“Clayton Byrd Goes Underground” by Rita Williams-Garcia: A Discussion Guide for Writers

In Rita Williams-Garcia’s middle grade novel Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, the sudden loss of a beloved grandfather, a disconnect between mother and son, and the young protagonist’s desire to become a Blues musician collide. By studying Williams-Garcia’s novel, writers can examine how to write sound and musical imagery, how to weave adult relationships and points of view into a middle grade novel, and how to use secondary or ancillary characters to create conflict, mood, tension and setting.

Picture1Use the discussion questions on your own or with a book group to investigate Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. As you consider each question, take note of how your own manuscripts apply Williams-Garcia’s methods.

These discussion questions were inspired by the KidLit Book Club meeting at The Writers’ Loft. We’d love to have you join us. Check out the Loft calendar to find out about our next meeting!

Discussion Questions:

  1. Writers are encouraged to employ all five senses when creating scenes. The sounds of a car horn, a bird, or a train are more easily conveyed than the full richness of a musical style. How does Williams-Garcia effectively use words to communicate the Blues music that is essential to the relationship between Clayton and Papa Byrd in her novel?
  2. Examine the pacing and tension of the novel. The novel is roughly 150 pages long. Clayton runs away on page 70, about half way through the story, and the action picks up.  How would you compare the first half of the story in terms of pacing and tension versus the second half? Were both halves effective? Did you prefer one over the other? How would you compare the readability of both halves? When does the tension in your own manuscript start? Why? And how does that affect your manuscripts readability?
  3. How did Clayton grow or change through the story? Was he remorseful? Or did he just get caught? How did Williams-Garcia show growth and change? Was it realistic? Complete? What devices do you use in your manuscripts to show that your main character has grown or changed?
  4. A major source of conflict in the story is Clayton’s relationship with his mother. Was Mom too mean? Too nice? Or just right? How do you craft an antagonist that is believable but also relatable? Do KidLit authors get more flexibility in casting a parent in an antagonistic light because kids can relate to a parent who just doesn’t understand?
  5. Williams-Garcia lets the relationship between Clayton’s mother and grandfather and the relationship between his mother and Mr. Miller add layers to her story. She also shifts the POV from close third on Clayton, to close third on Clayton’s mother. How do you handle the adults and/or the adult relationships in your manuscript? How much attention can you give the adults and the adult relationships in a middle grade novel? How did Williams-Garcia handle them and how was it effective?
  6. Explore the train scenes and the character’s that Williams-Garcia quickly sketches. How does she give each member of the Beat Boys a distinct voice and character? How do the descriptions of the train passengers enhance the setting and add tension and mood? Do you give attention to the spectators or passersby in your own manuscripts? How can that add or detract from a story?
  7. How does Williams-Garcia explore death in her middle grade novel? The story compares the death of Clayton’s grandmother and grandfather and how they affected Clayton. Clayton is exploring his own thoughts on death and Williams-Garcia uses a pastor, passengers on a train, and Mr. Miller to add new insights. How can authors handle heavy topics like death in middle grade novels? How did Williams-Garcia use secondary characters to help Clayton explore his thoughts on death and spirituality?
  8. Does the reader miss the Blues Men at the end? How is the story aided by their absence at the end? How would the story have been different if the Blues Men had still been at the park? Do you make your main character suffer? How did having the Blues Men unavailable make Clayton suffer?

Those (Writing) Games We Play

by Heather Kelly, Founder, The Writers’ Loft

As writers, it can be hard to take ourselves seriously. We write during the in-between times—when the house is quiet because no one else is awake, before and after our day job, and in the car waiting for a child to finish their school day. It can feel like writing is an aside, the first thing to ditch when real life rears its ugly head.

Taking our writing—and ourselves—seriously is the most important step toward success.

But how?

By doing something that might seem counterintuitive.

We drive more effectively toward our goal, and take ourselves more seriously, when we treat our writing like it’s a game.

Take a moment to consider how Jane McGonigal turned healing her brain from a concussion into a game. And then turn your writing into a game.

  1. Choose your best author self. Jane chose the Concussion Slayer. What super identity are you going to become when you sit down to write?
  2. Identify your writing goal—your epic win. Identify the quests you need to go on and achieve to get there.
  3. Assemble your team: your allies. Let them know what your everyday quests are and let them hold you accountable. Talk through your plot problems with your team. Lean on your allies when you get lost.
  4. Activate your power-ups. Reward yourself when you do something that will progress you toward your writing goal. Wrote for an hour: +1 Butt in Chair. Read TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS? +10 Knowledge Boost. Sent an ad to Book Bub? +10 Marketing Ninja Points.
  5. Continue your quests, vanquish writer’s block, and slay those plot holes all the way to your epic win!

You’ll trick yourself into becoming a happier, healthier writer.

So, while you’re waiting to join me in playing Wizards Unite, go get your writing EPIC WIN!!

Heather KellyWhile exploring the fabric of the universe by writing YA and MG novels, Heather runs The Writers’ Loft, a supportive writing community in Sherborn, MA. She believes that writing is too hard to do alone and encourages anyone who needs a critique partner or a quiet place to write to stop by the Loft. Look for her 2017-2018 YA new releases: Blindspot (Book 1 in the AfterFlash Series, as HG Kelly), and The Surge Chronicles, co-authored with Ansha Kotyk.

Mapping Out Your Writing Life

by Allison Pottern Hoch

It’s the beginning of the year and everything feels fresh and possible. Whether you’re still chipping away at a work-in-progress, starting something new, or staring down the lane at future publication dates, your writing life lies open before you.

But the wide-open possibility of an entire year doesn’t always jibe with reality—work, deadlines, kids, travel, housekeeping, health, pets. What has worked for me is mapping out a mix of fixed and flexible goals. This helps me have plan, self-motivate, and stay nimble as new opportunities present themselves.

Setting a fixed goal

Fixed goals can be both ones you set yourself and ones set for you by others. Have a book coming out? The deadlines dictated by your publishing schedule—edits, proofs, pub date—are all fixed goals worth planning for. Map out time to sit with your work and give it the attention it needs to meet these deadlines. What steps do you need to take to accomplish the goals behind each deadline?

For those of us without book contracts, it can still be helpful to work under a deadline set by someone else. Signing up for a Writers’ Loft class or one-on-one critique or a writing retreat can motivate you to complete a desired task for which you are now held accountable. For example, I signed up for a first-pages evaluation in the early spring. I’m also participating in two critique groups with rolling submissions, forcing me to produce and share work every few weeks.

Setting flexible goals

Flexible goals include wiggle room in case of illness, snow days, or new and unexpected deadlines. “Start a new project by the beginning of the summer,” “start querying agents by September,” or “attend a writing conference” would fall into this category.

These goals give you something exciting to shoot for without the pressure of an exact deadline. As writers, we’re often hard on ourselves. Beating ourselves up over missing a self-set deadline is counterproductive. Keeping clear but loose goals gives you permission to react to new circumstances and opportunities without feeling like you’re failing.

Setting ongoing goals

Ongoing goals speak to your writing mentality. They help set the tone for how and when you write, and what influences your work. Some ongoing goals might be:

Write it down

Write down your goals, whether in a notebook, on a vision board, on your blog, or on a calendar. Recording your goals cements them in your consciousness and makes them an active part of how you schedule your life.


Goals are great, but accountability is what helps you keep them. Check in with friends periodically to let them know how your goals are going. Do some of your flexible goals need to shift? Have your ongoing goals provided fodder for fresh goals? Are you meeting your fixed deadlines? You can even find support right here at the Loft with the new Productivity and Accountability Group where you can celebrate and commiserate with fellow writers.

What are some of your goals for the coming year?

aph.jpegAllison has happily made books her life’s work. She spent four years marketing and publicizing academic titles at The MIT Press before she went to work for Wellesley Books as a children’s bookseller and event coordinator. She organized, hosted, and promoted over 150 events during her tenure, ranging in size from intimate workshops and lunches to multi-media events with over 700 attendees. She is now living her dream: putting her B.A. in Creative Writing to good use as a novelist and book event coach. She enjoys science fiction, cupcakes, and a hot cup of tea. http://events.pottern.com. To learn more about engaging with your community bookstore or develop your own successful event and marketing plan, check out the talks and workshops Allison is leading.

If you have marketing goals to tackle this year, Allison is teaching an introductory marketing-for-writers seminar at Grub Street on Feb. 3rd and will also be giving a session on parenting/writing balance at their Muse & the Marketplace Conference in April. For more info about her sessions and marketing services, you can visit her website at http://events.pottern.com

“I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L. Sanchez: A Discussion Guide for Writers

discussion questions prepared by Kelly Carey

Erika L. Sanchez’s novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a first-person narrative of a teenage girl struggling with her sister’s death, her parents’ disapproval, and ultimately with depression and attempted suicide. By studying Sanchez’s novel, writers can explore managing a depressed and potentially unlikeable main character, the balance of dialogue to narrative text, and the tools writers use to create tone in their novels. Continue reading

Send Yourself A Letter

by Kelly Carey

(Note: a version of this article appeared previously on Kelly’s blog, 24 Carrot Writing).

Give your writing self the gift of encouragement.

This summer, I took a class at The Writers’ Loft taught by Charlesbridge editor Karen Boss. At the end of class, Karen asked us to write ourselves letters. The letters were an opportunity to chat about our writing hopes, dreams, and goals. Karen collected the letters and tucked them away. Five months later my letter appeared in my mailbox, and it was the most wonderful gift. Continue reading

Full Speed Ahead—Write Faster, Write More!

by Dave Pasquantonio

Sometimes the words come easily—and sometimes they don’t. We writers know exactly what it feels like to want to write more, to want to write faster, but the muse is not cooperating.

But we can’t always blame the muse. There are actions we writers can take to make the words flow faster.

Anna Staniszewski led a recent craft chat at The Writers’ Loft, “Write Faster—Write More!” She gave the enthusiastic attendees exactly what they were looking for—methods and insights to help us get those words out. Continue reading

Under the Skylight: Finding the Core of Your Story

by Erin Dionne

My most recent post was about writing the best story you possibly can. This one deals with another element of the revision process that I find really important: finding—and using—the “core” of your story to shape your revision.

What is the core?

The core of your story is its heart. It’s the one thing that holds your book together and provides your unique perspective on the world. Without it, your book would fall apart. Continue reading