Write It Sideways

7 Ways I’m Making the Most of a Writing Grant

Getting paid to write fiction: sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?

For me that dream is now reality—at least in the short term—because I recently received a writing grant to help me work on my collection of short stories. (Update: Since writing this post, I’ve received a second grant worth several times the amount of the first. Also, one of the stories in the collection has been accepted for publication in a future issue of Geist, a well-known Canadian arts and culture magazine!)

In the past I was only vaguely aware that writing grants existed, but I never imagined I could apply for any of them. Writing grants seemed to be reserved for only the most promising literary geniuses.

Then, a few months ago, I met up for coffee with a local writer I’d connected with online. She told me about the grants available to professional Canadian writers, and even though I didn’t think I was eligible, she said it would be worth contacting the program administrator to be sure.

So I did, not expecting anything to come of it. Turned out I did meet the requirements. And turned out I was eligible for more than one type of writing grant. And also turned out that the deadlines were rapidly approaching.

Takeaways: Don’t just assume you’re ineligible for writing grants—eligibility guidelines can be ambiguous. In this case eligibility was determined by a minimum number of publications for which a writer has received compensation. I took this to mean payment, when being paid in contributor copies of a magazine actually counted as a form of compensation. If you have any doubt whatsoever, contact the program administrator.

Applying for Writing Grants

Because I was pressed for time, the application process was harried and exhausting. Still, I knew the effort was worth it for the potential payoff. I carefully studied the program guidelines to ensure I didn’t make submission errors that would disqualify me. I ended up applying for a number of grants, one of which required 40 unpublished pages from my work-in-progress. Other grants I applied for required a 10-page writing sample and a proposal about the manuscript I want to create or work on.

I sent off about $200 worth of photocopying, envelopes and stamps, and prayed something would come of it—at least enough to cover my initial time and effort. In the end I was pleasantly surprised to receive a Writers’ Reserve grant from the Ontario Arts Council, which is intended to help me cover my living expenses while I work on my collection. It’s not a life-changing amount of money, but it does oblige me to set aside a regular block of time just to work on my fiction. What a gift!

In four months I must submit a report to the council saying how much writing I’ve been able to accomplish as a result of receiving the grant. If any of my short stories are published individually or as a collection, I’m obliged to acknowledge the OAC for their assistance. Aside from the report and acknowledgement, there are no strings attached.

Takeaways: Mark grant deadlines on your calendar months in advance. Always read the submission guidelines several times. Double check everything before you send it off (if I’d had more time, I would’ve sought feedback on my support material). Above all, send only your best work.

Go Forth and Write

My short story collection-in-progress comprises 12 stories at varying stages of development. Two of them are already published in literary magazines and the other ones are being written simultaneously with the hope that connections among them will arise organically. I hope I’ll be able to publish a number of the stories individually in well-regarded literary magazines, then later seek a publisher for the collection as a whole.

Because I’m a full-time mom of four and already have multiple writing and editing projects on the go, I tend to be a very slow writer when it comes to short fiction. If I don’t have a solid plan in place prior to starting, I know time will slip away and I’ll achieve very little.

Plan I must, so here’s a breakdown of my strategy for staying on course over the next few months:

  1. Set aside time only for the project in question. I tend to write my best fiction first thing in the morning, so I plan to work on my stories early in the day. That means not answering email or working on other writing or editing projects before breakfast. Basically, I’ve identified my most productive time for this type of writing so I can get the most out of each session.
  2. Warm up. Some mornings I wake up knowing exactly what I want to say, but often I don’t. A good bridge between writing nothing and writing like the wind is to warm up by writing in a journal. This might include freewriting, writing to a prompt, or copying straight out of someone else’s book. I also intend to revisit my Story Is a State of Mind course materials, because they’re an amazing source of inspiration, writing exercises, and reading selections.
  3. Read more. Right before bed is the only time I usually get to sit down and read. When I’m reading work similar to what I’m trying to write, I absorb the style, pacing and structure of successful stories. I’ve dug out all the collections of short fiction I have on my bookshelf and am reading a short story every night. Sometimes I even re-read the same story a few nights in a row so I can more fully internalize it.
  4. Mark up the manuscript. One strategy I use during second and subsequent drafts is to print the entire manuscript so I can read through it slowly. Reading in an off-screen format helps my brain make connections between different parts of the manuscript and really see which areas of the stories need to be fleshed out. I mark up the manuscript as I go and later incorporate the edits into my digital document.
  5. Write down every single idea. When I’m out and about the business of everyday life and I get a good idea—be it a snippet of dialogue, an interesting observation drawn from real life, or an insight into how one of my stories should end—I don’t want to risk losing it. To be sure those tidbits are still there for me to work with when I’m ready for my next writing session, I jot down a few keywords in the note app on my phone, or in a notebook, or at the bottom of my manuscript document. Not all of these ideas end up being used, but many do. Better safe than sorry!
  6. Focus on quality not quantity. When I write book-length fiction or blog posts, I tend to write long and then trim. But because every word needs to count in short fiction, I don’t want to waste time overproducing material that won’t be used. Instead I hope to focus more on crafting a paragraph or two of quality material during each session so I can really feel like I’m moving forward with these stories—as opposed to ‘splattering’ my thoughts and hoping a pattern will emerge from the mess.
  7. Rest. Ah, the weekly day of rest: an ancient practice with both physical and spiritual benefits. Lately our entire family has tried to abstain not only from work but also from screens on Sundays—challenging but beneficial. Taking a step back from my work-in-progress (and my computer) once a week gives me time to breathe, to mentally compost my stories, and to come back to it all with fresh eyes on Monday.

Takeaways: If you receive a grant, write down a plan of how you will use your time and the funds, based on your strengths, weaknesses, and personal needs. Read all the terms and conditions of the grant so you know your obligations: Must you keep receipts to show how you spent the money? Do you have to acknowledge the grant in future publications? Is a sample of your improved manuscript or a final report due at some point, and if so, what’s the deadline?

My greatest challenge in this adventure is to not get caught up in the fear that now I have to create, rather than just getting to sit down and create whenever the muse appears.

There’s a balance between trusting yourself that the stories will come to you, and sitting idle waiting for them to come to you. My overall goal is to push several of these stories closer to completion and ensure they come together as a whole. While creativity and inspiration are part of the equation, I also need to take control of the things I can.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for funding this project and to Broken Pencil Magazine for recommending me for the grant! I’m excited for all 2016 has to offer.