KEYNOTE: Adopting a Growth Mentality
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Sue Stanley: This is Sue Stanley from the WriteOnCon team. I’m very excited to speak to YA author Kelly Coon today about adopting a growth mindset. Welcome, Kelly.
Kelly Coon: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Sue Stanley: For those of you who may not know, Kelly Coon is the author of the book Gravemaidens coming out in December of 2019 from Delacorte Press/Random House, and its sequel, which is scheduled to come out in 2020. Kelly, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Kelly Coon: Yes, I’d love to. I am obviously a young adult author, fantasy author, which still seems surreal that I even get to say that. Former English teacher, high school English teacher, and I’m currently an editor for a company called Blue Ocean Brain. And it’s interesting because I learned so much in my current job and one of the things that I’ve learned a lot about is growth mindset. So, I use what I kind of learn in my day job and apply it to my writing. Which is, I mean just kind of a spectacular win-win situation.
Sue Stanley: That’s fantastic. So can you tell us, for people who don’t know what a growth mindset is, what does it mean to have a growth mindset?
Kelly Coon: Yeah, so okay. So, a growth mindset, it was first really kind of coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, who is a psychologist and a professor at Stanford. And she used to be an elementary teacher. And more than 30 years ago, she and her colleagues were really interested in student growth and learning. And they discovered that some students bounce back from failure and other students don’t. And they really, they studied thousands of students to kind of see what is it that makes some students bounce back and some don’t. And they found that there are two mindsets that people generally tend to have.
One is a fixed mindset, and one is a growth mindset. And fixed mindset individuals, they kind of believe everything’s black and white. You either have it or you don’t. In the writing world, it’s people who say, hey, I’m just a fabulous writer. Or I’m not a great writer. And some people just have this natural talent. Some people don’t. And they think, fixed mindset people, tend to view critique and feedback as like, personal attacks. They also are hostile when it comes to critique. Sometimes, because they believe that it said, it kind of showcases a bad part of their character. And they also, they think having to work hard as a sign of having limited ability is absolutely not true.
But those who have a growth mindset really believe they can improve and learn through effort and that failure is opportunity. And I think nothing is really more relevant to a writer than having a growth mindset, because it is inevitable that you will fail. And how you bounce back from that really can control what your destiny is almost in the publishing world.
Sue Stanley: That makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense. So, for, just right up the front, and we will include resources at the end of this podcast if people want to learn more about what it means to have a growth mentality or a fixed mentality. Or even there are assessments I know available online. Can you make a recommendation for where the best place to find information?
Kelly Coon: Yes, I would, and I have. After I got into the business of being an editor with this company, I first was introduced to growth mindset, and I read Dr. Dweck’s book, which is called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and that really kind of changed my perspective on a lot of things. And, but if you just want like, kind of a quickie intro, you could go to YouTube and look up John Spencer’s Growth Mindset video. And he does a really good, just short and sweet. I think it’s like three minutes, analysis of what it really means. And it gives you, you know, pictures and stuff. That makes it easy to understand.
Sue Stanley: Fantastic. Thank you for sharing that. Okay, so, what I would like to really focus on today is how having a growth mindset affects being an author. And your response as a writer who is trying to publish, or has published, or is even at the very beginning of trying to write their first book. When did you start applying a growth mindset to your life as a writer?
Kelly Coon: Well, it took a shockingly long time. After it took, after really getting knocked down a million times did I kind of figure it out. So, I used to be incredibly arrogant about my writing. And I was a 4.0 student in high school. I was valedictorian, and I was 4.0 undergrad and grad school top of my class. I wrote A plus essays and A plus stories. So really, I truly believed that my writing was a talent that was untouchable. I never really got critical feedback. I wasn’t, and I, so therefore, I really wasn’t analytical or critical about myself. I rarely wrote more than one draft. My professors told me I was gonna be published. I believed them.
And so, and I had kind of been flying by the seat of my pants, and I was doing alright, so I figured that’s all I needed. So, I went to college. I went to grad school. Got my degree in secondary ed, and I was like, I’m gonna slap together a novel. Obviously, it’ll be easy for someone with my inestimable talent. So, I did. I wrote a very terrible novel, which I assumed was fantastic, and I started querying, and I went out again and again and I was persistent. Growth mentality doesn’t have anything to do with persistence, because I was the most persistent on the, person on the planet. I wrote the same. I wrote a query. I sent it out. I got rejected. I said, ah, well that person has no idea what they’re doing. I wrote the same query. I sent it out again. Didn’t change my book at all. Didn’t change my query. Didn’t change my synopsis. Sent it out. And I did this repeatedly. I was nothing if not optimistic.
And really not until I wrote three complete novels, I went to a couple of conferences, and did I really start to even begin to understand that I did not have it all together. I, as much as I dread in my life, as much as I had succeeded as a writer previously, I wasn’t a novelist. I could not get by on whatever intrinsic talent I believed that I had alone. So, after I don’t know, I might have had rejections from agents in the upper 90s at that point, more than 90 rejections I would say. Really, at that point, I said, you know what? I am doing the same things over and over again, and it’s not getting me anywhere. Perhaps I should take a look at craft and figure out what I am doing.
So I did. I was like, I’m gonna take six months and I’m going to immerse myself in craft. So I bought some books. I went to K.M. Weiland’s website, which for whatever reason is organized really perfectly for someone like me who’s very linear and analytical. And I took her website. And I studied it like this good student that I was. I took it like a college course. I quizzed myself. I took notes. I took her stuff, and I synthesized it into the work I was doing. And I wrote the first draft of Gravemaidens. I sent it, after that, I sent it out to 11 agents. I got 11 full requests and two offers. So, once I, it took me understanding that I was not everything I thought I was. I needed to learn. And learn from people who knew how to do it did I ever make really any kind of headway. So that was my journey.
Sue Stanley: What was the, was there a thing, like something that someone said to you that caused you to step back and say, okay I need to reevaluate how I’m doing this or was it just the process?
Kelly Coon: Well, part of it was the process, but one of the things was, and I actually don’t even remember her name, which is sad, but I went to the New York Pitch Conference in 2015, and I had a book. And I thought it was spectacular. It was the third one I’d written. And I took it with me. And I was pitching. And everyone I pitched said, you know what you’re a good writer. And I’m like, you know, of course I am. This is what I believed all along. And someone, gosh I wish I could remember her name. I have it somewhere. Oh, I know, it’s Paula Munier I believe. I have to look that up. Anyway, she said to me, you’re a good writer, but guess what, there are millions of good writers. Your thesis is flawed. And your plot structure is a mess.
So, what she said to me, because I showed her my synopsis, and I said wow, I think getting that feedback face to face, in no uncertain terms, cut and dried, was kind of the push I needed. I think email querying for me was very, I don’t know, I was, I had removed myself from it a little bit. Rejections hurt of course, but I assumed the rejection came from a misunderstanding on their part. But when she looked me in my eyes and said you know, hey, you are not everything you think you are. Then it made me take stock of myself, and it was really after that that I said I need to scrap this novel and rewrite it. And my brother looked at me and said, how in the world are you gonna write your fourth novel without having any success so far? And I was like, you know what? I can figure it out. And, but before I wrote it, I went and I learned. Because I was like I gotta figure something out.
Sue Stanley: So you took that rejection as an opportunity. Have you, have you ever worked with a critique partner or a critique group? Have you, have you taken parts of your work to be evaluated that way?
Kelly Coon: Absolutely. Now I have. Once I, once I found the, first of all I didn’t know where to look when I was first querying. I wasn’t on Twitter. I did not really, I went to a RWA meetings in my area, but they were all outside of my genre. I really was new to the writing world and didn’t even understand where to look to find a critique partner. I absolutely have critique partners now, because I understand the value of having other people look at your work. And part of it, before that I think, it was a matter of hey, nobody can really give me any kind of good feedback, because I had never had the experience truly outside of maybe a couple of times in college. And I got my undergrad and creative writing. And people really were just very complimentary. And not very helpful. So, I’d never really had gotten the opportunity of someone taking a hard look and saying this is garbage work. Let’s figure this out. My first real experience with that was with my agent when, who accepted me, when I sent her my book. I assumed we’d go immediately out on submission, and she said, um, actually you have some work to do. And not really until she showed me that did I get someone, I knew I needed work to do, but not until I until she showed me that did I know how much I needed to do and how valuable a critique partner can be.
Sue Stanley: So, out of curiosity — oops sorry, sorry I didn’t mean to step on you.
Kelly Coon: Oh, you didn’t.
Sue Stanley: Okay good. For you, when your agent gave you the feedback that you needed, that you had work to do. Where did you go to get that information? Did your agent send it to an editor, or did you find a critique partner on your own?
Kelly Coon: She is an editorial agent. She her name is Kari Sutherland. She used to be in editor at Harper Teen, and I mean, she was kind of the genius who acquired Red Queen and Pretty Little Liars, so she knew what she was talking about. So, she’s an editorial agent, and she gave me the first round of developmental edits just as if I got them from my current editor at Delacorte.
Sue Stanley: When, when you got those edits were you able to, so going back to the, the idea of having a growth mentality versus a fixed mentality. In your earlier iterations as an author, your first couple of novels, the idea of that, having that growth mentality, or basically having a fixed mentality would have told you, you’re wrong — I have to walk away. What do you think changed from your point of view, to allow you to adjust? Because I think for a lot of writers it’s very difficult. We all, I think, we all as writers, come in with a certain amount of confidence and belief in our ability, but to step back and say okay, I have to listen to what these people are telling me. And I have to change, not they need to change because this is brilliant. What helped you to get from one place to the other?
Kelly Coon: I think my experience with rejection, I, by the time, by the time I was all said and done, I was rejected 106 times by agents. I kept track, because I’m a very big nerd. I had a spreadsheet of all my agents I had queried, and bla bla so I knew. And at that point, I was in a growth mentality, growth mindset. I was saying to myself whatever she tells me to do, I am going to do. I trusted her implicitly. The conversations we’d had on the phone prior to me getting my edit, I knew she knew what she was talking about, and I knew that all the stuff that I had ever done in the past wasn’t getting me where I wanted to be. So, I had to trust her. And for whatever reason, I think it was, we have a really good connection. And I know her experience, and she really inspired me I think to trust her. And when she said that to me, I said, oh, this is brilliant. You were smart. I am not. I’m going to learn from you. And I did exactly what she told me to do.
I mean, she doesn’t really tell me what to do, but she gives me a lot of great suggestions and almost everything that she said, I’d say 99% of what she has sent me, I have been like yes. As a matter of fact, that’s a great idea. So, I think it was my experience with rejection, and also, I don’t know, maybe a little bit of writing maturity. I had been at it for ten years. I had spent a decade on and off not being successful, and for whatever reason not changing very much, so I was like I have to trust somebody, because what I’ve done isn’t working. And you know I’m an older YA author, so I think that, you know, my experience with the world in general might help me more than it would have for sure when I was 21. I didn’t, I did not have the maturity that I see in some of the younger young adult authors who are writing with me. I would definitely not have been as successful as they are, because I didn’t have maturity to learn like I know that some of them do.
Sue Stanley: So, that, that’s I think a key to understanding the value of having a growth mindset as opposed to having a fixed mindset. In that, that kind of fixed mindset of perfectionism, where if I take feedback then I failed, if someone tells me that it’s not good enough, then I have to throw it away. I can’t revise it. So, how did you overcome your, once you knew that you had to, there’s that moment where it’s like, okay, this is not working, and I have to change. It’s me that has to change, not the people that are reading my work. The steps that you took, were, it sounds like you took a kind of a very analytical approach. I’m gonna go to this, to the website I think you said, K.M. Weiland.
Kelly Coon: Yes.
Sue Stanley: And I’m gonna learn from this. What kinds of places do you think, that obviously would be something that anyone could do is go and study that? Are there other places where, outside of a really great developmental agent, which not every author has at this point in their career, where, what other places do you suggest that people can go to get the help and support that they need to get feedback. To apply that feedback and to understand the value of doing that?
Kelly Coon: Sure. Well, first I think that you have to be gentle with yourself. I have always been supremely difficult, very hard on myself. And it has given me a little bit of success. It’s pushed me to be excellent. But it also has caused me to kind of beat myself up a little bit. And if I, I was really afraid of failure. I always was afraid of failure, so I, first you have to be gentle with yourself and forgive yourself for not knowing everything. If you, some people are the opposite of who I am, but I think for many writers, we have to be ambitious in order to be in this field. So, a lot of us can’t, we kick our own selves when we are down. And we are so afraid of failure that sometimes we, growing seems like what you had brought it before, that you are failing if you are growing. Which is counter-intuitive. But it’s true. It’s sometimes how we feel. And so that was the first thing. If and if you want two things that really helped me learn, I read Donald Maass [The] Emotional Craft of Fiction. That was something that I really found to be, I don’t know inspirational to me. I, like I said, I am a giant nerd at heart, so learning all of these people’s techniques has really kind of inspired me to be better than I am. John Truby The Anatomy of Story is excellent. And it’s very, it’s also very linear, so it kind of takes you through plot structure step by step, which is for someone like me who, I mean, I break down my books that I’ve written in, by percentages so that I know exactly where my midpoint is. So this, the way he sets things up really, I mean that really works well for my brain.
Sue Stanley: That’s great, and I appreciate you talking about that because lots of people who, well, all of us are individuals.
Kelly Coon: Yeah.
Sue Stanley: And some people are very linear in the way they lay things out. Others are more pantsy. In other words, they write from the gut, and then they revise later. For a person who does tend to write from the gut and which I think when there are, when there are, when your personality is that you do write kind of by the seat of your pants, I sort of straddle the middle personally. There’s a lot of people that I know that do write, just, they just start writing, and they finish. And then once they’re done, then they go back, which can be messier and more difficult. It sounds like you have been able to apply the, that you could actually look at any, any manuscript and break it down in that way. So, for people who wanted to maybe change, try something different. If they do write from the seat of their pants, they are a pantser, that they could actually go learn a little bit about plot structure that you’re talking about and then review their material and go through it in that way. Do you think that that would be helpful?
Kelly Coon: Absolutely. I think anybody can benefit from knowing the structure behind the story, even if you don’t write with a plot outline. I have a great friend of mine, a great writer friend who I have learned or who I met and grown closer to during this full writing process. Who starts in the middle of the story and writes outward from both ends. That blows my mind. I’m like, how do you do that? She starts with the middle scene and for me, someone who is such a you know, I have a 10,000 word plot outline before I even start to write a word, or I cannot write it. That, that’s so amazing to me. But she said, you know she’s like, I think I might try plotting. I think I might try looking at plot structure. And for her, she kind of absorbed, had absorbed through reading how plot structure works. And for me, I did not. I have three neat novels that showed me that I was not absorbing enough plot structure to really be able to kind of set up for commercial fiction. So, yeah, I need the percentages.
Sue Stanley: That’s very interesting. I think one of the things that I’m hearing from you that also seems to apply to the idea of having a growth or working to build a growth mindset. If you are coming from a fairly fixed mindset is that you have to be, you have to recognize in yourself that you have a unique perspective on how you write and where you want your career to go, and that what’s important is to be open to the possibility.
Kelly Coon: Yes. Absolutely. My, I think my mindset before was very closed. I just assumed that I knew things that I obviously did not. And I, the differences is, that I would, I persevered, but I was persevering in the wrong line of thinking. Like you know, our brains are very malleable. So, research shows connectivity in our neurons can change with experience. So, when you practice doing something a particular way say, incorrectly writing a novel like, or writing it a way that’s not going to sell, you know, your neurons strengthen along that pathway. But if you change your techniques, it hurts because your neurons are like, are not used to that. But they will actually grow in new, you know, new neural networks will grow new connections. If I can put it as simply as possible. So, yeah, that’s all I’m gonna say on that, because otherwise I’m going straight into nerd brain, and that’s not helpful for anyone. Anyway, your brain grows, and you can learn, and it gets easier over time, but it will hurt at first, because you’re not used to it. That’s a simpler way of saying that.
Sue Stanley: Yeah, and it sounds like especially as, and your story, aside from the very successful ending.
Kelly Coon: Yes.
Sue Stanley: Is really familiar to me. And I think it is, will be to most writers. Where we have talked to people, we’ve had experience ourselves where it just, whatever we’re doing is not working, but it’s really hard to identify what it is that isn’t working and how to kind of bridge that gap. And looking, it sounds like it would be very helpful to step back and look at the way we accept feedback.
Kelly Coon: Yes.
Sue Stanley: Where we seek feedback.
Kelly Coon: Yes. And I cannot stress, you mentioned before CPs, and I cannot stress the invaluable feedback I have gotten during this process of taking Gravemaidens from this little idea in my head found after doing some research on ancient Sumer, and building it into a story, and then watching it shift and change. I’ve told everyone in my writing life I’m like, the product that will be on the shelves this December is the culmination of a lot of minds at work. It’s, you know, I had the idea, and I wrote those initial drafts, and my agent gave me so much good feedback, and we worked together to kind of bring the story out and highlight different parts that I didn’t even really fathom that should be highlighted. And then we sent it to my editor, who was so good at looking at the broad picture and understanding it’s, what the story that could be really unique. And she pulled things out of me I didn’t even know to look for. So, and then, and now I have a bunch of critique partners and beta readers in the novel 19s who are the group of debut writers. MG and YA debut writers. And I have learned so much from every single person who reads it and gives me the benefit and the beauty of their feedback. I’ve learned what, what’s working and what isn’t. And the books that I’ve read. I, this year has been a remarkable one of growth for me personally. And I only hope that I can translate it into the sequel and the future books that I might be blessed to write. I don’t know. I’m gonna try.
Sue Stanley: It sounds fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing this information with us. I think it’ll be really beneficial to people, and I encourage anyone to follow up on. We will provide a list of the resources that Kelly provided during our conversation, so that you can read as well. So, thank you very much Kelly for your time. I really appreciate it.
Kelly Coon: Thank you for having me. It was my absolute pleasure.
YA author Kelly Coon has been a high school English teacher, an ice-cream scooper, an ACT test prep book author, a cheerleader, and a wicked karaoke master, though not necessarily in that order.
Kelly adores giving female characters the chance to flex their muscles and use their brains, and wishes that all stories got the happy ending she’s living with her three sons, dashingly handsome husband, and a rescue pup who likes to stretch out on the dining room table.
Her debut YA fantasy, Gravemaidens, (Delacorte, Fall 2019) recounts a battle between two sisters: Kammani, a healer who wants to save the king so her sister isn’t buried alive to be his Netherworld queen, and Nanaea, who longs for the honor of being the king’s bride.
Stay up to date on the fierce females inspiring Kelly’s next story here.