George Nicholson, Broken China, and Gyro Meat

Part 2 of Highlights of the Texas Book Festival (Sunday)

1) I sat in on a great workshop about writing kid’s books. The biggest plus for me was having the chance to talk to George Nicholson, an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic. I found out some pretty good information including:

– Charlotte Sheedy is not actively taking on new clients. (Ms. Sheedy’s agency is an affiliate of Sterling Lord). She’s passing on most of the material she likes to other agents.

– Both George Nicholson and Paul Rodeen are actively persuing clients. Paul Rodeen actually read a version of Red Polka Dot years ago…and of course, he rejected it. The rejection letter said something like “Great characters, but didactic at times.” And no, I didn’t know what didactic meant until I looked it up.

– I knew this before, but for those of you that don’t know, Paul Rodeen is heading up a satellite office in Chicago. Paul previously served as George Nicholson’s assistant.

2) I sat in on another great workshop about breaking down social barriers with children’s fiction. The panel included Lori Aurelia Williams, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Viola Canales, and Patricia McMahon and Conor Clarke McCarthy. The panel touched on a lot of issues near and dear to me, including censorship in books and the ability to cross-over to a mainstream audience.

3) I ran into Don Tate and his family at the booksigning tent. I mistakenly called his wife the wrong name. Not once, not twice, but three times. Sorry, Tammy.

4) I got a huge gyro from one of the vendors, and proceeded to spill half of it on my shoe. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to scrape gyro sauce from a pair of sneakers.

FYI – I still haven’t found my signed copy of Whale Talk.

A Tale of Three Christophers and Dead Bugs that Dance In Brooklyn

Highlights of the Texas Book Festival (Saturday only…Sunday to come in a few days):

1) I hung out with Austin children’s book authors Frances Hill (The Bug Cemetery) and April Lurie (Dancing in the Streets of Brooklyn). We sat in on Christopher Paul Curtis’s presentation. Both women are a wealth of knowledge, and it was a pleasure to hang out with them for a few hours. I really look forward to picking April’s brain about some ideas I have concerning setting a book in the past. And as far as bubbly, outgoing personalities, I don’t know who’s more chipper, Frances or Cynthia Leitich Smith.

2) I had a chance to meet Christopher Paul Curtis again. I could go on and on about Mr. Curtis, but come on, he won a NEWBERRY. That pretty much says it all.

I’d met Mr. Curtis at the SCBWI conference in LA this past summer, and now that I wasn’t so star-struck, I was looking forward to speaking to him again. He gave a great talk about his path to publication, mixing both inspiration and humor into his presentation. Afterward, I moseyed over to the signing tent to have a few books signed. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Hi, Mr. Curtis…I’m a really big fan of your work…I think you’re great…I really enjoyed your talk…I don’t know if you remember me, but we met at the SCBWI conference in LA earlier this year…. (And here’s where I stop and finally take a breath).

Mr. Curtis (looking me up and down): Well, you stood out then, and you stand out now.

(FYI – for those of you that don’t know, there aren’t a lot of skinny black men hanging out at children’s book writing events.)

We talked a little bit about the writing life, and I told him that I was there buying books for my aunt, and then he said:

Mr. Curtis: You know what, if you’re gonna buy all of these books, I’m going to buy one for you.


Mr. Curtis (pointing to a stack of books): Which one to do you want?


Mr. Curtis (handing a volunteer a twenty-dollar bill): Can you buy one of these books for me.

Me (finally waking up out of my trance): Mr. Curtis, I couldn’t –

Mr. Curtis: Which. One.

Me (grinning like a fool): The Watson.

And just like that, Christopher Paul Curtis bought me The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963. If I were smart, I would have said something like, “Well, the least I can do is give you one of my books.” But I guess I was too busy tripping over my bottom lip to say something like that.

3) I also met Chris Crutcher, a noted YA author that doesn’t let the possibility of getting a book banned stop him from writing what he believes in. I’ve been a big fan of Chris Crutcher for years (it seems like I say that about everyone). I read Stotan! when I was growing up, and I love his novels Whale Talk and Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes. Incidentally, somewhere between the Book Festival and home, I lost my signed copy of Whale Talk.

4) I sold 4 books. Well, I sold 3 books, and one had been sold before I got to the SCBWI booth. Four books may not sound like a lot, but for someone that’s never sold a book before, it was HUGE. My gut tells me that the first sale went to someone I know. I sold the second book to a college friend and his wife. The last two sales I made were really great, just because they were sales to someone I had never met before. I don’t know if I ever truly believed that people that I don’t know would buy the book. Plus, I helped sell some other SCBWIer’s books at the booth. I even took care of the money-handling responsibilities for Chris Barton, who couldn’t make it due to family illness.

I really enjoyed my first day of the Book Festival. If I ever see Christopher Paul Curtis again, I’m giving him one of my books. And if someone happens upon a signed copy of Whale Talk, please read the novel, and then send it to me.

More to come tomorrow (I hope) concerning George Nicholson, Broken China, and Gyro Meat.

The Write Stuff

The hardest thing about writing a novel is actually building up the nerve to start putting words on paper. I always have a difficult time starting a new project. I’ve been trying to re-start a novel here for the past two weeks, and I’ve found myself doing everything but working on the novel. I’ve jotted down some notes and I’ve tweaked the outline, but I haven’t come close to typing one word of the manuscript.

Novels are hard work. Do you know how hard it is to string together 60,000 words in a coherent manner? Think about it – you have to be either really confident or really crazy to commit yourself to sweating out 250 pages of a manuscript that may never get published. And even if it does get published, someone has to be willing to buy it and read it. Who would willing put themselves through torture like that?

The sad thing is, I’m not even spending my “free” time doing something constructive. More than anything, I find myself typing variations of my name and my book’s title in Google, MSN, and Yahoo searches. It got so bad, I even did a search on seldom-used Alta-Vista. Have any of you even heard of Alta-Vista before?

Like I said, you’ve got to be either really confident or really crazy to get into the writing business. Something tells me that I don’t fall into the Confident Category.

Romance is in the air

When asked to describe Red Polka Dot In A World Full of Plaid, I usually take the easy way out and describe the novel as contemporary fiction. However, if I had to be technical, I’d say it’s an upper YA / adult contemporary novel with elements of romance, chick-lit, and Christian fiction (you see why I just say “contemporary fiction”). And yes, I’m comfortable enough in my masculinity to say that portions of the novel are romantic. I’m a sucker for romance, to the point that there’s some romantic element to everything I write. I think romance (whether it be the search for romance, the joys of romance, or the consequences of romance) is a big part of the angst that makes up most young people’s lives.

As I said last week, the novel got reviewed by Romantic Times BookClub magazine (in the Mainstream Fiction Section). Although the online review isn’t available yet, the print magazine should be in bookstores now (I picked up my copy from Borders last week). It was a great review (4 stars), and the reviewer called the novel, “…a compelling story with dynamic characters.”

Next week, I’ll be participating in an online conference sponsored by Shades of Romance Magazine ( The conference is free, but you have to register for it. I’ll be participating on the Tuesday panel, Men In Fiction. If you have a chance, check it out.

Unfortunately for Mrs. V., my romantic side doesn’t manifest itself as strongly in real life. As I’ve told Mrs. V countless times, “What’s the point of being romantic when you’re already married?”

Book Awards, Book Clubs, BS, and Birthdays

You don’t know how excited I was when I read the paper this morning and found that Walter Dean Myers was nominated for a National Book Award. I’ll be honest – I haven’t even read Autobiography of My Dead Brother, the novel that is nominated (I’ve really got to catch up on my reading), but I really, really hope he wins.

I’m a little biased. I grew up on Walter Dean Myers (and Virginia Hamilton). They spoke to me when few other authors did. Like most kids, I was a Judy Blume fanatic, but when I wanted to read something with a main character that looked like me, I turned to Mr. Myers and Ms. Hamilton. If they gave National Book Awards for a body of work, he should win, hands down.

In other news, the revisions to the manuscript are going pretty well. I should be finished by sometime next week. After that comes the hard part. Do I spend the money on a professional critique? Do I start sending the manuscript to agents–

Yeah, that’s correct. Recently, my agent and I parted ways. I can’t go into details, but I will say that my agent is a wonderful person and she will make a great agent for a certain type of author. However, I’m not that type of author.

Anyway, as I was saying…what do I do with this manuscript? I think I’m gonna send it out for a professional critique. I THINK Mrs. V is on board. She realizes that the novel I’m working on is pretty special, and I think I’ve convinced her that it’s worth the money and time to get it done right.

Finally, Romantic Times Bookclub Magazine has given Red Polka Dot a Four Star Review. I picked up the magazine in Borders tonight, and after reading the review, I proceed with my “happy dance”. The review almost made up for all the other BS going on right now… (One day, I promise, I will spill the beans on everything).

There’ll be more about the review next week. I’m off to Dallas (again) for a friend’s wedding. Oh, and before I forget…


Boomer Sooner Bust

“This is a year to rebuild.”

That’s the way Doris Fisher, children’s book author, Tulsa native, and OU fan puts it. The only consolation I have is that Vince Young can’t stay in college forever. He has to graduate eventually.

Other than the outcome of the game, my weekend went pretty well. I think I did an okay job of promoting Red Polka Dot. I passed out a lot of postcards and really talked up the book. Maybe I’m finally starting to come out of my shell concerning marketing.

It looks like the Austin SCBWI conference was a success. Both Chris Barton, master over all things Day-Glo, and The Wonderful Cynthia Leitich Smith have info about the conference listed on their blogs.

I don’t know if I’ve said it on my blog before, but I’m a big fan of bad action movies. I know, it sounds stupid, but the cheesier they are, the more I like them. Well, I saw a real stinker this weekend. The movie was called Bloodmoon, and starred some dude with a Caesar haircut and a wannabe Eddie Murphy (I swear, all that was missing was the laugh). The acting was below horrible, but the action scenes were pretty good (most of these guys are stuntmen).

From now on, whenever I think my writing is crap, I’ll remember this movie and feel a little better about myself.

Boomer Sooner

I have a title for my work-in-progress.

Well, technically, I have three titles that are in the running. Each day, I like a different one. I’m trying to find something that’s short, math-related (my main character is a math aficionado) and somehow related to the theme of the book. While I love Red Polka Dot In A World Full of Plaid, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

One of the reasons I’ve been absent from my blog for so long is because I’m knee-deep in editing. Like I said in my last post, this novel is really good. I want to make sure I give the manuscript the time it deserves. I’m even thinking about getting a professional critique done. It’s pricey, but if my hunch plays out, it’ll be well worth its money.

The other reason I’ve been absent is that I was bummed out for about a week, due to some disturbing writing-related issues that I can’t go into. However, after some encouragement from The Wonderful Cynthia Leitich Smith, I’m more motivated than ever. Now all I have to go is get Mrs. V on board….

Well, that’s not fair. Mrs. V is pretty supportive of me. And to be honest, she had no idea what she was getting into when she said, “I do.” Apparently, me slaving away at a keyboard wasn’t exactly her idea of quality time. However, Mrs. V has stepped up to the plate and has been my best supporter. I wouldn’t have made it nearly as far as I have without her in my corner. (And yes, if you must know, I’m trying to butter her up before I ask her to let me spend $$$$ on that professional critique).

It looks like Don and I will be the only Austin children’s book writers not going to the SCBWI Conference this Saturday. I’ll be in Dallas, watching OU beat up on UT (hopefully). The conference looks to have a great line-up; RA Julie Lake and the conference committee did a great job.

In closing…GO SOONERS!!! BEAT TEXAS!!!

Shades of Grey

As I continue with the editing of my current project, I keep telling myself, “This is really good.” I don’t say that about a lot of manuscripts (I’m my own worse critic). I say, “This dialogue is perfect,” or “These are amazing characters”, but very rarely do I say, “This is really good.”

Now all I have to figure out how to go from really good to really great. I think it’s the subtlest of things that differentiates the good novels from the great novels. Maybe a character whines a little too much. Maybe there’s too much humor and not enough drama (or vice versa). Maybe it’s something as miniscule as a character having the wrong name. In any case, it’s my duty to struggle over the most minute and mundane things in the manuscript; to make it as good as it can be.

The way I see it, if I’m asking some fourteen-year-old to shell out sixteen bucks for a hardback, I’d better make damn sure that it’s worth his or her money.


Have you even written anything years ago, thinking that it was a masterpiece, and then re-read it years later, only to find that it’s POS. This happens to me more times than not, especially as I read things that I wrote in high school. I had a bad habit of thinking that my writing was avant-garde, on the cutting edge of what was deemed fresh and literary and ground-breaking. Well, I drummed up an old poem I wrote in 1991. Avant-garde is the last word I would use to describe it.

By Varian C. Johnson

Way back when I was a little kid,
My Mom’s friend came over to visit.
My Mom’s friend smoked,
So I told her that she could get lung cancer,
Or emphysema,
Or bronchitis
(Though I pronounced it “brontosaurus”).
I also said that she had yellow teeth,
And stinky breath,
And that her clothes smelled like my old Uncle Leroy
(He smoked too, by the way).
Mom whipped me good
For what I said,
But I was only telling the truth.
So whatever you do
And whatever you say,
Be sure to remember:
The truth hurts at times.

The world became a much safer place on the day I decided to stop writing poetry.


After months of marketing and promotion for Red Polka Dot, I was finally able to sit back down and begin editing my current project. As I said in Don Tate’s interview, I’m pretty superstitious about talking about my current works. But if you want to read an excerpt from the first chapter (and note, this is by no means in it’s final form), you can click here.

The most unnerving thing about this new project is that I haven’t come up with a title yet. I know the title isn’t really important at this stage, but I always feel comforted when I know what I want to name the novel. I have a working title for the book, but I’m not sold on it. Of course, my agent and editor will have a lot of say on the title as well.

I love re-reading my work, especially after not looking at it for a long time. I forget all the little things I put into the novel that make me laugh. This sometimes gets to be problematic, though, as I find myself reading for enjoyment and not actually editing the novel.

I don’t keep track of my edits, but if I did, I would imagine that I would be on draft number six or eight at this point. Unfortunately, I’ll probably have at least six or eight more edits of the novel before it’s published.

Some advice for aspiring authors – invest in a good personal laser printer. Don’t rely on reading the manuscript on the computer screen. I promise, it looks entirely different once you have a hard copy sitting in front of you.