Exposing Clark Kent

If you asked my co-workers what they did in their spare time, you’d get answers like this:

“I have my own construction and remodeling business.”
“I’m a semi-professional mountain biker.”
“I’m a power lifter.”
“I run marathons.”

As you can see, “I write novels about teenage girls” doesn’t quite fit in the above list. However, that is indeed what I do, and I decided it was time to let my co-workers in on my “secret identity.” So, being the brave and confident person that I am, I waited until 6:00 PM, hurriedly sent out an email inviting co-workers to a book signing, and rushed out the door before anyone could come by my desk to say something.

Real professional, right?

As I’ve said numerous times, I can be a little self-conscious about writing. Writing is much more subjective than engineering. When I design a bridge, it’s either designed per the specification or it’s not. In writing, there is no code or spec book.

Of course, the good thing about writing novels is that it’s a lot less stressful than design work, especially with all this hurricane talk going around. I would not want to be one of the engineers that designed some of the New Orleans levies right about now.

Speaking of hurricanes, Rita is heading our way, but it should be pretty weak by the time it gets close to Austin. However, please keep all those on the Texas coast in your prayers over the upcoming days.

And, as I told my co-workers, if you read the book and don’t like it, you can take comfort in the fact that I’m a much better engineer than novelist.

Standing by her man

I’m sure you’ve all heard about Christopher Paolini and his Inheritance series (Eragon and Eldest). Well, Mrs. V is an avid science fiction and fantasy fan, and she hadn’t heard of him or his books until I mentioned him yesterday. Our conversation went something like this:

Mrs. V: Who did you say this guy was?

Me: Some kid named Christopher P-something-or-other. He’s got a series of fantasy books out.

Mrs V: Is it very successful?

Me: Well, he sold over 400,000 copies of the second novel, and that was in the first week.

Mrs. V: The first week?

Me: Yep. And he’s only 21.

Mrs. V slowly shakes her head: Babe, you’re writing the wrong thing.

Also, if you didn’t check out the comments from the last post, The Wonderful Cynthia Leitich Smith (Yes, I’m making “The Wonderful” an official part of her name) noted to check out the National Coalition Against Censorship for more information about the fight against censorship.

Where’s Judy Blume When You Need Her?

I started a post earlier today, but I was so irate when I wrote it, I would have offended half the people reading this blog if I actually published it. So, the main point from my “pre-post” are:

1) I HATE censorship.
2) Red Polka Dot is not an edgy novel. It’s realistic, but not edgy.
3) Teenagers curse, drink, and have sex, whether you want to believe it or not.
4) I use the F-word six times in my novel.
5) Thank God for the ALA.

Whew…now that that’s off my chest, on to more important issues. I’m happy to report that I have four author appearances lined up for November. I’m thinking of doing a few more in a few other cities, but I think for a first-time author, the ones I have set up are pretty good. Please join me at one of the following locations:

November 10 @ 7:00 PM: Barnes and Noble (Sunset Valley), Austin, TX
November 12 @ 2:00 PM: Black Images Book Bazaar, Dallas, TX
November 18: Wilson High School, Florence, SC
November 19 @ 1:00 PM: Books-A-Million, Florence, SC

Please check back for updates as I schedule new dates.

I’m sorry for the longer-than-usual delay in posts, but I was doing something that I have neglected for way too long – I was catching up on my reading. I really, really want to get Ellen Wittlinger’s new novel, Sandpiper (I wonder, would this be considered edgy?), but I can’t justify buying a new book when I have a stack of good books that I’ve been waiting to get through.

FYI – Ellen Wittlinger’s novel, Hard Love, is easily in my top three of YA books. The plot is good, but it’s her voice that really captured me. I don’t think I’ve felt so strongly about a group of characters since I read some of Judy Blume’s work when I was growing up. Hard Love is the first YA novel I read after I decided I wanted to write YA (I didn’t know what category I was trying to write for before then), and it’s a novel I re-read at least once a year. I highly recommend the novel to anyone thinking about writing YA, and to any teenagers looking for good, believable, realistic characters. I only hope I can write a book as good as Hard Love one day.

If you want to read more on Ms. Wittlinger, check out her website, or see Cynthia Leitich Smith’s interview with her.

I’m Ready For My Close-Up

I might get in trouble for saying this, but…yesterday, my publisher contacted me with news that one of the cable networks was interested in considering Red Polka Dot for a Made-For-TV movie.

If I had heard this two years ago, I would have already been at Circuit City, buying the newest flat screen TV. But now that I’ve been in the writing business for a few years, I’m much more optimistic about such things.

My agent and I went through a similar deal like this right after we made the sale, when a movie producer approached us about obtaining the rights to the novel. I just KNEW that Red Polka Dot was going to be a major motion picture, and that some unknown actress was going to woo audiences and critics as Maxine Phillips, and not only would she win an Oscar for Best Actress, but I would likewise win for Best Adapted Screenplay (because, of course, I was going to write the screenplay). I’m ashamed to say this, but I even had the music for the soundtrack picked out.

Well, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, none of those things happened. So when my publisher sent me the news, I was happy, but not HAPPY. I’ll cross my fingers, but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen. If anything, I can take pride in the fact that a network at least considered the novel. And if they actually do option it, I’ll be buying that flat screen TV.

On a different note, here is another picture of my baby niece, Elisabeth Marie Johnson. I’ve spent the past few days trying to think of good nicknames for her (almost everyone in my family has a nickname). Her mother has already ruled out my favorite, Liz. I don’t know…Beth, Lisa, Eli, Betsie, Elsie, Libby –

Hmmm…Libby? It’s not Liz, but it just may do.

Two Weddings, a Baby, and an Interview

One-Thousand Two-Hundred Sixty-Four and six tenths (1264.6). That’s how many miles we put on our car as Mrs. V, Theo (our cocker spaniel) and I traversed Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas this weekend.

Our first stop was in Tulsa for my fraternity brother’s wedding. I had a chance to see a lot of old friends, and I’m happy to report that the cake was excellent. We left Tulsa for Little Rock on Saturday morning, to witness one of Mrs. V’s childhood friends get married. I didn’t have any cake, but I did eat some very tasty meatballs and shrimp.

Also on Saturday, my brother and his wife had their first child, Elisabeth Marie Johnson. If I were more technically savvy, I’d find a way to put video of my niece on my blog. Unfortunately, my brother is the techno-whiz, and since he’s too busy playing Proud Papa, this picture will have to do.

Mrs. V and I stopped in Dallas on the way home to check in on my sister-in-law and my new niece. It’s amazing how small and precious a child can be. I’m really looking forward to spoiling her rotten.

Okay, enough about Elisabeth Marie; on to some writing news:

Don Tate, a man that needs no introduction to readers of my blog, was gracious enough to interview me for his blog. Please check it out and let me know what you think. As I’ve said before, Don is a great talent, and I’ll be first in line for an autographed copy of his first YA novel.

As I reread the interview, I started thinking about character development, and the level of comfort I have with the characters that I create. What type of message am I sending if I have curse words, or worse, sex scenes in my novels? Surely, not all teenagers curse and have sex. Or do they?

I find myself flip-flopping on this issue a lot, depend on how sanctified or how radical I feel at the moment. My current stance is to strike the line at the edge of what I find uncomfortable, and then to take one step over it. I want my writing to be fresh and edgy, but not edgy enough that I’ll give my mother a heart attack when she reads it.

In addition, I have a few loose rules that I tend to follow when I’m writing for teens:

Sex: I hate sex scenes. I find them very uncomfortable to write. (But as a teenager, I loved reading them. Blame it on raging hormones). Sex is a big part of young people lives, whether they’re having it or not, and it’s something that has to be address.

Let me be upfront about this: some of my characters have sex. On the flip side, I try to at least bring up the idea of safe sex in my writing, and usually at least one of my characters is abstinent. For as many people out there that are having reckless sex, a lot of people are using protection, and a lot are abstaining completely. I don’t think it’s fair to portray one side without portraying the other.

Cursing, Part 1: I tend to be pretty liberal with the “minor” curse words. I feel that this correctly portrays current culture. I don’t use a lot of sleep over these…if it shows up in the Bible, I figure I can get away with saying it.

Cursing, Part 2: F-Bombs and other “major” curse words. I do use them, but very sparingly. I try to have my main characters only use the major curse words in times of great emotional distress.

Cursing, Part 3: The previous two rules do not apply if it’s really in a person’s character to curse. If I would be changing a character wholeheartedly by removing swear words, I leave them in, F-bombs and all. I feel that I’d be shortchanging the character and my readers if I didn’t accurately portray the character.

Violence: When I show it, it’s never gratuitous, and it always has negative repercussions. I don’t have to worry about this much, as my characters aren’t usually very violent.

The N-word: I never use it a positive way. I’m not knocking anyone that has said it (because I’d be knocking myself), but that’s just one image I can’t bring myself to portray positively in my work. I have used it in my work before, but it’s very clear that any character using the word is an asshole.

Of course, all of these rules are works-in-progress, and what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for anyone else. And more than likely, I will have revised my rules yet again when I begin work on another novel. Which hopefully will be any day now….

Back In Stride Again

What a difference a day makes. Man, I was so depressed yesterday. It was almost like Sept. 11 all over again, with the constant barrage of negative news coverage. I guess you can only feel bad about things for so long, though, before you have to get up, brush yourself off, and get to business.

A couple of things:

1) CONGRATULATIONS to Mr. and Mrs. John and Andrea Singleton. My baby sister finally jumped the broom. I can’t lie; I didn’t want to like John. What brother wants his sister to be dating an older man? Not that he’s much older (he’s 31, she’s 24), but I’m only 28, and she’s not supposed to be dating anyone older than me, just like I’m not supposed to be dating anyone younger than her. Those are the rules, plain and simple. Anyway, I went home fully intending to hate this man, but much to my surprise, he’s a cool guy. We’re actually a lot alike. He can hold his liquor, he knows the words to all the songs on the Luther Vandross Forever, For Always, For Love album (an R&B classic), and he can play a good game of dominos. I was even happy when he proposed. He’s a good guy, and I’m proud to call him my brother. Yeah, he joined the wrong fraternity, but other than that, he’s okay by me.

2) Concerning my post yesterday, I said that I felt a personal connection to many of those affected by Katrina, due to the fact that I’m black. No, I’m not apologizing for it, because it’s true. However, I do want to clarify that I’m not trying to downplay how anyone else should feel. And I’m certainly not trying to pull a Kanye West (George Bush is a lot of things, but he isn’t a…“black people hater”). Black, White, Asian, Native American, etc… as Americans, we all should feel some type of sorrow for our fellow man in this time of need.

3) Calling all OU alumni: A group of OU alumni are trying to pull together resources for those alumni’s families that were affected by Katrina. If you would like to donate, or if you need more information, please contact me at vcj@varianjohnson.com and I will forward your email to the people organizing the drive. Also, if you know of any alumni that were affected, please contact me.

4) And lastly, did anyone see the FSU-Miami game last night? Remember the blocked punt that put FSU on the 1 yard line. My cousin, Lawrence “Juan” Timmons, was the guy that blocked the punt. I remember when he was half my size. Now, he’s a 6’-3”, 225 pound giant. And I am so proud of him. Way to go, Juan!!!

Of course, FSU failed to score after he blocked the punt. But hey, a win is a win, right? I only wish I could say the same about OU.

A Point of Inflection

Most engineers and scientist know what a point of inflection is – in the most basic terms, it is the point on a graphed curve when the arc changes from convex to concave or vice versa. It signifies many important things in the mathematical world, such as a point in time when the velocity of an object goes from positive to negative or when the acceleration of an object become zero.

In writing, we have our own “point of inflection”, otherwise known as an Epiphany, a point where our character realizes something profound, something meaningful, something life-changing.

I had a point of inflection, or an epiphany, as I perused all of the information online concerning Hurricane Katrina. There is blame, confusion, and despair rampant not only in the affected areas of the hurricane, but throughout the United States as well. I feel a personal connection to those affected by the hurricane on many levels – a large majority of those affected by Katrina are African-Americans. Also, many of my friends from college and co-workers’ families have sustained brutal losses due to the hurricane. I wanted to write an upbeat, happy entry concerning my sister’s wedding, but in light of everything that has transpired over the past week, I feel I cannot, at least not today.

I find that things I was arguing about in the past seem mundane and petty now. It was just a few weeks ago that I was arguing with Mrs. V on how I didn’t want to get rid of the plethora of books I have amassed over the years; now, I’m planning to donate a large majority of my personal library to a book drive organized by the Austin SCBWI chapter (if you have questions concerning this or would like to donate, please email me at vcj@varianjohnson.com and I will forward you the appropriate contact info). And it was just last week that I was telling Mrs. V that I didn’t have any clothes I wanted to donate to goodwill; now, I am happily donating a large chunk of my wardrobe.

You all know about the American Red Cross; please continue to donate to them as they are always in need of supplies. And Mrs. V would kill me if I didn’t mention to keep the American Humane Society in your thoughts as well, as there are hundreds of homeless pets in need of support.

I promise, I will be back to my usual, chipper self in future posts, but I just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t say something about Katrina. If you are the praying type, please keep those affected – and the nation in general – in your prayers as we forge ahead in these trying times.

Birthday Reloaded

Well, it looks like Mrs. V has changed her mind about her birthday present. Or rather, she has amended her birthday gift list. We walked into Barton Creek Square Mall the other day to return a shirt, and exited an hour later with a pair of 14K white gold hoop earrings.

And yes, she’s still getting the golf clubs.

I really can’t complain; she deserves every gift I can afford to buy her. Between my day job and getting ready for the book to drop in November, I’ve had zero time for her, for chores, or for much else. And because she understands how important this is to me, she just sucks it up and takes care of everything that I either forget or choose not to do. So if she wants a new pair of earrings, who am I to argue?

I hope to announce a few book-signing locations within the next few days. I have a date set with a store in my hometown, and I am close to finalizing locations in Austin and Dallas. Be sure to check back for updates.

To the first-time authors out there with a novel coming out soon, it is NEVER too late to start promotion. This has definitely been a learning experience for me, from ordering postcards to writing a press kit to calling stores for signings. I loved writing the book, but I could live without the marketing.

I’m heading back to Florence, SC tomorrow for my sister’s wedding (I am scheduled to attend at least 4 weddings between now and the end of October). I’ll let you guys know how the cake tastes.

Authors, Illustrators, and Golf Clubs

Mrs. V and I ventured out to Round Rock to pick up a couple of signed books by author Greg Leitich Smith (Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo and Tofu and T. rex). The book signing looked to be a huge success, and it sounds like both Greg and his wife, Cynthia, should have additional novels coming out soon.

Speaking of Cynthia Leitich Smith…man, she is like the patron saint of all Austin children’s book authors. She’s a wealth of knowledge, and she is so personable. Just talking to her makes you want to yank out a pencil and pad and start writing.

Cynthia is also very spirited – she and Greg seem like a good team. I’ve already informed Mrs. V that she’s gonna have to be the bubbly, personable one whenever we’re talking about the book. I also ran into Sean Petrie and April Lurie (Dancing In The Streets of Brooklyn), and saw Nancy Jean Okunami just as she was walking out of the door.

And then, to my surprise, I finally ran into Don Tate, illustrator extraordinaire.

Most of you guys have heard me talk about Don before. He’s a great illustrator, a great author, and hands down writes one of the funniest blogs on the net. He was out with his wife and son, and was loaded with books. It was great to finally meet him in person.

Like Don, I don’t do so well with a crowd of people, so Mrs. V and I retreated to the back of the bookstore to peruse the sci-fi section. As we left, we met Brian Yanksy, author of My Road Trip To The Pretty Girl Capital of the World. Brian conducted a great writing workshop at the local SCBWI meeting last month, so it was nice to finally speak to him face to face. And of course, I couldn’t leave without saying hello to his wonderful wife, Frances Hill (The Bug Cemetery). She, like Cynthia, has one of those bubbly, outgoing personalities.

Oh, and before I forget, HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my wife, Crystal (though I’m trying to convince her to officially change her name to Mrs. V). Thanks to everyone with all the birthday present suggestions. It looks like Mrs. V has made the decision easy for me – she wants a new set of golf clubs. Being that she’s gonna be a high powered corporate executive, she needs a good set of clubs. And while I hate the price tag, it does keep me out of the mall, so I guess I came out on the positive end of this deal.

Of course, after we get the clubs, she’ll want new shoes, and a new golf bag, and then she’ll need new clothes….

A Pause for the Cause

I hadn’t written in a few days, and I was getting a little blog sick, so I figured I’d drop a quick post. Things are well. Mrs. V and I have spent our evenings scurrying around Austin, reacquainting her with food that she hasn’t eaten all summer – believe me, you do NOT want to get between that woman and Chick-Fil-A fries.

The response from friends and associates concerning the novel has been great. My inbox was literally flooded with over 50 emails from friends, all wishing me the best. And although it may take a while, I have tried to respond back to each one.

I still haven’t gotten a b-day present for Mrs. V yet. She can be pretty hard to shop for, being her tastes are so varied. I guess I’m going to have to squeeze in a trip to the mall sometime today or tomorrow.

More to come later today or tomorrow.