Genre Conventions, I Defy You

One of my current favorite shows on TV is Jane the Virgin, a clever, satirical romance-drama-telenovela hybrid that is one of the smarter shows I’ve seen in the last few years. It breaks down romance and soap opera conventions while still playing within the rules of the category: even as it pokes fun at the rules of the telenovela, it abides by them. The result, while cheesy at first glance, is magnificently self-aware, snarky, and satisfying, because it trusts an audience aware of the conventions it explores.

Without getting spoilery, the first episode of the new season looks at the expectations of the romance reader/viewer, specifically that magic component, the HEA. (That’s Happily Ever After in romance lingo, for those of you who aren’t in the know.) When readers pick up a novel in the romance section of the bookstore, they expect, by and large, a happily ever after, whatever that may look like: a wedding, a baby, a kiss, a couple together forever. When writers break with that convention, it seems to create two primary results: extreme disappointment or flat-out awe at the creator of such a groundbreaking work.

As writers, most of us aren’t lucky enough to land in the second category. It takes a deft hand to write a tragic romance or a sci-fi with magical components, and it takes a truly visionary editor to find a way to sell those genre-bending pieces.

So what makes one of the successful convention-defying pieces work? Often, it’s the tricks that make all great pieces of media stand out, like great characters, compelling conflicts, and gorgeous writing. But I think there’s a secret ingredient that Jane the Virgin has unwittingly revealed: self-awareness.

While Jane the Virgin works within the rules of the telenovela, and would likely alienate its audience if it tried to tell a true tragedy, its self-awareness turns it from a typical soap opera into a deconstruction of a soap opera. By pointing out and exploring the rules of its genre, it tells a deeper story because it looks at why we have certain expectations of genre fiction. The audience becomes a part of the story.

Any time we engage with a work of fiction, we bring to it our own circumstances, our history, and our particular wants and needs. I might pick up a romance novel because I need to see that happily ever after; you might pick up a fantasy novel because you want an escape. If an author denies us the defining characteristic we are expecting from a work we’ve engaged with, they are often denying to meet our needs. But when they find a way to satisfy those needs while still surprising us, that’s when conventions become secondary to story and art is born.

What are your favorite genre-defying stories? How does genre expectation influence your reading of a particular work?


Mirror, mirror

Picture this: you’re standing in front of the mirror, brushing your teeth. Your reflection stares placidly back. A whistle from the kitchen startles you–you turn to look into the kitchen, and you see the noise is just the kettle going off. You turn your gaze back to the mirror, and in that instant, out of the corner of your eye, you are certain that your reflection has not moved. You lock eyes with yourself, but your reflection seems suddenly wrong. Are your eyes really so dark? Your chin so sharp?

But no. You tell yourself you’re just being stupid. Of course that’s what your reflection looks like–it’s you, after all. Isn’t it?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s your doppelgänger.

Although the German word doppelgänger, translating literally to “double-goer,” is a relatively recent addition to the vernacular, the concept of an alter-ego or shadow self appears frequently in the mythology and folk-lore of many world cultures. Although a physical lookalike or double of the person in question, a doppelgänger often takes the role of a darker counterpart to the self. In many cultures, it is said that to catch a glimpse of one’s doppelgänger is a harbinger of bad luck, and potentially an omen of one’s own death.

How They Met Themselves, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
How They Met Themselves,
by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the ka was a tangible “spirit double” possessing the same memories and feelings as the physical counterpart. In some myths, the shadow double could be manipulated to perform tasks or duties while acting as their physical counterpart. In Norse mythology, a vardøger was a spirit predecessor, a shadowy double preceding a living person in location or activity, resulting in witnesses seeing or hearing a person before they actually arrived. And in Celtic mythology, a fetch was an exact, spectral double of a person, whose appearance was ominous in nature, often foretelling a person’s imminent death. The fetch could also act as a psychopomp, stealing away the soul of their living double and transporting them to the realm of the dead.

The concept of a dark double appears frequently in literature and pop culture as well. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” explores the idea of a doppelgängers with a reversal on the traditional “evil twin” story–one of the doubles is amoral and debauched, yet his wicked schemes are always being unmasked by his virtuous identical. Charlie Chaplin’s seminal film “The Great Dictator” also explores the idea of evil twins, where Chaplin plays both the good, simple barber and the megalomaniacal, Hitler-esque dictator. Even the modern show “The Vampire Diaries” has a doppelgänger story-line; Elena Gilbert’s vampire double Katerina is everything spice to Elena’s nice. Katerina is sexy where Elena is pretty, violent where Elena is gentle, and traitorous where Elena is loyal.

But why is the doppelgänger myth so prevalent in folklore and modern culture? What makes us so frightened of our shadowy doubles?

Myself, my shadow self
Myself, my shadow self

In Jungian psychology, the “shadow self” refers to the unconscious or less desirable aspects of the personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself. In other words, the shadow self is a vehicle and receptacle for our deepest secrets and darkest fears, living in the darkest corners of our souls. And, no matter how much we reject them, these dark doubles are ultimately our own worst selves reflected back at us.

Perhaps the myth of the doppelgänger arose from this sense of shadow and darkness lurking within everyone. We are our own evil twins, spectral doubles confined to one body. Perhaps that is why, when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a darkened mirror or a pane of glass, we feel unsettled, reverberating with the echoes of familiarity and yet, unfamiliarity.

Perhaps, in the end, we are all haunted by the ghosts of ourselves.

Do you have a favorite doppelgänger or evil twin story? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

When You’re a Writer, Every Day is a School Day

This is what my brain looks like all the time. And those arms? Those are my characters. We don't ever stop. (Image purchased from Adobe Stock.)
This is what my brain looks like all the time. And those arms? Those are my characters. We don’t ever stop. (Image purchased from Adobe Stock.)

My name is Niki and I’m addicted to learning. Seriously. I’m convinced there’s a part of my soul that never left school. I would be a lifelong student if someone would pay me to go to school. I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward historical fiction as my main genre. I love the research and learning new things. Sharing them on my blog is like a never-ending book report or research paper – my idea of heaven. (Yes, I know I’m odd.)

Every year around the end of August/beginning of September, I get the urge to further my education. I really think it’s because I associate the change in weather with learning. I still have major anxiety freak outs according to the school calendar (August, December and May – seriously, like clockwork), so it’s possible. In past years I’ve looked at Masters/PhD programs in history, religion or writing, my three favorite subjects. But since I can’t really afford tuition right now, I decided I can probably learn basically what I need to on my own. (Although I can almost promise there is more formal education in my future as soon as time and finances allow.) So a few years ago, I started my DIY MFA program.

If you bothered to look at that link, you’ll see that I am crazy. It contains a list of 78 books, DVD courses and webinars. (The crossed out ones are ones I’ve finished.) I started it in 2015 and have been adding to it ever since. It started out pretty short and balanced between categories, but now, with my transition to indie author, is heavily leaning toward marketing and history, which reflects where my brain is now. I learned how to research in college as part of my undergrad thesis in English, but I’m really curious as to how historians are trained, so I plan to read those books next. After I finish the pile of marketing books on my kitchen table. (You have to remember that marketing is my day job, too, so I’m doubly interested, even though internal health care communications is totally different from marketing a book).

Sadly, there are about 20 more books on my Amazon wish-list that I didn’t add to the DIY MFA because I’m not sure they’d be worth my time. And plus, I have 70-something books to read first. (Yay, library!) I’m also in the process of making my way through all the Netgalley books I’ve requested and never read (10), books I started but haven’t finished (10) and all the reviews I’ve promised people (3, I think), not to mention the 400 something books on my TBR list.

I think my recent trip to Oxford made me worse. It’s a city founded on learning with more than 30 libraries. How can it not bring out my inner student? If I had known in college what I know now (and had the maturity I have now) I would have gone to Oxford and studied history. But in reality, I wasn’t ready to move away from home, much less to another country, and I didn’t yet know how much I love history, so that wasn’t even on my radar. And I guess it’s good because I’d be a totally different person. My college experience was one of the most formative of my life.

You would think my crazy schedule over the last year – publishing and marketing four books in seven months with a full-time job, plus five conferences and a ton of speaking engagements – would have worn me out, and it has, physically. But I don’t think anything short of death (which I’m hoping won’t happen for a long, long time, like in 50+ years) will stop my brain from whirring. I know I can’t write right now (none of my characters are talking) and since I can’t fathom the concept of doing nothing, I’ll be gorging my brain on writing-related books and the occasional fiction for levity.

If you need me, I’ll be under a pile of blankets and books with two cats. Likely to emerge sometime in early 2017.

What do you think of my DIY MFA program? Have you read any of the books on the list? What do you do when your brain won’t stop?

BTAF ’16 Panels

The Boston Teen Author Festival (BTAF) is a yearly event that celebrates YA fiction in the Boston area, aimed at connecting the Boston-area YA fanbase with the best authors in the industry. This is the second year I’ve attended, and for me, it’s a great opportunity to keep abreast of interesting ideas and trends in my industry, meet authors whom I’ve either only met online or who write books I admire, and come home with a bunch of book swag! (Because you can never have enough books, right? RIGHT?)

Michael Buckley, Malinda Lo, Victoria Schwab

The first panel I attended was titled “Speculative Fiction Reflecting Our World,” and consisted of Victoria/V.E. Schwab, Malinda Lo, and Michael Buckley. First, the authors spoke about what drew them to speculative fiction. Schwab spoke about always wanting the world to be a little stranger than it was, and wanting to explore the notion that magic is just out of reach, accessible if only you knew how to reach behind the curtain. Lo noted the ability of fantastical elements in contemporary settings to allow for use of metaphor, which heightens the experience of the story. Buckley spoke about growing up as “basically one of those kids in Stranger Things” and loving the iconic battle between good and evil.

The authors then spoke about how speculative fiction, without being “supposed to” do anything, has the ability to reflect the real world through a fresh lens. Fantastical elements, whether they are science fiction or fantasy, challenge the reader to think about things they think they know in a different way. And while Schwab particularly noted that for her stories, escapism comes first, tragedies, pains, and issues, when presented in new worlds, take on new meaning. And while Lo pointed out that there are “no new ideas,” taking what’s been done in and presenting it in new ways offers a base of familiarity when including “alien” elements. Buckley wrapped up the discussion by saying that ultimately, speculative fiction is about being human, and these stories show you yourself in one way or another. Love, hate, war; all aspects of the human experience are reflected through a lens in speculative fiction.

Roshani Chokshi, Zoraida Cordova, Daniel Jose Older

Later, I attended a panel entitled “Magic Beyond the Grave,” with panelists Roshani Chokshi, Zoraida Cordova, and Daniel Jose Older. The authors began by discussing the role of Death in teen fiction. Cordova noted how this common thread relates to young adults’ often complicated relationships with their ancestors and families, coupled with the burgeoning realization of their own mortality. Older spoke more specifically about how the presence of underworlds and death in his book took its power from the counter-narrative, specifically relating to his POC characters. For him, a traditional ghost story was too simplistic, and allowing his characters to embody a more complex relationship with the dead explored notions of power and ancestry in non-White narratives.

Chokshi then pointed out how reactions to and celebrations regarding death differ across the cultural spectrum. In Hindu belief, for example, death is a door to a new life, and the final release is an escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. For her, this opened up interesting avenues in her own fiction, as she explored notions of shadows, memories, and who we might have been before. She also spoke about how in so many underworld narratives, female characters are the closest to death and other aspects of the supernatural, and wanting to explore female power with regards to this; what if Persephone was not tricked, but had chosen to rule over the dead instead of living a mortal life with no power? Cordova expanded this point by mentioning that often, that which is forbidden to women in mythology, fiction, and even reality, is power, and denying it is a kind of internalized misogyny. Older agreed, saying that in his book, the patriarchy denies ancestral magic to women, thereby denying them links to both the supernatural and, via their ancestors, death itself.

The authors wrapped up the session speaking about their writing processes. While Cordova is a die-hard outliner, and relies on lots of planning to keep her on track, Chokshi  stressed the importance of flow; “remember the Orpheus myth, and never look back.” Older emphasized that regardless of your process, you should honor your work, trust yourself, LOVE your writing, and give yourself permission to create art.

Overall, the festival was another great experience and I came away with a lot to think about regarding the stories I want to tell! Have you been to any great panels recently? Let me know in the comments!

Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl… And Writers!

What a fortuitous occasion!

Not only do I have a post on the ‘ol Spellbound Scribes today and also a new episode of our podcast is dropping today as well! This week on the Pod fellow Scribe Kristin McFarland and I discuss Season One of Steven Universe, and let me tell you, that show is a DELIGHT and we had a DELIGHTFUL time talking about it. So, I thought today I would discuss three lessons of Steven Universe that can be applied to writing as well.


Also, there’s probably some minor spoilers for Steven Universe throughout this post in case you’re concerned about that sort of thing.



The main characters of Steven Universe are the eponymous Steven and his protectors / matriarchal figures the Crystal Gems – Amethyst, Garnet and Pearl. In each episode they’re beset by some terrible trouble or perilous problem that must be defeated or solved. And of course, those trials cannot be solved without the power of teamwork! The Crystal Gems can even fuse together to become bigger and more powerful version of themselves.

What does this have to do with writing? I’ve written posts in the past about the importance of beta readers you can trust and friends in the community that will pick you up when things go wrong. Your friends in the Writing Community are your Crystal Gems, ready to defend you when the chips are down. Your beta readers are your fusion – with all the skills and life experiences of the people you’ve entrusted combined in your manuscript. The merging of their imput will make your book stronger than before. And if you’re me, it won’t be bigger like the Fusion Gems because Shauna will have slashed the crap out of it with the Red Pen of Doom.



Steven Universe has some of the best queer representation of any show on TV, animated or otherwise. Especially important and awesome because even though there’s a lot in in-jokes old people like me will appreciate, it’s made mostly for kids. The show explores gender roles, breaks down the boundaries of gender binary and celebrates general queerness in a way that most “adult” shows can’t or won’t.

We should strive to write inclusively as well. I’ve tried to write diverse characters that are “outside of my lane” with varying degrees of success. I messed up on a whole bunch of things in OVERDARK, that I luckily had great beta readers to help point out. I fixed them the best I could. But I think it’s still important to try. The characters in our book worlds, even the fantastical ones, should be reflective of reality.  Everyone should have the opportunity to see themselves as the hero of the story. This goes back to the first Lesson. Do you best and hopefully your friend and beta readers will call you out on problematic stuff they find. Reach out to Sensitivity Readers too. Teamwork can go a long way to snuff out harmful and hurtful representation.



By the end of the first season, Steven and the Crystal Gems face seemingly insurmountable odds. Captured and standing off against enemies more powerful than they are, all looks lost and still they refuse to back down. There’s an amazing song called “Stronger Than You” that plays during the climactic fight scene which is all about the strength of bonds of love and friendship and together we can overcome anything. Even against the most threatening of foes, Steven and the Gems won’t give up as long as they have each other.   

I’ve beat this drum in almost every post on this blog.

Writing is hard.

Publishing is brutal.

Rejection is unrelenting.

But you shouldn’t give up! There’s been days that I’ve been hammered with rejections or failed to write a single word with any coherence or value and just wanted to hang it up. Without the support and inspiration of friends in the writing community, I probably would have.

The challenge of the publishing industry might not be quite as dire as invading Gem warriors from another world, but to a writer, especially one at the beginning of their career, they can be just as intimidating. Luckily, like Steven and the Crystal Gems, we have strong and supportive community to stand with us when we need them. 

Thanks for reading as always, friends. Do give Steven Universe a look if you have a chance, it’s a wonderful little show with a great message and representation.

My Newest Addiction

You know what I just did?

I just hit ‘refresh’ on my kdp page. That acronym stands for Kindle Direct Publishing, and it’s one of the sites my co-writer Irene Preston and I used to self-publish our newest release, Vespers. And you know what?

That page is POWER!

It gives us instantaneous feedback, both on the number of units sold (like, how many since midnight last night, for example) and how much we’ve earned in royalties. None of this “dropping your book in a black hole” thing, like when you’re working with a publisher. A couple of the Spellbound Scribes – Shauna and Nicole, in particular – have some (or lots of) experience with self-publishing, but this if my first rodeo.

And I really, really like it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good things about working with a publisher. There’s less cash outlay, and most of them have a much bigger promotional reach. That said, Irene and I are doing okay with our promotional efforts so far, and while we won’t be making the USA Today bestseller list, we’re pretty happy with the sales we’re getting. (We’re also working our butts off, and we have been for the last few months. Please don’t think self-publishing is some kind of point-and-shoot game.)

The thing is, when you sign a contract with a publisher and your book is released, the only way you can tell how it’s selling is by watching the Amazon sales rank. There are a few services – is one I’ve used – that can give you a ball-park figure for how many books you’ve sold, but I haven’t found them to be particularly accurate. If there are better ways of making a guestimate, I haven’t found them, and the thing about kdp is, it’s easy. Just, you know, hit refresh.

See? I sold a book while I was typing that last paragraph.

The other thing is, most publishers only pay royalties every three to six months, so having a snapshot that updates with every sale is very reassuring. Yes, we’re selling books, and yes, we’re earning back the money we spent on editor, cover art, and promo. It’s all right there on the kdp page.

I’m not going to give up on submitting books to publishers, because there are definite benefits. Ideally, though, I want to build a career doing a combination of traditional and self-publishing. Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go hit ‘refresh’…



And since I brought it up, here’s some more info about Vespers...




Thaddeus Dupont has had over eighty years to forget…

The vampire spends his nights chanting the Liturgy of the Hours and ruthlessly disciplines those unnatural urges he’s vowed never again to indulge. He is at the command of the White Monks, who summon him at will to destroy demons. In return, the monks provide for his sustenance and promise the return of his immortal soul.

Sarasija Mishra’s most compelling job qualification might be his type O blood…

The 22-year-old college grad just moved across the country to work for some recluse he can’t even find on the internet. Sounds sketchy, but the salary is awesome and he can’t afford to be picky.  On arrival he discovers a few details his contract neglected to mention, like the alligator-infested swamp, the demon attacks, and the nature of his employer’s “special diet”. A smart guy would leave, but after one look into Dupont’s mesmerizing eyes, Sarasija can’t seem to walk away. Too bad his boss expected “Sara” to be a girl.

Falling in love is hard at any age…

The vampire can’t fight his hungers forever, especially since Sara’s brought him light, laughter and a very masculine heat. After yielding to temptation, Thaddeus must make a choice.  Killing demons may save his soul, but keeping the faith will cost him his heart.

Vespers is a complete novel with no cliffhanger. It can be enjoyed as a standalone or read as the first book in the Hours of the Night series.


You can pick up a copy here…

Amazon | ARe | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | More Stores

And if you’re really inspired, check out THIS LINK for reviews and guest blog posts.


TL;DR: Wanting Diversity Won’t Hurt You

There’s a very strange argument going around on book twitter right now. Meaningful, important, but strange. And I don’t want to be silent about it.

TL;DR – Only a white supremacist or a bigot would see people wanting more diversity in popular fiction as a personal attack on them.

For a while now people have gotten better and better about being louder and informative about the issue of the lack of diversity in mainstream books. While a lot of us can remember reading diverse books in high school (for me, The Pearl and The Good Earth stand out as assigned by teachers. And stolen from my mom’s shelves, I remember Sacred Ground, the Valdemar books, and Elfquest), if you look at books on the shelves that are more for pleasure reading, popular books that have a lot of publishing house money behind them, giving them more media coverage, there is a startlingly lack of POCs, LGBTQs, disabled, religious, etc diversity.

Now. No one is forcing anyone to write any one thing. No one is saying anyone HAS TO write characters with different skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, various religious beliefs, or sexual and/or gender differences. All people are saying is it is important that we allow people who are writing these things a fair space on those shelves and maybe try to do a better job of portraying the real world we live in.

People are asking publishers to acknowledge that these books are just as good (if not better) than some of the books we see again and again.

I mean. I love witches. And I love vampires. They’ve been written again and again and often look and feel similar. But if there are authors out there with different viewpoints, different backgrounds who can bring a fresh perspective to these two types of stories, I want to see them!

Books should be innovative and different and that means we, as readers, should be open to reading about characters who might not look like us. Because they look like other people, people we know, people in our world who want to see characters who look like them. We all deserve that chance to find that book that resonates with us, no matter the genre.

Obviously everyone is entitled to write their own story. And, if your story happens to look like the cast of Pleastantville, then fine, but if your cast of characters looks like Sense 8, maybe publishers could give it a fair shot too.

I don’t understand why that thought process is controversial. And for most people, it’s not. So here’s where the strange part of the argument comes in. Some people are super pissed off that other people are asking for fair representation. Yep. They’re hearing “we’d like our voices heard too” or “please at least try to write a realistic representation of our city/state/country/world” as “you must write this way!” or “you must write this kind of story/these kind of characters!” or, even worse, “you’re being unfair to white people!”

Which is not true.

You don’t have to write anything in particular. No one does. But what’s wrong with wanting to show the world as it really is? I mean, listen, I have not been the best at balancing my casts of characters. I try to. I have tried from book one to include POCs and LGBTQ people, but I won’t lie to you and tell you my books are balanced. Yeah, I’m more than a little scared I’ll screw up the representation, but still I try and I’m trying with each new story to represent more, to do better. Because that is the world I live in.

I went to a high school where the majority populations were Latino and Pilipino. As a matter of fact there were such a small percentage of white kids at my school that we were lumped in with the other smaller percentages of races at my school as the “other” ten percent. So, while your mileage may vary, for some of us, seeing POCs as the majority is already normal.

I know it’s a little scary for some people. They see it as erasure, but for some reason can’t see the irony there. Trying to keep people from publishing books with characters that don’t look, think, and act like them is actual erasure. All people want is a seat at the table. And I promise, there is room. You acting like they’re trying to take something away from you is bullshit, plain and simple. White people have taken a lot of things from a lot of people and white people have an abundance of representation. You will be fine.

I know I’m lucky that I grew up reading diverse books. Hell, I didn’t even think about it at the time. I read books by Jewish authors and Native authors and black authors and they wrote characters that looked like them. I didn’t even give it a thought, if the story was good, that’s all that mattered. And it helped evolve me, helped me see other people I might not have experience with as no different than me. And I think that’s the ultimate goal; to raise a generation that doesn’t treat people differently for who they are, where they come from, what they believe, but at the same time celebrates how everyone adds to the tapestry of our world.

Now, I can remember which books I read when I was younger that featured LGBTQ characters because there were so few and honestly I think they were just LGB, no Ts or Qs. And, sadly, I can’t recall reading any books that featured a disabled MC. I wish I had. I want kids and teens to get to read like that—where it’s just normal to see all of these types of characters because it builds empathy in real life. People are people and just want to be accepted for who they are. Books help us with this process.

So calm down. If you don’t want to read books with characters that don’t look, act, or think like you, I promise, there is no lack of books for you. They’ve been published a lot and will continue to be published. But stop freaking out at people who want the people who control the money to know we will buy these books, we will read them, we will go see their film adaptation. They will get a return on their investment. And you will be fine, it won’t hurt you one little bit.

Now, if you’re on Twitter go check out these hashtags to start building your TBR lists. #ownvoices #istandwithdiversity

If you want to leave some book recs in the comments, please do! I can give a shout out to a few I’ve read recently: An Ember in the Ashes, This is Where it Ends, and the Don’t Get Mad Series. And speaking of witches, I’m excited to pick up Labyrinth Lost.

Let’s hear your recommendations!