Guest Post: C.J. Omololu on Writing “Issue” Books

By C.J. Omololu

I didn’t set out to write an “issue” book. As it involves a dead mother and a house filled to the ceiling with garbage, in hindsight that was probably a little naïve.

I wasn’t trying to put a face to an important worldwide problem. I didn’t want to become the point person for people who grew up in hoarded homes. I just wanted to tell one girl’s story. In the end, what I got was much more than that.

I got the idea for Dirty Little Secrets (Walker, 2010) while I was on an airplane minding my own business. The only time I get to read “girly” magazines is on airplanes, and an article in Marie Claire caught my eye. It was called “I Grew Up In This,” and it was about women who had grown up in hoarded homes (I ended up working closely with several people who were featured in the article), and it got me thinking about how that would affect a teenager. A lot of research and horrid drafts later, Lucy’s story was born.

All writers have a responsibility to tell the story as well as they can. Reviews will come in and people will love your story. Other people won’t.

If you write about an issue – hoarding in my case, or suicide, eating disorders or abuse for example – it helps to be prepared in several other ways.

1. Do Your Research. If you get a fact wrong, someone will call you on it. Work with as many experts as you can to make the situation as realistic as possible. The best compliment I can get is when a child of a hoarder tells me that they felt like I had a camera on their life.

2. Don’t Preach. If you’re writing about drug abuse, suicide or teen pregnancy, it is disturbingly easy to wander into the realm of parental nagging. Teens will sniff this out in a nanosecond, so make sure you stay in the head of your main character and away from the public service announcements.

At the same time, it can be a good idea to put some sort of contact information in the back of the book so that people who want more information about the issue have a place to start. I put the website for Children of Hoarders in my acknowledgments because that is a great resource for people with hoarding in their families.

3. Get Ready. Once your book comes out, you will get a lot of emails. Some will be from people who have been touched in real life by the situation in your book. The most heartbreaking email I’ve gotten so far was from a college freshman who had finally escaped the hoard and was terrified to go home for summer break.

You need to have some ready answers – often you are the first person these people are reaching out to, and you have a responsibility (yes, I said the R word) to point them in the right direction.

Other letters will be from people who demand to know how you dared to write about this subject. They might think you’re disgusting, your ending is unconscionable, and that your books shouldn’t be available to teens. Feel free to delete those emails.

Even though I hadn’t completely realized what was involved in writing about an “issue,” it’s been a wonderful experience. Writing about a difficult subject has put me in touch with amazing people that I would have never met otherwise.

If you have an idea for a book with a difficult theme, I say go for it – not only will it change your life, you might change a reader’s as well.

Cynsational Notes

C.J. lives in Northern California; with her husband and two sons.