Being asked by a friend who only reads true literary fiction what I am writing used to feel like a pop quiz I was sure to fail. “Hi, my name is Justine and my current works in progress contain a computer virus alien race, a divorcee with an imaginary friend, and superheroes who fight monsters that come through inter-dimensional rifts. Please do not throw tomatoes or insults at me.” I would say it with shyness, with shame, as though what I was writing was any less valid than your normal everyday literary work. There’s literary fiction and there’s commercial fiction, and my muse just happens to like superheroes who fight monsters that come through inter-dimensional rifts. So sue me.
But the truth is, this is where the muse takes me. It takes me to weird stuff, and, in this case it takes me to fantasy. When I came up with the idea for The Order of the Key, it only made sense that the main character, Jacklyn, would be young. She couldn’t be too young, for reasons I can’t really express without spoiling the plot for Book 1, but she had to be in that stage where she was figuring out who she was as a person. Initially, because some of the themes could run a little dark, I attempted to write Jacklyn as an adult, but it didn’t track well. The voice Jacklyn had placed in my head was plucky, young, and irreverent.
There was also a very specific theme that I wanted to explore, and that was this idea of dreams vs. reality. Jacklyn has this love for comic books, superheroes, and all things geeky. So, at first, when she is pulled into this world where she is the superhero, it seems like a dream come true, even if the circumstances surrounding it aren’t the best. But, as she struggles with the responsibilities of actually living that dream (risking those around her, putting herself on the line, being forced to do things she wouldn’t otherwise enjoy doing), she grows to understand that there is a big difference between imagining a situation and enduring it. And I think this is a hard won lesson for many—this idea that we’re going to grow up to be something amazing, just to have that amazing thing turn out to be…not so amazing. And it was important to tell that story in a YA framework, because I feel like that is a lesson worth teaching to kids who are about to head into college and out into the real world—to feel free to dream, but to inject a little practicality into it. Dream big, but dream smart.
In the end, I didn’t so much choose my genre as my genre chose me. What genres do you guys write? Read? Tell me a little about why in the comments!