Kelly Coon at Totem Books Recap

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Banner from the U of M Flint English Department Facebook Event Page

Last Wednesday, in the final leg of her debut tour, Kelly Coon came to Totem Books in Flint to talk about Gravemaidens! Last Wednesday, I ALSO went to Totem Books because I wanted to hear Kell talk about her book. And also because I’m part of her Skeleton Crew. Moral support is what we do! 💙

For those of you who don’t know, Kell published her debut this year, Gravemaidens, a story about a girl healer who goes to extraordinary lengths to save her sister from death in the tomb of a deceased king, even if that death looks to be an honor on the surface. It hit shelves in late October, and it’s looking like we’ll know the title of Book 2 in early 2020 (though Kell has shared a little bit of teaser info, and she says there’s an army of scorpion ladies, if you want a little more of a hint before we get anything else).

As for Kell herself, she’s from Flint, and was at Totem Books with Dr. Blummer, a U of M Flint professor who was once Kell’s prof! Since she was a kid, Kell has been writing stories (it started with reworking Bible stories to feature more women and more blood, which she got in some trouble for), and she’s written three books before Gravemaidens, plus another three after. One of those following Gravemaidens is the sequel, and the other two are on the hush hush side. She did tease that one of them is The Scarlet Letter meets She-Ra, though, so I already know that I’m 100% on board with that. All it takes is a She-Ra comp to have me all in!

Anyways, Kell started off the event chatting with Dr. Blummer about the journey to publication. She’d been a good writer before, but with a weak sense of how to craft a novel, and her first three books didn’t sell in part because of that. But she said she had the opportunity to pick up all kinds of craft books and visit a bunch of conferences to surround herself with other writers and their advice, and after that, she put her nose back to the grindstone with Gravemaidens! There were still 106 rejections along the way, but all her hard work paid off, and she ended up with more full manuscript requests from agents, not to mention, well, an agent!

Kell also talked about her writing process, both during the chat with Dr. Blummer and while answering questions. Typically, she starts with research before forming an outline, most of this on notecards, and after that, it’s a fast draft in Scrivener followed by a sloooooow edit, and then sharing in Word. This means she wrote the Gravemaidens sequel in 36 days, and her option book in 42! There’s still editing ahead, of course, but she’s definitely a fast drafter. This is helped by using (my person favorite; we bonded over this lol), which helps SO MUCH with laying out how many words a day are necessary, and adjusting required word counts to shifting schedules, especially schedules that don’t demand writing every single day.

She also beats writer’s block using skeleton drafts, where she describes the bare bones of a scene to get a better sense of it, then fills it in or comes back later when she’s had a chance to mull it over. When that fails, she also just jumps ahead to the scene she really wants to write, the “stabby-stabby scene,” as it happens often enough.

And is there a guarantee that all of it will end up in the final book? Definitely not. Kell had to cut 20k of the Boatman’s POV during Gravemaidens revisions even though she liked it, and that’s definitely just a part of how publishing goes.

During the Q&A portion of the night, Kell had some great answers about herself, her writing, and advice for the folks in the audience. I actually remembered to bring a notebook this time (unlike the Fierce Reads event in October, WHOOPS), so I have quite a few little tidbits from that segment!

For one, Kell was asked the eternal question: what’s your Hogwarts house? And she says she’s 100% a Ravenclaw, always trying to learn something new.

But folks also asked her about the process of writing Gravemaidens, and the advice she would have for other writers, or even her younger self. To her younger self, she said, “You’re not as good as you think you are. Learn.” (Dr. Blummer chimed in that even if he had advice for his younger self, his younger self would probably just say “Shut up, old man,” and keep on doing his thing.)

To other writers, though, Kell recommended two big things: learn your plot structure (she recommends checking out K.M. Weiland for this!), and ask for help! As a mom trying to write, and also as a human being, she’s found that writing her books has been very much a group effort, even if she’s the only one putting words on the page. She asks for help with her kids and her house and for dealing with the emotional devastation of a new edit letter coming in, and it makes all the difference in the world not to be working on so much alone.

She was also asked which authors she would recommend or love to meet, and with Leigh Bardugo at the top of the list, she also recommended Toni Morrison, Lillian Clark, Sabaa Tahir, Marie Lu, and Justin Reynolds!

Really, it was awesome to hear Kell explain how her publishing journey has unfurled, and to hear her answers to the fantastic audience questions. But best of all (at least for me, haha) was our Skeleton Crew bonding time! I actually arrived early to chat with Kell and gift her a booksleeve inspired by Gravemaidens, and we had a ton of fun finally getting to meet in person after months of promoing Gravemaidens and goofing off in the group chat.

Plus, are we not the cutest? 😇

So, if you haven’t read Gravemaidens yet, hopefully this will convince you that you should. Why not take a chance on this book about sisters defying death, and get caught up before we get the big news about Book 2? Plus, if you’ve already read it, keep an eye on the Book Shimmy Awards (or vote, because I think there’s a narrow window left at the time this post publishes), because Gravemaidens is up for best audiobook!

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