National Writing Project

Why I Write: CJ Omololu Explores the Thrill and the Terror of the Teen Years

Date: October 5, 2011

Summary: CJ Omololu might be called an accidental novelist, but once she found herself as a writer, she began writing with such drive that she writes 1,000 words a day, even on Thanksgiving and anniversaries.


How did you become a writer?
Totally on accident. I was a huge reader, but hadn't written anything since my story "How the Rabbit Got His Hop" back in first grade. I was not one of those people who always knew they were going to be a writer—I never kept journals, never wrote poems, or dabbled in short stories. I took one writing class in school, and let's just say it didn't end very well.

I tried writing picture books after my kids were born because I thought the world needed more picture books about biracial kids, and really, how hard could it be? Actually, unless you're a celebrity, it's really hard, but I got lucky and published one with Houghton Mifflin in 2009. One of my critique partners started writing young adult novels, and it looked really fun, so I challenged myself to write a 50,000 word book, and it wasn't completely awful.

I love writing fiction and now can't imagine doing anything else. Writing for teens (and the adults who admit they love YA) is special because it's such a pivotal time in life—anything can happen, which is both thrilling and terrifying.

If you write in a vacuum, you're doing it wrong

What are the things you're most proud of having written, from any time in your life?
Probably the book I'm working on now, because I'd like to think that I learn more and get better with every story.

How would you describe your writing process? That is, how do you usually research, write, revise, edit? What routines help, and what challenges do you regularly face?
I usually get an idea from somewhere and sit on it for a few months. I think that "stewing" process is really important because it's where your subconscious learns about the characters and the situation. I use an outline process loosely based on the Save the Cat method by Blake Snyder, but I usually end up with a ton of index cards for the first half of the book and almost none for the second half because I get bored with outlining.

Once my characters start talking to me, I know it's time to start writing. I use a notebook for all of my research and to hold pictures of things I need to know about, but I write and edit on my laptop. The typing class I took in eighth grade was the single most useful thing I ever did.

When I commit to starting a first draft I hold myself to a minimum of 1,000 words a day, every day, until it's done (I wrote a blog post, Putting My Word Count Where My Mouth Is , on this recently) and I document my word count on the back of the notebook. I don't allow myself to skip a day no matter what (this includes soccer tournaments, anniversaries, and even Thanksgiving) because once you don't open your file one day, it's much easier to not open it the next day and the next. This way, I can usually finish a first draft in three months.

I have a couple of amazing and candid critique partners who will read and then I'll do a revision before I send it off to my agent or editor. My editor is fairly ruthless, but usually right, so I have to be prepared to question and change pretty much every element of a story. In my mind, nothing is sacred if it makes the book better.

What's the strangest or most interesting thing you've ever written about or researched for a writing project?
I always think that if anyone got hold of my Google search history, I'd probably get investigated as a danger to the state. I did a little bit of online article writing a few years ago and my favorite article to research was one on ecologically sound alternatives to traditional burials. I now want to be liquefied into goo when I'm gone. For the book I'm writing right now, I've recently researched nineteenth century fireworks in India, the view from the Millennium Tower penthouse in San Francisco, detailed plans on the FOB private runway at SFO, and injuries suffered when falling from great heights.

How do outside forces influence or shape your writing?
I think that if you write in a vacuum, you're doing it wrong. I've heard other writers say that they don't have time to read young adult books even though that's what they want to write, and I don't understand that. You need to be aware of what is in the market right now, who your readers are, and, especially if you're writing for kids and teens, how to do it authentically. Their BS meters are always running and they have little tolerance for things that don't ring true.

My books are very much a collaboration with my editor—I think her name should be on the front under mine. She was born the year I graduated from high school, so she's a bit closer to our target market than I am, and I usually listen to her. First drafts are tenuous things at best, so I try not to read really good books when I'm trying to finish one, or my confidence can take a pounding. I almost quit writing my first book when John Green's Looking for Alaska came out because the writing was so good, I figured why bother. I'll read a fantasy or dystopian book because I'll probably never write one of those. I also constantly reread Stephen King's On Writing and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Why do you write?
Because it's the only thing I'm good at. Is that a dangling something at the end of that sentence? Which is why I'm not a copyeditor.

About the Author CJ Omololu's debut novel Dirty Little Secrets is about a girl growing up in a hoarded home. Transcendence, about a group of people who remember all of their past lives will come out in June of 2012, followed by Fated in June of 2013. For more on CJ Omololu, visit her website .

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