’d wind up with at the end, and I waffled for a long time. But ultimately, I knew that Amalia’s entire arc was about growing into her role and accepting her responsibilities and everything that came with them. And that meant going with the political choice after all (who, HEY, happened to be a hot Crow Lord, so COULD BE WORSE!).

I also wanted to show that complicated intersection of life and romance we face in reality, and to reinforce that you absolutely can love multiple people but have to make complicated life choices about who you can be with. That it isn’t all about finding your One True Love and having that magically fix all your problems (though it can be nice to escape into that fantasy). I never meant to write a love triangle, and I still honestly don’t quite think of it as a love triangle—more like a love/duty/politics/look-it’s-complicated POLYGON of some kind. And when I started thinking it all through, I realized that just as Amalia couldn’t achieve her full growth if she backed down from political duty and chose Marcello, Marcello couldn’t achieve his full growth with Amalia. He has his own important goals and ambitions, his purpose and career, and ways he wants to shape the world into a better place. He has more to become than just Amalia’s shadow.

It was really important to me to show that Marcello would be okay, though. And that’s where the scene with Istrella poking him in the eye came from. (Also because SHE TOTALLY WOULD DO IT—THANKS, ISTRELLA.) I didn’t have any room at the end of the book to show more than that, but I really hope to at some point write some epilogue short stories or something (or maybe more books someday, you never know, but at LEAST some short stories or vignettes) giving you more of a glimpse into how things pan out for all the core Swords & Fire characters!

In the process of plotting, I considered so many options. Having Amalia wind up with Marcello, with Kathe, with both, with neither. Killing off one or both of them. I went with the story that felt the most true to me—the most satisfying, if not necessarily the happiest (but TOTALLY NOT THE SADDEST OPTION either, I assure you). But all those alternate endings were possible—they could have happened—and if you prefer one of them, I totally encourage you to have that headcanon or write that fanfic!

And if you’re hoping to find out more about how things wind up going for Kathe and Amalia, well, I didn’t want to drop too strong of a hint in THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (which takes place 150 years later), because I want people to be able to read the trilogies in either order and I don’t want to spoil anything. But there MIGHT be a super subtle hint in there as an easter egg for Swords & Fire readers, and I MIGHT be hoping to add more such hints in the rest of the new series.

(PS: I totally don’t know where the romance arc is going to wind up in the new trilogy, either, for entirely different reasons. WHY DO I KEEP DOING THIS TO MYSELF?!)

Happy reading!


Swords & Fire Fan Art (& More) Contest!

There is NOTHING I love more than fan art, so I’m having a contest! Prizes will at minimum include an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) of my new novel in the Swords & Fire universe, THE OBSIDIAN TOWER (not out until June, but you can get it early if you win)! Plus, I’ll add more prizes if I get a lot of entries!

The details:

INTERNATIONAL CONTEST! Since this contest is all about my awesome readers, I want to include ALL of them!

WIDE DEFINITION OF ART! Entries can include memes, stick figures, cosplay photos, quote calligraphy, Incorrect Swords & Fire tweets, aesthetic boards, etc. All skill levels acceptable!

MULTIPLE PRIZES! If I can get enough entries, I’ll add more prizes! I’ll start with an ARC of THE OBSIDIAN TOWER, but if I get a really great response I’ll add stuff like signed books, an annotated/doodled book, Skype call, etc. Stay tuned for further prize announcements!

TIMEFRAME: The contest will run 1 month, to give time for people to create stuff (and for me to hopefully add prizes/annotate a book/etc if I get enough entries). Winner(s) will be picked on March 9.

HOW TO ENTER: Reply to the top tweet in this thread with your art or a link to it! OR, if you don’t have a Twitter account, you can use my contact form to email me a link to your art that I can post to the Twitter thread for you.

MORE DETAILS:

  • One entry per person (you can post more than one thing if you want, but it only counts as one entry)
  • You can enter Swords & Fire art you already did earlier; doesn’t have to be new
  • Art can be any media but MUST pertain to the Swords & Fire trilogy/characters
  • If there is one prize, I will select a random winner from entrants. If there are multiple prizes, I may pick my favorites for some/all of the additional prizes!
  • I may retweet your art to squee over it and show it to the world, but I will not repost or reuse it, only share YOUR tweet/link
  • If you take commissions and want to include a link to your web page in your entry tweet or otherwise plug your work that is TOTALLY COOL

Let me know if you have any questions! I CANNOT WAIT to see your entries!!!


WorldCon 2019 Schedule

I’ll be at WorldCon in 2019 in Dublin this August! It’s my first WorldCon and I’m so excited!

I’ll be on two panels and doing one signing. Here’s my official schedule:

Fantastical travel guide
Format: Panel
15 Aug 2019, Thursday 15:00 – 15:50, Liffey Hall-2 (CCD)

Autographs: Thursday at 17:00
Format: Autographing
15 Aug 2019, Thursday 17:00 – 17:50, Level 4 Foyer (CCD)

Authors and their pets
Format: Panel
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 15:00 – 15:50, Wicklow Hall 2B (CCD)

I’ll be at WorldCon from Thursday through Sunday, and when I’m not on programming I’ll be wandering around like everyone else. If you’re going to be there and want to say hi, please don’t hesitate to introduce yourself! I’ll probably be wearing my jess bracelet so you can be sure it’s me (I mean, plus presumably a name tag), and I’ll also likely post occasional updates from the con on my Twitter account. I’d love to meet you!


Writing Goals for 2019

It’s 2019! Woo hoo! A new year!

I like to set writing goals (rather than resolutions, which are WAY too all-or-nothing for my taste) for each new year, to give myself a direction to focus my energies. I know I won’t completely achieve every one of these to the fullest extent, but I’m going to try, and hopefully that trying will create some sort of net positive result.

So without further ado, here are my writing goals for 2019:

1) Build a better work/Life balance: Find a balance that lets me give my family and writing the full attention they deserve while still making enough room for my day job and household tasks…All while getting sufficient sleep and taking decent care of myself! HA HA HA JUST KIDDING THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT TIME TRAVEL. But I’ll do my best to move in that direction, anyway.

2) Try new things and keep growing as a writer: I always want to keep pushing my boundaries and exploring in new directions. One thing I’ll be working on in 2019 with my new book is building a compelling group dynamic for a set of characters who function as a team, something I haven’t done before. I am super excited to play with this new toy. Romantic tensions! In jokes! Bickering! Secrets! Broken yet loving relationships! Loyalty to death and beyond! I CAN’T WAIT.

3) Confront my demons: (Look, that sounded cooler than “Get better at the things I’m bad at.”) Let’s face it, no one’s perfect. I want to keep identifying and eliminating (or at least mitigating) my weaknesses. One big one I’d love to tackle this year is SCENE TRANSITIONS UGH I HATE THOSE THINGS. If I could learn to get into and out of a scene gracefully and effortlessly on the first try, I could get back SO MANY HOURS OF MY LIFE.

4) Put a dent in my to-read pile: I have this stack of AMAZING unread books sitting there taunting me like a full box of chocolates, and I want to nom my way through as much of it as possible! Which will be less than I’d like. BUT STILL! I must read as many books as I can… to make room for MORE BOOKS.

5) Finish Book One of my new trilogy and start Book Two! This one, at least, I should be able to manage (or else my editor is going to be really mad at me). Deadlines: ensuring productivity since…uh…whenever they invented deadlines. But seriously, I am SO EXCITED about this new series, and am having a blast with this first book. I can’t wait to share it with you!

That’s probably enough writing-related goals for one year. If I have too many, it’ll dilute my focus, which is like the opposite of the point.

Happy New Year! What goals have you got for 2019, if you do the goals thing? (It’s okay if you don’t. If they’re not useful for you, don’t do ‘em.)


Writing Year in Review

2018 was my first full year as a published author. A lot of extremely exciting things happened, and also a lot of flailing in panic. Because getting published after a lifetime of striving for this goal is a bit like yearning to be allowed in the deep end of the pool as a kid and then finally diving in and realizing WHOOPS I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO SWIM.

It was a hell of a year for me as a writer, even if you only look at the biggest highlights:

  • THE DEFIANT HEIR was published! And it got some really lovely reviews and pretty much everyone liked it even better than THE TETHERED MAGE, yay!
  • My swordfighting in ballgowns Twitter thread went viral, which was a bizarre experience with all kinds of unexpected long-reaching and delightful consequences!
  • THE TETHERED MAGE got shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar award! I’m STILL in shock!
  • I wrote THE UNBOUND EMPIRE, finishing my very first trilogy!
  • I sold a new trilogy to Orbit and started writing the first book!

I also unlocked a lot of little writer achievements that meant a ton to me personally. Fan emails, hearing I kept people up late at night, fan art (!!!), someone running a D&D campaign based partly on my books, a FAN TATTOO WITH MY BOOK IN IT, hearing my book comforted someone through hard times, a reader’s kids playing Falcon & Falconer, making readers cry, a Halloween costume partly inspired by TDH, people tweeting about their book hangovers after finishing one of my books…This sort of thing is what I always wanted. This is why I write: to bring a bit of story-joy into people’s lives. Every little reader interaction like that makes me squee and smile and tell my family “Someone liked my book!” like it was the first time. (THANK YOU, awesome readers!)

So it was a fantastic year for me as a writer! But it was also a tough year. My deadlines for THE UNBOUND EMPIRE were tight, and it was a real struggle to balance work and life, especially with parenting. I really need some way to wedge an extra 5-10 hours into every day—it would solve a lot of problems. So if you have a line on an available time turner, please, let me know.

Next year looks to be very nearly as exciting—I’ve got THE UNBOUND EMPIRE coming out in April, and will be working hard on the new trilogy. I honestly still can’t believe any of this is happening.

I hope your 2018 had some good stories in it, whether you read them, wrote them, or lived them, and that 2019 is even better!


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?