Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Elizabeth Creith
The purpose of a fiction grant is to fund the completion of a work; that is, the grant pays your expenses so that for a month or six, or more, you can work on your writing without wondering how to pay the phone bill.
In the last year I've had three fiction grants. The first time I thought of applying for a grant, I broke out in a sweat. What if I did it wrong? For a first-timer, writing a grant application can sound intimidating. Where do you start? Where do you look? What do you do?
First, breathe. Bear in mind that these institutions want to fund writers. In fact, they often have a mandate to distribute a certain amount of money to writers. And guess what? The money isn't for how well you can fill out an application -- it's for how well you write!
Who gives out these grants, anyway?
Arts councils, universities, private foundations and authors' associations (such as PEN and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) are all sources of grants. Some are grants for artists or writers in financial distress due to illness or emergency, but many are to fund specific projects, intended to pay a writer's normal living expenses while she finishes her work.
Many granting organizations state specifically that the money is not for the purchase of equipment. Grant funds can usually be used for living expenses, travel and research associated with the project, and printing and postage costs.
Eligibility is more likely to revolve around residency and work than financial need. Arts councils fund only artists residing within their province, state, region or country, and also require proof of professionalism.
The granting institutions want to know they're funding someone who's likely to produce good work. They need to see a track record. The Ontario Arts Council requires a writer to have published a minimum of one book or three paid essays, poems or stories. The Isherwood Foundation wants applicants to have published one novel or collection of short stories. The Minnesota State Arts Board requires that the applicant be a professional artist.
There are a few grants for unpublished writers. In most cases, however, without something to prove you're a serious working writer, you're not likely to be eligible.
Create a track record with short fiction, poetry, even newspaper articles. Don't give your work away -- for many granting agencies, payment is the thing, and the amount of payment less important. Radio work, online publications, that local gossip piece for your small-town paper -- if you place it, get paid. Depending on the grant, you may not even have to have sold fiction. Got your track record? Then you're ready to go.
Here's how to prepare an entry that gives you your best chance. Take it one step at a time, and you can do it. Breathe.
1 - Find a grant that fits your writing.
There are writing grants, and there are specialized writing grants. Are you writing fiction or poetry, young adult or fantasy or mainstream? You have a better chance if you can narrow your field. First, you'll be competing in a smaller group. Second, when all the entries are the same genre, the judges won't be trying to decide whether to fund the sex-and-shopping novel or the sword-and-sorcery one. There are grants solely for women as well.
How do you find grants?
2 - Know your grant: visit the website and read the requirements.
When you've found a grant -- or two, or six -- that you are eligible for, you need to read everything you can find out about it. This is a no-brainer and an absolute must.
Some things to look for are these: is the submission date a received-by date or a postmarked-by date? Will the granting body accept applications by email? How will you know your application has been received? Do they want a publishing history -- that is, a list of what you've published, when and where? (Almost certainly!)
Do they want to see some of your work? How much? Ten pages? A sample chapter and synopsis? The whole manuscript? How many copies? If you don't get funding, can you re-apply with the same work to a later deadline? (Usually, yes.) Do they want identifying information on the work, or not? (You can be disqualified if they don't, and you leave your name on the piece somewhere.)
Don't skimp on reading time or skip over anything. Make notes. I recommend a notebook with a page per grant so you can compare easily without skipping among websites. Mark deadlines on your calendar.
3 - Give yourself time.
A last-minute entry is probably not your best work, unless you've been polishing for several months. I'd suggest starting work on your support materials at least one month ahead of the deadline. If you haven't got a month, perhaps you need to wait until next year, or find another grant with a longer deadline. Don't waste time, paper, postage and stress for anything but your best.
4 - Prepare your support materials.
This is the big step, the one that's going to take the most time.
Support materials can include any or all of: a publishing history, an artist's statement, a synopsis of the novel and pages from the work, or the complete work itself.
Your publishing history is simply the list of what you've published (and been paid for), where and when. Make sure it's up to date. I change mine every time I publish something. Don't worry if the first one looks sparse; keep working on it.
An artist's statement tells the granting institution about your concerns and work as an artist. This is where you tell them about your major influences (but briefly) and what direction you want to take with your work. Tell them what themes and motifs recur in your writing, and why. For example, part of my artist's statement says "A recurring theme in my work is the transformation of human to animal and back, and the blurring of the lines between human and animal."
The synopsis is just that -- a brief retelling of the story. It usually take two or three days to write a good synopsis. Instead of "blow-by-blow", think "back-cover blurb", something to make people want to read the work. Here's a line from the synopsis for my novel-in-progress "Under the Skin," whose hero can take either human or dog form. "Now he's locked in the pound, nine hours from home with no memory of how he got there. And he's due to be neutered Thursday."
5 - Send sample pages to wow the judges
You will probably be asked to send only a portion of the work you want funded. Make it the very best part, the one that will keep them turning pages. Don't worry about showing only a portion of the plot. The judges may not care whodunnit or whether the guy gets the girl in the end, but they will want to know you can write. That's what you want to show them.
Start by choosing what you think is the best section of the work. Find some people whose opinion and honesty you trust, and ask them to read it and comment. This is not a time for warm, fuzzy feedback. If your opening paragraph is boring, you need to know. (If you can get them to help with your synopsis, all the better!)
Often several members of my writing group apply for the same grant. When that happens, we hold "application binges." We all read each other's pages, then meet for an afternoon to make suggestions. I've always made improvements to my entry after one of these critique sessions, and I wouldn't think of making a grant application without one.
Judges often read entries on a tight deadline, or in the time around their full-time work. One told me that he had over a hundred entries to look at, at forty pages per entry, and less than six weeks to read them. If a writer didn't grab his attention early on, he didn't finish the entry. You must grab the juror's attention in the first two pages, and preferably on page one. If one of your readers says something doesn't work, ask for the reasons, and listen to them. Then rewrite, trim, rearrange, or perhaps pick a whole other section and start again. See Step 3.
It's not cheating to ask for this help; if you publish a novel, you'll be working with an editor who'll have suggestions to make, too. Thoughtful, critical readers can vastly improve your application, and your chances.
Before you mail your entry, double-check the rules and make sure you've complied. I once was actually on the point of mailing my entry when I wondered if I'd left my name on the cover sheet. I ripped open the envelope to check. I had. Five minutes and five new cover sheets (and a fresh envelope) later, I sent in my entry. If I hadn't checked, I'd have been disqualified.
6 - Finally, if at first you don't succeed, hit them again.
The bad news is that there are more excellent entries than there is money to fund them.
But take heart; most grants allow people who miss the first time -- or second, or sixth -- to apply again. I applied five times for grants before I got one, and four of those applications were the same novel, the same pages. One writer I know applied eleven times before he got a grant. The second application is a lot easier.
The good news is that winners usually can't re-apply for a stated time, which gives other applicants a better shot. Judges and juries may also change between deadlines, and your work may be more to the taste of another jury. Perhaps on a new jury, your entry will be the one that someone will fight tooth-and-nail to fund. They can't fund it if it's not in there.
There's more good news. Although published writers are also applying for those same grants, a less-experienced writer can win. I've yet to publish a novel, but I won a grant when some experienced published writers did not. The quality of the submission told. If I can do it, you can do it.
And there's still more good news -- there are lots of grants. Keep looking, because you won't find everything the first time around.
Yes, it's time, paper, postage and stress, but if you really have a good story, it's worth trying, and trying multiple times. If you succeed, you'll be paid to write your novel. And you'll still have the novel to sell.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Elizabeth Creith lives and writes in Wharncliffe, Northern Ontario. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry has appeared in over sixty online and print publications. She is currently working on a novel. Her memoir Shepherd in Residence was published by Scrivener Press.