Saturday, September 15, 2007

Notes from "Grant Writing for Writers" with Michel Basilières

For both professional and emerging writers, a step-by step walk through of how to prepare your application for literature grants. I will guide you through the process, showing you how to avoid the most common mistakes, You’ll learn what jurors want to see, and what will make them reject an application on sight. We will cover all levels of Government funding (municipal, provincial and government councils) and by the end of the workshop, you will understand what happens to your application once it leaves your hands until the letters of acceptance are mailed out.

Preparing your application:

  1. read the Guidelines to make sure you’re eligible, and that you’re applying for the right program. There are a lot of different programs. If you’re in doubt, telephone the council to ask.
  2. read the form thoroughly. Familiarizing yourself with the form before you take up your pen will go a long way to making it less mysterious.
  3. fill out the form, by hand, preferably in black ink (blue or other colours will not copy or scan properly). Most councils now provide forms on their website which you can fill out on your computer.
  4. fill out every portion of the form, write legibly, and make sure you’re giving the information requested. If you think something doesn’t make sense or you don’t understand what they want, telephone them and ask.
  5. prepare your manuscript: make sure you read the guidelines to see what format they require. Usually this corresponds to standard manuscript format, but not always. Follow their guidelines, and when in doubt, telephone the council to ask. Set your manuscript aside for several days, and/or ask someone to proofread it for you.
  6. make all the required photocopies of the form, your resume, list of publications and your manuscript. The Council will not do this if you forget or neglect it.
  7. mail or deliver your application before the deadline. Avoid feeling rushed or panicked.
Things to remember about the grant process:

Know your deadlines: there are no extensions or exceptions. Even for famous people. Even if you go in person. Don’t expect them to keep the office open after working hours while you sit there and fill out the forms. They will not make photocopies for you.

Make sure you meet the eligibility requirements: if you don’t you’re wasting your own time, and the council’s, too. This looks bad now, and in the future. There’s no fudging this. You either have the required credits, or not. If you don’t, wait until you do and then apply.
Be realistic about your level of standing: if you are an emerging writer, apply in the emerging writer category. Yes, your work may be as good as anyone’s, and the grants are smaller. But if you apply in a category for which you don’t meet the requirements, you’ll be disqualified. Also, once you apply at mid-career or senior levels, you can’t go back. And the higher you go, the stiffer the competition.

Start early: waiting until the last minute means making mistakes. Make sure you’ve collected all your material early and that you’ve got enough time to do the job.

Ask questions: if you’re unsure how to interpret guidelines, telephone the council. they are always helpful and prompt. if you do this one or two weeks ahead of the deadline, you’ll get all the attention you need.

Make your support material scrupulously professional: after all, it’s your work that gets the grant. And you’re competing with the best. Don’t sabotage your chances by assuming the jurors will ignore shoddy packaging. Every jury has to struggle with eliminating candidates they really want to fund. This means they are looking for a reason to cut the list down. Poor presentation is a valid reason.

Have someone look over your completed application, even if it’s your mother: a second set of eyes often catches errors or typos that will be invisible to you. Or, at the very least, set your completed application aside for as long as you can: at least for a few days. You’ll catch some errors when you come back to it. Make sure you correct them.

Making contact: Once your application is in forget it. Live your life. Keep writing. don’t make follow-up calls. You won’t be told if they’ve received your application, if the jury has met yet, who is on the jury, whether you received a grant or not, or even when anything at all might happen. If the funding body needs to contact you for some reason, they will. If you’ve been approved for a grant, they’ll mail you the cheque.

Why does it take so long? Often the delay between the deadline and the announcement of results seems enormous. Typically, it’s between 4 and six months. This seems like a long time to wait, but if you’ve had any experience writing professionally – for magazines, book publishers, radio or television – you’ll know it’s not uncommon. Think of how long things take in other areas of your life: in school, at work (especially in large organizations or institutions), even driving through town. The simple fact is, everything takes longer than it should. And managing applications, juries and government procedures is a big job. Consider:
  • the sheer volume of submissions.
  • the administrative work. Once the deadline has passed, each submission is opened and checked: is it complete, or is a piece missing? Is the author eligible? Then, all the information must be entered into the Council’s database: your name and contact info, the project name, the amount requested, the time period covered by the grant, etc. This has to be done separately for each submission.
  • once the office work is done, the submissions have to be separated into packages, one set for each member of the jury and one set for the council archives.
  • the jury must be selected. The Program Officer maintains a database of potential jurors. Each jury must represent a variety of values. Members are recruited from different geographical locations, different cultural communities, and different artistic sensibilities. Councils are mandated by policy to create juries as diverse as our Canadian Mosaic. It’s not easy.
  • once potential jurors are selected, they are asked to participate. Often candidates have valid reasons for not accepting; timing conflicts, conflicts of interest (they may be applying for a grant in the very same competition!), or personal reasons such as family or health. When candidates refuse, they must be replaced, and the cycle starts again. Also, Councils must avoid using the same jurors time and time again.
  • the actual adjudication must be coordinated between all jury members and Council Staff. This means getting six to eight busy people in the same room at the same time. Some jurors have to travel from out of town, adding extra time to the process.
  • after the jury has made it’s decisions, there’s more administrative work to do. The minutes must be recorded, the results tabulated, the grants officially approved by the Board of Directors Then, the letters to each applicant (successful or not) must be written and signed, the cheques cut, press releases written, and web sites updated. These last must all be ready for release on the same day.
  • as all this progresses, the Council staff are juggling several competitions in different areas at once. One competition may just be starting as another finishes, and a third will overlap them both. Councils give money not just to individuals, but to publishers, magazines and organizations. All these go through a similarly complicated process, out of the same department.
  • and, every arts council is understaffed. The miracle is how good a record all the councils have of getting their work done on time.
What if you don't receive a grant? Don’t call to complain. Council staff cannot help you. Bothering the council staff with your anger will only make you look bad, and it won’t help you in the future. It won’t hurt your chances, either, because decisions are made by the juries, not the council staff. And there is no appeal. If you disagree with the process, take it up with your MP.

Who is the jury? Juries are composed of professional writers, editors, publishers, and others in the field. Jurors are chosen for their experience, competence and generosity. Jurors have almost always been applicants themselves, and usually have been both successful and unsuccessful. This means they understand the position of the applicants and are sympathetic. Generosity is sometimes hard to define, but essentially jurors are expected to look favourably on the process, be interested in supporting others, and be team players. No one wants a disagreeable, unfriendly person holding up the process or sabotaging anyone’s chances. The names of the jury will be kept confidential until the release of the competition results. Why? So they can make their best judgements without interference or conflict of interest. Sometimes jurors are called upon to judge the work of people they know personally. This can be awkward for everyone unless it’s done in camera. Afterwards, the names of jury members are announced in the press release, and usually available on the web site. Knowing someone personally does not necessarily put a juror in conflict of interest. Jurors are expected to (and do) declare any potential conflict. When this happens, said juror retires from the process and the remaining jurors decide on that particular application.

What do Jurors want to see?
  • Professional presentation: jurors want to see that you know how to conduct yourself and present your material. What you want to do (is it poetry, short stores, or a novel? Memoir? Essay?)
  • Who you are: jurors want to see that you’ve spent some time pursuing your career and you’ve taken opportunities. Did you study writing? Have you published, and where? How often? Fiction, poetry, or both? Plays? Screenplays? Are you responsible? Jurors want to know that if they grant you funding, you’ll follow through. This means letting them know about past projects, even ones not directly related to writing. For instance, do you have a degree? Have you ever been in charge of a project that was completed and delivered?
  • Your work. Jurors want to see that you can write. Well, duh. But think about it. You have to make sure jurors can read your submission (this is the same as being professional). Use standard manuscript format, a normal, readable typeface and most importantly eliminate any mistakes from your manuscript. This means spelling, grammar, correct word usage (a lot of people fall down here) and typos. Make it as clean as possible. Make it better than perfect.
What do jurors hate to see? Coloured paper, odd-sized paper, unusual, hard-to read fonts, binders of any kind, staples, covers with pictures, text printed sideways on the page, your life story, your opinion of your own (or anyone else’s) work, pages without numbers and titles.


Michel Basilières is the author of Black Bird, which won the 2004 Books in Canada First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He has received grants from each of the Toronto, Ontario and Canada councils multiple times, and has served on juries for the Ontario Arts Council. He reviews books for the Globe & Mail and the Toronto Star, has written two dramas for CBC Radio, and is teaching writing this fall at Humber College.

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