Adventures in middle grade research

Research is an essential part of writing. You already knew that, right? I should’ve done too, because I’m pretty sure my English teachers told me. But I wasn’t what you’d call a “good listener,” which explains why I had to learn it firsthand (and also, perhaps, why I feel compelled to touch clearly marked electric cattle fences just to see if they’re really electric).

Research helps a writer flesh out ideas. It sometimes brings to light new directions for a story. And at the very least, it’s like an insurance policy against criticism (especially of the “you didn’t do enough research” type). But sometimes, research brings to light things that, to quote one of my early editors, are stranger than fiction. And that’s tricky.

See, we hold fiction to a higher standard of plausibility than we do real life. That might seem crazy, but it’s true. Like, all those people who’ve earned a Darwin Award for their life-ending achievements? They'd find it hard to become the subject of a YA or MG novel because readers would complain about character motivation and consistency. “No one would be stupid enough to do that in real life!” readers would cry. Which is a coincidence, because I think they’d say the same thing about me if they saw me carrying out my “research.”

For instance, while doing research for my YA novels, I . . .

. . . sat my infant kids on Jimi Hendrix’s dead body in Renton, WA, and got some pretty disgusted looks from other visitors to the cemetery. (Good news: My kids haven’t required therapy yet!) 

. . . drove Route 66 through Missouri, only to discover that there are multiple, conflicting Route 66s, which meant (a) I got lost, and (b) I got to eat at twice as many roadside diners as seems humanly possible (bonus!).

. . . waded through marsh and weeds and got eaten alive by bugs on Roanoke Island, NC, just so I’d know exactly what it feels like. (Answer: not very nice.) 

. . . asked a park ranger on Fort Sumter, SC, how Civil War-era soldiers disposed of their poop. (Answer: when the tide is going out.) Interestingly, everyone else in the tour group stayed well away from me after that.

So yeah, real life is sometimes crazier than fiction. And when it came to researching my new novel, Mascot, it was especially true. Allow me to share some of the amazing things I discovered . . .

. . . There are at least 150 synonyms for “fart.” (Alas, my editor cut me off after about ten of them. Apparently, I have a much higher tolerance for farting wiener dogs than the average human.) 

. . . Fredbird, the real-life mascot for the St. Louis Cardinals, does some pretty crazy stuff in my novel. Some readers might say, implausibly wild. But to prove that we hold our fictional characters to a higher standard than real life ones, I present the following video evidence.

. . . Self-respecting human beings have argued over the shape of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Is it a parabola or a catenary arch? (Answer: Neither. It’s a flattened catenary, although I honestly can’t follow the math.)

. . . I attended my kids' elementary school spelling bee once, where one of the words was “Sisyphean.” Not only did the kid get it right, he sounded positively bored at how easy it was. I was so impressed (and intimidated) that I stuck it in the book.

. . . Aficionados of the game Minecraft have been known to devote years to creating perfect to-scale replicas of famous cities, including this one of Chicago

. . . At my high school, the head of PE was affectionately nicknamed “Rambo.” He cycled 50 roundtrip miles to get to school each day, and always wore shorts, even when it was freezing. I once asked for advice on how to handle puking during races. His advice? “Get it all out quickly.” While this doesn’t really count as research, it made its way into the book in the form of PE teacher Ms. Friendly, cross-fit champion and all-around beast.

. . . Fredbird, the St. Louis Cardinals’ mascot, has a private room in Busch Stadium. It’s called the “nest.” 

. . . Itching powder is not only real, it works

As for how all of this bizarre information relates to the characters in Mascot, well . . . I hope you’ll give it a read and find out :)

Turns out, I write like Laini Taylor . . . (sort of)

I read an excellent interview with Laini Taylor on this month's Goodreads Newsletter. Laini is one of my favorite authors, and her "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" trilogy is simply astonishing. So imagine my surprise (and delight) to discover that she goes through the same grind-it-out writing process as I do. I used to berate myself for over-editing as I go, but I've come to realize it's just what I have to do. At least now I know I'm in good company!

I think the takeaway from this is that every writer has to discover his or her own process. The means by which we arrive at at a finished book can be as varied as books themselves. Which is as it should be. 

Here's the question (posed by reader Shahzoda): How many drafts does it usually take you to get a book to a place where you're happy to publish it? 

LT: This is a tricky question because I think it rests on this idea that writers write complete drafts, one after another, powering through each one from beginning to end—especially that first one, the "fast first draft." I know a lot of writers who do this. A lot of amazing books are written this way.

But I can't do it. I'm constantly revising as I go. I'll get 50 pages in and then start over. I'll spend months finding the right beginning. I'll rewrite a chapter eight times before I move on. (Then maybe I'll delete it entirely.) I have to love the whole thing as I go, even down to the sentence level. It's really extreme and kind of insane, but hey, that's the brain I've got. 

So how many drafts do I write? In one sense, I write three. In another sense, 80,000! I submit a first draft to my editor, get notes on it, write a second draft, get notes on that, and then write the final draft. Which sounds really civilized! But the "first draft" that I submit has been relentlessly revised…and not in any kind of orderly way that would enable me to count versions. All the crazy is hidden away in my writing room, for my eyes only! 

Wanna Skype?

I love school visits. I mean, I really love them. But if the school is in Saskatchewan or Pocatello, Idaho, say, it's kind of hard for me to get there and back in time to pick up the kids from school. But with Skype (or Google Hangouts) I've been able to enjoy school visits from Texas to Ohio to South Carolina (and a lot of states in between).

Yes, indeed, Skyping rocks! (And the commute time can't be beat.)

So if your class or book club wants to chat about books, or creative writing, or St. Louis Cardinals baseball (just kidding . . . sort of), drop me an email and we'll set something up. There's no cost for the first half hour. As long as you have a couple of scheduling options, we'll find a mutually acceptable time for sure.

All I ask is that participants are somewhat familiar with my work. I have an unfortunate habit of dropping spoiler alerts, which is seriously uncool and apparently untreatable. Don't say I didn't warn you :)

The two-stop, thousand-mile book tour

Recently, the lovely folks at Fenton (MO) Barnes and Noble asked me to do an event on Friday, June 10th at 7PM as part of their new teen festival, B-Fest. It runs all weekend, which got me thinking: Might there be time for a second event too?

Well, the equally lovely folks at the Myrtle Beach (SC) Barnes and Noble agreed, so I’ll be doing an event there too on Sunday, June 12th at 1PM. This entails a drive of over 900 miles on Saturday, but the scenery is beautiful, Tennessee has some amazing state parks where the kids and dogs and I can get in some hiking (and swimming next to waterfalls), and there are some awesome eateries just off I-40.

I’ll be talking about my books, discussing the craft of writing, and offering advice for aspiring authors. If you’re in town and just want to chat books or publishing, please stop on by!

FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB - chapter one

Hard to believe that this novel came out a full FIVE YEARS AGO now. But if you haven't read it, and wonder what it's all about, please check out the following excerpt . . .



For the record, I wasn’t around the day they decided to become Dumb. If I’d been their manager back then I’d have pointed out that the name, while accurate, was not exactly smart. It just encouraged people to question the band’s intelligence, maybe even their sanity. And the way I saw it, Dumb didn’t have much of either.

But they weren’t in the mood to be reasoned with. They’d just won Seattle’s annual Teen Battle of the Bands, and they were milking their fifteen minutes for all it was worth. Never mind that no one else at school even knew the contest existed, the fact is they won. The Battle organizers had even hired Baz Firkin—lead singer of defunct band The Workin’ Firkins—to mentor their inevitable ascent toward rock stardom during three all-expenses-paid recording sessions. Baz hadn’t heard them yet, of course—he wasn’t up for parole for another week—but he was a man with experience and connections, both of which were sure to come in handy as soon as he was released.

Meanwhile, Dumb celebrated their victory by giving an unscheduled performance on the school steps first thing Monday morning. It would have been the most audacious breach of school rules ever if the teachers hadn’t been attending their weekly staff meeting; instead, the band cranked up their amps, to the delight of their numerous groupies. I wanted to ignore them, but they were strategically blocking the school entrance, and hustling past would have marked me out as anal-retentive (“Doesn’t want to be late for homeroom!”) and indirectly critical (“Didn’t even look at the band!”).

Or maybe not, but that’s how it seemed to me.

Anyway, I stuck around for a few minutes and watched the threesome thrashing their poor defenseless instruments with sadistic abandon: swoony Josh Cooke on vocals, his mouth moving preternaturally fast and hips gyrating as if a gerbil had gained unauthorized access to his crotch; Will Cooke, Josh’s non-identical twin brother, on bass guitar, his lank hair obscuring most of his pale, gaunt face, hands moving so sluggishly you would think they’d been sedated; Tash Hartley on lead guitar, her left hand flying along the neck of the guitar while she stared down her audience like a boxer sizing up her opponent before a fight. Not that anyone—male or female—would be stupid enough to take on Tash.

I was going to slide past them as soon as they finished a song, but as far as I could tell that never actually happened, so I just held back. Anyway, the scene on the steps was oddly compelling, even aesthetically pleasing. The bright, late September sun glinted off the teen-proof tempered windows. Beside me, Kallie Sims, supermodel wannabe, was a vision of flawless dark skin and meticulously flat-ironed hair. Even Dumb’s instruments looked shiny and cared for. And all the while I could feel the music pounding in my hands, my feet, my chest. For a moment, I understood how Dumb might have won the Battle of the Bands on pure energy alone. I could even believe they were set to conquer the world—if the world were a small public high school in a predominantly white, middle-class suburb of Seattle.

There must have been a hundred of us out there when I first noticed someone staring at me. I didn’t even know her, but when I smiled she looked away guiltily. Then someone else glanced over. She tried to look nonchalant, but was clearly confused to see me with a group of mostly popular kids, listening to music of all things.

Suddenly I couldn’t watch the band, couldn’t enjoy the scene. As I scanned the crowd I saw more pairs of eyes trained on me, each of them wondering what I was doing there. And there was whispering too, which should have seemed comical—why go to the trouble of whispering around me, right?—but instead made me feel even more self-conscious. I just wanted to make it to the end of the song, but I was beginning to wonder if that would ever happen.

Finally Dumb relaxed, like they were pausing to draw breath. I couldn’t bear to move, however; couldn’t face drawing even more attention to myself. I watched as the performers knelt down before their amplifiers and turned a few knobs. Then, smiling at each other, they attacked their instruments with renewed vigor, spewing out noise that replicated a small earthquake, while Josh gave us an unparalleled view of his tonsils. Satisfied at having initiated seismic activity on school grounds, they played on even when smoke started rising from Will’s amp—maybe they figured it was only appropriate that they should provide their own pyrotechnics as well. They didn’t even seem to mind when the small black box, clearly fed up with this particular brand of thrash-scream cacophony, began sparking, then flaming gently.

Kallie’s supermodel posse was first to evacuate, presumably afraid that the chemicals in their hair might spontaneously combust, although Kallie herself stuck around. This surprised me. Gradually everyone else shuffled off as well, like they knew things were about to turn seriously ugly and didn’t want to be at the crime scene when punishments were being doled out. Eventually only Kallie and I remained. Together we watched Dumb’s unofficial concert end in a literal blaze of glory. Even as I struggled to avoid inhaling the noxious smoke, I couldn’t help but admire the showmanship.

I can’t say when Will’s amplifier stopped producing sound altogether and threatened to ignite the school’s electricity supply. But I remember exactly how I felt as I raised my arms and screamed at the top of my lungs—the kind of obnoxious, over-the-top response I normally reserved for our sports teams’ own goals and air-balled free throws. I remember my shock as Kallie raised her arms too, like she thought I was seriously impressed with the band. And I can still picture Josh and Will and Tash smiling and pumping their fists in the air. But most of all I remember how great it felt to vent, whatever my motives, to share an animal scream with four other people who gave even less of a crap than I did. For a moment I even allowed myself to believe that the blackened air was nothing less than the whole damn school disintegrating into beautiful, blissful oblivion . . . right until the principal burst through the main door, drowning everything and everyone in foam from a gratuitously large fire extinguisher.

By the time the fire truck arrived, the amps were nothing but an electrical dog pile on our school’s formerly pristine steps, and Dumb had been hit with a week-long in-school suspension for committing unforgivable acts of “noise pollution”—the principal’s words, but no one seemed to disagree. It should have been the end of the group really, considering their punishment, and the inescapable fact that their amps were ruined. But in one of those crazy rock music situations I came to know firsthand, the moment of their untimely demise became the moment Dumb was truly born.

For the rest of the day, freshmen reenacted the moment when the amp actually caught fire. Even the band’s staunchest critics began scrawling eulogies on bathroom stalls. Suddenly the world of North Seattle High revolved around Dumb—the only topic anyone discussed anymore. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. I think that’s what everyone was talking about. But in the interests of accuracy, I should admit that it’s kind of hard for me to tell because, well, you know.

I’m deaf.

IMPOSTER launch event at Left Bank Books!

Only one week to go until the launch event for IMPOSTER, and we'll be celebrating in style. If you're in St. Louis, please join me at Left Bank Books (399 N Euclid) at 7PM on Wednesday, September 16th for fun, laughter, and FREE COCKTAILS (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic). That's right, folks. Shane, Left Bank Books' resident mixologist, has created a series of drinks around characters and themes from the book. 

Oh yeah, and I'll be talking about the book too :)

IMPOSTER - chapter one

For those who want a taste of the novel, please dive right in . . .

“I was afraid you were never going to drink the poison.” Ellen adjusts the straps of her sleeveless dress. The front curtain is still drawn, and she wants to look perfect for the audience. “Were you watching me the whole time?”

            She sounds suspicious. Maybe even a little freaked out. The honest answer is Yes, I was watching you, because in character, that’s what felt right.

            But I’m not Romeo anymore, and she’s not Juliet. I’m back to being Seth, who went out with Ellen once after rehearsal and thought it might mean something. I also thought I was a shoo-in for a new series of Chevy commercials, but I guess I was wrong about that too.

            The curtain parts. We lock arms and step forward with the rest of the cast. The standing ovation is spontaneous, the camera flashes persistent. Energy hums through us like a current.

            I ought to smile. It’s closing night of the first fully sold-out production in Valley Youth Theater Company history. We’ve had excellent write-ups in the local newspaper. The rest of the cast are practically cheering themselves, but I can’t join them. The spotlights feel too bright, too hot.

            “Bow!” Ellen stage-whispers.

            I follow her lead, and when she retreats, I do as well. As the curtain closes, she tilts her head and clicks her tongue like a mother chastening her child. “Focus, Mr. Crane,” she teases.

            Our cast mates exchange celebratory hugs. Ellen hugs me too. “See you at the party,” she whispers.

            As she saunters past the front row of props, her friends fall in line beside her. She doesn’t look back.

            “Would’ve been nice if you could’ve smiled, Seth.” My brother’s voice drags me around. Gant Crane, future paparazzo, stands stage left, examining photos on a ridiculously expensive camera. “I mean, I’ve got some awesome shots of the play, but the curtain call . . .” He shakes his head to underline how bad I must appear on the camera’s small screen.

            “You can just delete those ones, right?” I say.

            “Uh-uh. Your director wants the full album.”

            “I’ll give you ten bucks.”

            “She’s giving me a hundred.”

            “A hundred? For one evening?”

            He raises one eyebrow. “It’s only the stars of the show who get paid nothing. I told you not to get into acting.”

            It’s true—he told me that. He’s annoyingly smart for a sophomore.

            “You going to the party?” he asks, flicking his head toward the back of the stage.


            He knows the word later is significant. “Is this about the Chevy commercials?”

            “No,” I say. But I can tell he sees right through that lie too.

            I did two low-budget TV commercials back in middle school, but the Chevy gig would’ve been huge. National exposure. Good money. They’d pretty much told me the part was mine. Instead, this afternoon I got a one-line email saying they were moving in a new direction.

            “I just want to stay out here a minute,” I tell him. “Try to feel normal again.”

            This time he raises both eyebrows. “News flash, Seth. You’re wearing pointy shoes and five coats of makeup. Nothing normal about that.”

            Gant snaps another photo and leaves. Brows furrowed, I probably look more like Hamlet than Romeo.

            I slide around the front curtain and survey row after row of empty velvet seats. With the audience gone and the spotlights off, the place no longer seems magical at all. The wooden planks beneath my feet creak slightly. The air is tinged with the still-there smell of paint from the props that were only finished four days ago. I know because I helped to paint them.

            “Little odd for the star of the show to be out here alone, isn’t it?” someone calls out.

            A guy ambles toward me. He looks about thirty. Goatee. Untucked white shirt and dark blue jeans.

            I look around, but I’m the only other person here. “Costar,” I say.

            “Uh-uh. Not all Romeos and Juliets are created equal. You know it. I know it. Everyone in the audience knows it.” He flutters a program. “Says here that in addition to his work with the Valley Youth Theater Company, eighteen-year-old Seth Crane has appeared in the short movie Taken Out, as well as commercials.”

            He places his hands on the stage and pulls himself up. Sits on the edge, feet dangling. “I’m Ryder. Ryder Whatley.” He extends his hand. I step forward and shake it. “So what’s the issue, Seth?”


            “Show’s over. You ought to be celebrating. But you’re still here.”

            “Yeah, well . . . I lost out on a commercial today.”

            “That’s too bad. Did your agent say why?”

            “I don’t have an agent.”

            “Hmm.” He pulls out a card. Below his name is written: WRITER – PRODUCER – DIRECTOR. He has a Los Angeles address.

            My heartbeat quickens. “What are you doing in the Valley?”

            “Glad you asked.” He takes out his cell phone and touches the screen. Pulls up a movie website that shows production status on a film called Whirlwind. “You heard of this?”

            I sit beside him. My legs dangle farther than his. “Yeah. Sabrina Layton’s in it.”

            “Was in it. Kris Ellis too. But then they split up in real life, and everything went into limbo. Now we have a script and shooting schedule, but no leads.”

            “Didn’t anyone else audition?”

            “Sure. Hundreds. But once the biggest teen actors in Hollywood signed on, I had better things to do than wade through hours of audition tape.” He chuckles. “Which is ironic, ’cause now I’m doing it anyway. Well, except for this evening.”

            Ryder pinches the bridge of his nose. “Look, Seth, community theater isn’t my thing. But someone I trust told me to check you out. After I read that write-up in the newspaper, I figured, why not? And you know what? Watching you on stage, it was like I was seeing the character in my movie: the face, the movements, the voice. . . . What I’m saying is, I want you to audition.”

            My feet bounce lightly against the side of the stage like I have no control over them. “When?”

            “Tomorrow morning.” He turns his business card over and points to an address handwritten on the back. “There’s a conference room at this place. Ten o’ clock work for you?”

            Before I can answer, a cheer erupts from backstage. When it’s quiet again, the whole situation feels surreal—losing out on a commercial one moment, and auditioning for a movie role the next.

           “I don’t get it,” I say. “There must be hundreds of guys who want this part.”

           “Sure there are. But sometimes we’re looking for exactly the kind of person who’s not looking for us.”

           He watches me, waiting for yes. He must know how much I want this. Need it. It’s written all over me.

           With the audience gone, the noise from the lobby has all but died away. Nearby, the party is in full swing, but I won’t go. I have other, bigger goals.

           “Ten o’ clock,” I say. “I’ll be there.”



I'm not going to lie . . . asking renowned authors to read (and possibly blurb) my books is kind of intimidating. It's not the thought that they'll decline -- everyone gets busy -- but that they'll take the time to read it and, well . . . hate it. Or feel blah about it. I'd feel awful to have wasted hours of their busy lives. Just like I feel bad for anyone who reads one of my books and wishes they'd spent the time watching paint dry instead.

And yet, I still aim crazy high when it comes to blurbs. For IMPOSTER, I had two people on my wish list, and incredibly, both agreed to read.

April Henry is the New York Times-bestselling author of GIRL, STOLEN, and THE GIRL WHO WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE, and THE BODY IN THE WOODS (and many more). She is the author I most often hear other authors talking about when the subject of the best YA thriller writers comes up, because her books are brilliantly researched and perfectly executed (excuse the pun).

Jonathan Maberry is the New York Times-bestselling author of ROT & RUIN and the Joe Ledger series, among many others. He writes books of extraordinary imagination and unrelenting tension.

So what did they make of IMPOSTER? Well, I'm glad you asked . . .

April Henry describes is as "a twisty thrill ride."

Jonathan Maberry says, "IMPOSTER is pure adrenaline! Antony John rebuilds the teen thriller genre with a novel that is whip-smart, devious and tremendous fun.”

A huge thanks to both April and Jonathan for reading and blurbing. Now that's over, I just have to worry about what readers think :)

IMPOSTER cover reveal!

My new novel comes out on September 15th, 2015, and I'm super excited about it. Especially as the amazing designers at Dial have produced a seriously moody cover that totally captures the thriller's edgy, nothing-is-as-it-seems tone. Feast your eyes on this!

Video interview

While I was at Parkview High School in Springfield, MO last month, the students conducted a brief video interview. They've included it in a fantastic video dairy called "Vike Vision," which you can see here.

The whole thing is amazingly well done, but if you want to check out my interview specifically, it starts at 3:15. I talk about writing words versus composing music, and give advice for aspiring writers. Check it out!

Ask me something . . .

Goodreads has a nice feature called "Ask the author." If you've ever had a question about one of my books, or my writing process, you can ask it on my Goodreads author page. The answer will be published for all Goodreads users to see.

So, now's your chance to find out why I have two dogs and no cats, in spite of being a cat person . . . and other similarly useful information :)

Recommended reads

An awesome reader at my Columbia MO library event last week asked for a list of my favorite reads. The list is long, and it changes frequently, so to keep things slightly more current, here are five books from the past three years that I think EVERYONE should read :)

HOW TO SAVE A LIFE by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown, 2011). Moving, and unflinchingly real. Sara Zarr truly writes character-driven drama.

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion, 2012). Pulse-pounding excitement, a tightly wound plot, and unforgettable characters. This book is just amazing.

DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor (Little, Brown 2011). Fantasy doesn't get any better than this. The characters are colorful and sympathetic, and the mythology is breathtaking.

JUST ONE DAY by Gayle Forman (Dutton, 2013). I'm a sucker for romance, and Gayle Forman's characters are irresistible but also just flawed enough to be real.  

ASK THE PASSENGERS by A.S. King (Little, Brown 2012). Like Sara Zarr, AS King does a superb job of letting her characters tell their stories. Beautifully written.

I hope you'll check these out - I assure you, you won't be disappointed!

RENEGADE is a staff pick at Left Bank Books

Shane, one of the awesome booksellers at Left Bank Books, has named RENEGADE his November 2014 staff pick. In his own words: 

"The thrilling conclusion of the Elemental Series by Antony John is the perfect way to wrap things up. I am recommending that you read this entire series (if you haven't already). Antony is a local author that we LOVE. Pirates, supernatural powers, plague, and love. It is a wonderful book. The author said he wrote the book for the 14 year old version of himself, but I feel like it reaches out to the inner-teen in everyone."

Thanks, Shane!

Children's Literature Festival of the Ozarks

A quick, heartfelt thanks to the more than 1000 readers (and your wonderful teachers and librarians) who showed up to my talks this past week at the literature festival in Springfield. You were amazing and inspiring, and I hope to see you all again next year!