A fun-filled, action-packed weekend

Okay, it wasn’t exactly fun-filled and action-packed, but it was pretty interesting.

On Saturday, I had the first of three book signings at Borders, with the first being here in Austin. A lot of people stopped by my table; not nearly as many bought a book. One woman did buy a book based on my Acknowledgements (I thanked God first, and she really liked that). I think I saw Mike Judge, the creator of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill (the guy said that he wasn’t Mike Judge, but I don’t believe him). I heard somewhere before that Mike Judge lived in Austin, but maybe I’m mistaken. Anyway….

On Sunday, I headed down to San Antonio to browse the Exhibits at the ALA Midwinter Conference. For $25, I was able to walk the floor and view all of the booths that publishers and other companies had set up. My current publisher was not there, but most of the publishers I’m interested in now were there. A quick summary of my highlights:

1) I ran into Austin SCBWIers Chris Barton, Don Tate, and the Wonderful Greg and Cynthia Leitich Smith.

2A) I saw a lot of editors, although I was too afraid to approach most of them. However, I did have a nice conversation with Arianne Lewin, an editor at Hyperion. One of the guys in my critique group met her a few months ago, and had nothing but good things to say about her. After speaking with her, I agree with everything that he said. I expect to hear many more promising things about her and her career in the future.

2B) I also spoke with Krista Marino, an editor at Random House (Delacorte). I heard her speak at the SCBWI conference last year, and after passing by the Random House booth five times, I finally found the courage to ask her a few questions about the Delacorte YA contest. (FYI – Because Red Polka Dot was published as an Adult novel, I’m eligible for the contest. That’s a very good thing, being that I already submitted my new manuscript to it!)

2C) I saw Wendy Lamb!!! I have promised myself that if I ever, ever, ever, get the chance to work with her on a project, I’ll do it, no questions asked.

3) I got more ARCs (advanced reading copies) than I’ll ever be able to read. Publishers were practically throwing them at people as they walked by. The book I’m most excited about: V for Vendetta.

More to come in a few days, after I’ve finished sorting through all the ARCs.

Marching Upward Toward the Light

I’ve been trying to force myself to post to my blog for the past few day, but I found that every time I sat at my computer, I couldn’t bring myself to write my usual happy-type post. A few days ago, a young man was gunned down at an afterparty at Oklahoma State University. I didn’t know the young man, but I do have a relation to him. Not only was he a student at the University of Oklahoma, he was a member of the Zeta Zeta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated. Zeta Zeta is my home chapter.

Paul was only 20 years old. 20!!! It’s almost overwhelming to think how much life that this young man had ahead of him. He wasn’t even the target of the shooter; the alleged shooter shot randomly into the crowd.

What would make someone shoot people at random? Then again, what would make someone shoot an innocent victim at all?

Another thing that scares me is that if this had happened a few years ago, I could have easily been the one gunned down. I know this is a cliche’, but life really is the most precious thing in the world. I can’t believe how much I take life for granted sometimes. If I were a parent, I would be terrified of letting my child face the horrors of our society. I honestly don’t know how my parents did it.

I will pray for Paul’s family, for the students at the University of Oklahoma, and for the members of my fraternity that are still on campus.

And to Bro. Paul Shanor – you will be missed.

A PHI!!!

If It Doesn’t Fit, You Must Acquit

A quick recap of a phone conversation I had with my brother yesterday.

DBJ: What’s this you have on your blog about me? I never said that your book promoted teenage sex.

Mr. V: Yes, you did.

DBJ: No, I didn’t. And I never said your book wasn’t adequate for Christians.

Mr. V: I seem to remember something about Red Polka Dot, Selling Books at Church, and Going to Hell being wrapped up in the same sentence.

DBJ: Well, you are a heathen….

Okay, the conversation didn’t go quite like that, but that’s the basic gist of it, without the heathen part. I really do remember my brother saying those things, but he says he didn’t, and without recorded proof, I’m like Marcia Clark at the OJ trial.

DBJ is actually very supportive of my writing career. He used to be a pretty good poet, and I really wish he’d pick up a pen and get back to writing. He’s been there since the beginning, and he’s the only person that read my first manuscript, which will henceforth be referred to as “Shit-on-Paper”. Too many characters, not enough plot…but at least it was funny. But, I’m digressing….

DBJ is a good guy. Plus, he got me a great Christmas Present.

Upcoming Author Events for 2006

For those of you that live in, or have friends or family in Texas, I’d be honored if you could join me at any one of my upcoming author events:

January 21 @ 2:00 PM: Borders – Westgate Marketplace, Austin, TX

January 28 @ 2:00 PM: Borders – Huebner Oaks, San Antonio, TX

February 11 @ 2:00 PM: Borders – Meyerland, Houston, TX

FYI – In case you don’t recognize me at the stores, I’ll be the terrified-looking black guy that will be silently pleading for people to come over and talk to him.

A Literary State of Mind

I’m feeling extremely author-like this week. I lunched (lunched – that sounds so New York) with the Wonderful Cynthia Leitich Smith on Wednesday. On Friday, I stuck a few query letters to agents in the mail. And on Saturday, I attended an SCBWI meeting, followed by conversations with Jo Whittemore and Don Tate, and coffee with April Lurie and Brian Yansky.

This is probably the first week in a few months that I’ve actually felt like a real author. I need interaction with other people in the industry. I love Mrs. V, but she’s not necessarily the best person to talk to when I want to debate about the stigma associated with edgy YA fiction or the merits of publishing a novel as Adult versus YA.

I was supposed to read three books over the holidays, but due to my manuscript deadline, I only made it through one – Brian Yanksy’s My Road Trip to the Pretty Girl Capital of the World. I really enjoyed this novel, mainly because there was no true “right or wrong”. All of the characters were beautifully flawed, which seemed to make the novel that much richer to me.

Concerning the agent search – I probably won’t put too much here on the blog about it, although I’ll be sure to let you guys know if and when I sign with an agency. On the off chance that a potential agent reads this blog, I don’t want him or her reading how I’ve been rejected by 30+ agents, if it gets to that (Lord, I hope it doesn’t get to that). I will say that I’m taking it slow, only sending out a few queries at a time. There are a lot of good agents out there, and there are a lot of bad ones as well. I really want to take my time, and find out as much as I can about an agent before I sent them a query. Signing a contact with an agent is like a marriage. My last one ended in divorce, so I’m a little more cautious about heading to the altar again.

Let’s hope that the next union results in the pitter-patter of YA novels being sold throughout the country. Or at least throughout Texas.

Heisman Re-vote

As much as I hate the University of Texas, I must admit – Vince Young is a phenomenal athlete. For the sake of my beloved Sooners, I hope he goes to the NFL next year. 267 passing yards, 200 rushing yards, 3 TDs. All produced by one man.

When I was 28, it was a very good year

I can’t believe that it’s 2006. It seems like I was waiting so long for 2005 to get here, and now it’s over before it really began. Professionally, 2005 was probably one of the most influential years of my short writing career. There was a lot of good and a lot of bad that happened this year that I feel will really shape the way I approach my writing career.

1) MY FIRST BOOK WAS PUBLISHED: Of course, Red Polka Dot and everything associated with it has really dominated my year. There are few words that can describe how I felt standing in front of an audience, talking about MY book for the first time. It was…surreal. It was magical. It was nerve-wracking. I loved writing Red Polka Dot, and I glad that I was able to share the story with so many people.

2) IT’S NOT ENOUGH JUST TO WRITE THE BOOK: I did more with marketing and promotion this year than I ever imagined I would. I had always heard that authors had to be their best advocate when selling their books, but I didn’t really believe it until this year. While I think I did an okay job of this, I know I’ll have to do better about promoting my work in the future. No one knows my books better than I do.

3) BOOK-BANNING: The challenging of YA books really struck a chord with me, so much so that Mrs. V once suggested that I seemed to be taking all of this book banning stuff way to personally. I thought about it, and she’s right, I am taking it personally. Maybe because two of the books that have been challenged, Geography Club and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, are books that not only I’ve read (and loved), but I’ve actually talked to the authors.

I’ve spoken about Brent Hartinger’s book before, but I have yet to talk about Carolyn Mackler’s book, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. Years ago, I wrote Carolyn an email asking for advice. She was nice enough to respond back (I even have the email saved), and she offered some very encouraging advice. I met Carolyn in person last year, and believe me, she is the LAST person you would think that would write “scandalous material that leads to the detriment of today’s youth.”

The banning of books is wrong. Plain and Simple.

4) FORGING AHEAD ON MY OWN: I’ve had a lot of issues with my publisher, so much so that as of now, I am staring 2006 w/o a publisher or an agent. It’s really scary. Maybe part of me feels like having an agent or publisher legitimizes me as an author. I don’t look forward to going through the entire process of finding representation again. But, I guess I don’t really have much choice, being that I want to write books.

5) SUPPORT: You know what – Children’s book authors are cool. I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of children’s and YA authors, and I can’t believe I waited until 2005 to get to know these folks. Austin has a really strong SCBWI group, I have a super critique group (although we could use a few more people, especially women, if anyone is interested) and the folks at my “real” job have been nothing but exceptional as far as supporting my writing career. Writing can be a very solitary business; I need to surround myself with people that write just to seek my sanity.

6) FAMILY: I love my parents. I really, really do. I didn’t know what to expect from them once they read the novel, but they were very supporting of what I was trying to say. Mom said she only cringed “a few times” when reading the novel, which is pretty good for her. In addition, my parents really GOT what I was trying to say in the novel. I guess the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. And even though my brother thinks my writing “promotes teenage sex” and “is not appropriate for Christians”, he still found ways to support my career.

7) MRS. V: Crystal is my best friend, and I couldn’t have made it through this year without her. Also, I’ve found that when she’s on my team, she is my best motivator and defender. She doesn’t necessarily like competing with my writing career (her words, not mine), but she also knows how important it is to me, and she’s willing to support me in EVERYTHING that I do.

So, while 2005 had its ups and downs, overall it was a very good year. Something tells me that 2006 will be even better.


I can’t believe that it’s almost been a week since I last posted. At least I have a good excuse – I’ve been slaving away on a manuscript.

A few months ago, I talked about some issues I was having with my writing, specifically with my current work-in-progress. After much thought, I decided to send my manuscript to a freelance children’s book editor. I NEVER thought I would pay to send my manuscript off to someone just to get their opinion on it. I guess I always thought that my work was good enough to entice any editor or agent. HA!! If only I had known then what I know now about the craft of writing and the publishing industry.

I paid a good penny for it, but it was THE BEST critique I’ve ever gotten on a manuscript. The editor send me a very detailed outline of the good and bad points of the novel. And while she hit on a lot of topics, she identified the ONE BIG THING that I had been missing. Once she mentioned it, I was amazed at how I had overlooked such an important detail.

The good thing is that it’s fairly easy for me to fix the novel. While the plot needs tweaking, the character-driven feel of the story is strong. The bad thing is that I only have two more weeks to finish it.

I really want to submit it to a contest at the end of the year. There are still some technicalities that I’m trying to work through, but if everything works out, I plan to submit. Something tells me it’s something I’m supposed to do. I don’t think I’ll win (the subject matter may be a little too edgy) but I really believe it was meant for me to submit to the contest.

Speaking of edgy – there is one thing that the editor talked about that really just sunk in with me this morning – if this book ever gets published, it’ll probably be challenged, and maybe even banned. Another editor said the same thing at the SCBWI conference. Now, neither editors are saying that I shouldn’t write the book, but they are warning me of some potential issues that some people will find objectionable. As much as this sucks, I think I’m okay with it.

But, I guess I’m putting the cart before the horse. I need to get the book published before it has a chance to be banned. And I can’t get it published if I don’t finish it. So, I guess I need to finish the damn thing.

What’s a Varian?

“Dude, you’re the ugliest looking woman I’ve ever seen.”

Well, an editor at an SCBWI conference a few years ago didn’t quite put it like that, but it was close. What she said was more along the lines of, “You’re Varian Johnson? I expected an overweight, African-American woman to walk into the door.” Hmm, at least she got the African-American part right.

All jokes aside, that is probably the best compliment I’ve gotten about my writing. Both Red Polka Dot and my current work-in-progress feature female main characters, and most folks that read my work without knowing me are surprised to find that I’m not a woman. While most of that is do to the outstanding job I do of creating female characters (yes, that’s a shameless plug) , a lot is probably do to my name.

Varian isn’t really a macho name. Hell, most people have never even met a Varian before. It’s a name that was once the bane of my existence. I HATED my name. You don’t know how many times I’ve been called “Ms. Varian Johnson” while waiting at the doctor’s office. Most of my family and close friends call me by my middle name.

There are some good perks to using the name Varian, though. There are a lot of Johnsons out there, but not a lot of Varian Johnsons. Plus, it’s a name that’s hard to forget. Pair it with a title that’s equally as hard to forget (like Red Polka Dot In A World Full of Plaid) and you at least have something that will make people pause while browsing at the bookstores.

But more than anything, there is one thing I can’t argue with: Varian Johnson looks great on a book cover.


I know a lot of you have already heard about this, but for those of you that haven’t, a bunch of YA authors have joined together to support Intellectual Freedom. The group, calling themselves AS IF, first began as news surfaced about St. Andrew’s decision to turn down a $3 million donation (yes, I said million) instead of removing Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain from their library. The recent banning of Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club is only a reminder that the issue will not go away; we must continue to fight censorship.

I am extremely proud to call myself a member of this group.

We may not always win all of the battles we fight concerning censorship, but as one of the founders of my college fraternity said, “We must fight till hell freezes over and then fight on the ice.”

For more information, see http://www.asifnews.blogspot.com.