Your Final Responsibility to Your Story: Creative Stewardship

Today’s post is by author, editor and coach Jessica Conoley (@jaconoley).


As writers, it can feel daunting, vulnerable, and impossible when we contemplate sending our own stories out into the world. So when end stage paralysis strikes you, it’s time to step away from your identity as writer, and into your role as creative steward.

Creative stewardship fulfills our final responsibility to a story— placing it in the best position to connect with readers. Yet, it’s in this final act of stewardship that many authors find themselves paralyzed.

If you find yourself sitting atop a mountain of work you haven’t shared with anyone but your cat, I have good news for you. You can (and will) get better at this critical piece of the writing puzzle. Even better, once your stories are released into the world, they have the potential to significantly impact readers’ lives, bring you devoted fans, and earn you some cash. All those writing craft skills you’ve refined while writing the story will help in your role of creative steward.

First, detach from the role of writer with the use of personification.

You have finished your story. It is now time to acknowledge this beautiful shiny thing as an entity entirely separate from you. To help me detach, I personify a project by giving it a new, friendly, human sounding name. E.g., the book I want to sell right now, The Color Eater, became Gretel. Gretel is entirely her own being, independent of me. By detaching, we take I and me out of the equation, which eliminates the problems of self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and fear of personal rejection.

Build an extra layer of emotional resilience through a point-of-view shift.

Before personification, every thought related to your WIP was solidly in first person. I’m writing. I’m editing. I’m sending out to beta readers.

Now that you’re acting as a creative steward, it’s time to change the point of view when you think or speak about the project. Switch from first-person to third-person language and build another level of psychological distance between you and the work.

Gretel is out with beta readers. Gretel is out on sub to publishers. Gretel just made it past an editor and had her first acquisitions meeting.

This added level of disassociation diminishes the sting of rejections. It also makes it easier to speak with confidence about the project. I know Gretel has mad skills to entertain readers for hours, and I can’t wait until she has the chance.

Learn about your ideal reader through research.

There are readers out there who need this story. You don’t know who they are exactly, and you may never know how this story changed their lives—but the readers are out there waiting for an insight this story holds. It will resonate for them at just the right moment in time and unlock a new world for them. It is your duty as a creative steward to give your story the opportunity to connect with these readers. To do that you need to figure out where they hang out.

Brainstorm where your ideal reader is likely to spend their reading time. Are they the type to hang out on fanfiction forums? Subscribe to literary magazines? Read blogs? Just like in your writing, the more specific you are the greater the potential is you will connect with your reader. And time-wise the easier it is to narrow down your search.

Searchable databases are your best friend in this recon stage. Find time-saving databases at:

Use the search parameters you brainstormed to narrow down markets or agents that are the best fit for this particular story.

Protect your stewardship time with strong boundaries.

Stewardship is a whole different type of headspace than writing, so don’t try to do both at the same time. This phase of things often turns into a time suck, so I set a timer on my phone for thirty minutes and do as much stewardship work as I can during that block. Save time by creating templates with your generic thank-you-for-your-consideration email. Copy and paste away, with one sentence opening or closing personalization. I try to limit myself to one hour a day of research and/or submissions, because at this point in my career it’s more important to be generating content and writing. Strict boundaries with my time are key.

Carving out time to research, submit, review contracts, return revisions, and land our stories in the hands of the right readers means saying no to countless other requests. I find it easier to decline requests with a phrase like, “No. I’m working with Gretel at that time.” It reminds me that Gretel deserves my time and attention, and has the added benefit of cutting down on follow up questions, because prior commitments with another human are a socially acceptable reason to say no.

Let’s get back to Gretel and me for a second. When Gretel was first stepping out into the world, I brainstormed about who would want to hang out with her, i.e., SFF readers who weren’t scared of big moral questions, dug some mythical-industrial world building, and could get into the winking humor of a Studio Ghibli story—but with a gritty twist.

With those readers in mind, I researched and began submitting. Initially I introduced her directly to smaller presses. One of those smaller presses thought she was just as fantastic as I did. The press, Gretel, and I made it through an edit letter and talks with the editor. Then we started in on the contract talking part of things. I started asking questions, lots and lots of questions, to help me determine if this press was the right long-term home for Gretel. How many copies had they sold each year? What type of distribution channels did they have? Were their books placed in libraries? Ultimately I decided, the readers who needed to meet Gretel probably weren’t going to find her through that press.

And while I wanted (and still want) to see Gretel in print I knew that, sometimes the best way to advocate for our work is to say no to the wrong opportunity. It is our job to turn down the wrong deal, the wrong agent, or the wrong publisher.

After I turned down that opportunity, I went in search of a secondary advocate for Gretel. Secondary advocates include: agents, editors, and publishers. The right secondary advocate will help you position your work to the largest market possible.

Eventually, I introduced Gretel to Lucy Cleland of Kneerim & Williams. It was clear from our first call that Lucy loved Gretel as much as I do. I knew Lucy was the right advocate for us, because when she talks about The Color Eater I see it with renewed passion and enthusiasm. I worry about Gretel a lot less now, because I trust my agent to advocate for Gretel just as fiercely as I do.

Creative stewardship is all about finding the right opportunities for your story. You’ve already mastered the tools you need. Start applying your skills in a new way to give your story the chance to inspire, entertain, or change the world. There are readers out there who need it. Now go, help your story find them.

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Posted in Getting Published, Guest Post.

Jessica Conoley connects story tellers and tells stories. She writes essays, creative non-fiction, flash fiction, and fantasy. Conoley’s coaching services demystify the business aspect of writing by drawing on her former experiences running a non-profit and serving as managing editor of a literary magazine. In 2020, she expanded her offerings to include virtual workspaces and critique groups as a way to foster creative community from the safety of our own homes. Learn more at: https://jessicaconoley.com/

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