Wednesday, 25 March 2009


Readers of this blog have asked how (the hell) I managed to obtain an Arts Council grant to write a novel. My stock reply: Not easily…but I promised to elaborate some more.

I imagine, though I’m guessing, that many applicants are defeated by the application pack. I nearly was. Good job us novelists are familiar with seemingly insurmountable pursuits that require inhuman levels of stamina and obsession. Besides, after completing the pack, penning a mere novel felt, for a week or two at least, almost facile. So, yes, brace yourself for the pack; dig in; regard it as that hardest essay or job application you ever wrote, and more.

There is help out there. Each regional office has its own panel who determine whether the proposal warrants serious consideration and ultimately whether it’s successful or not. But they also have people dedicated to specific disciplines able to coach you through the application process. They can advise how you go about meeting the strict criteria, how you might demonstrate required qualities, tick all the literal and metaphorical boxes. An initial informal chat with this person will often determine whether your project is something likely to be considered for funding.

And such funding is, of course, limited. You will be competing with tens of similarly worthy projects. The good news is that, even if unsuccessful (yes, more rejection letters), you can apply again, armed with all that valuable feedback publishers and agents don’t have time to give.

What does seem a little unfair – the catch-22 – is the stronger your track record as a writer/artist/musician/athlete, the greater your chance of success. They regard this as getting the most value for their money, a sign that the project itself will succeed. So you need to shine. Time to dig out every little (but preferably big) literary achievement. You will need a glowing cv, strong extracts of your work – a whole portfolio of evidence that lets them know you are serious about your writing. But more importantly you need to show how you will manage the project and ensure its success. This is where a flare with words is advantageous.

Grants for the literary arts are especially hard to achieve, as one of the core remits is to demonstrate public benefit. You could argue that thousands of folk will get to read your magnum opus, enlightening and enriching their lives, but you’d be wasting your time. First, there’s no guarantee of publication and sales, unless you’re a McEwan or Smith (Zadie or Ali), in which case you shouldn’t be applying for a grant. Second, the public, libraries aside, have to fork out hard-earned cash to read it, so not much (free) benefit really.

I was advised by someone at the regional office that I needed to open up the writing process, making it somehow interactive. The result was this blog. Readers considering writing a novel could, hopefully, get some insight into what is an extremely exciting and daunting undertaking. Research can also be discussed at this point: how you will work with others to acquire the knowledge you need.

So what is the grant for exactly? The budget section is rather daunting and many slip up here. Surely a couple of pencils and a notepad hardly warrant a sizable grant, and besides they rarely give funds for personal items, so don’t think you’re going to get that new laptop and a week on a writers’ retreat. Well, there’s the cost of research for starters – travel, accommodation – broken down into as much detail as possible. Mostly, though, you are going to need something to live off whilst you inhabit the esoteric, twilight world of full-time scribbling, though best omit the caviar and champagne from your breakdown. Lastly, you need to show you can raise a small percentage of the funds yourself.

In return you will be expected to take part in various promotional work, as well as using their lovely logo (see sidebar) on anything related to the project.

I know a few people who have received such grants, and several who haven’t. They are possible to obtain, yet with anything worthwhile, you have to work hard for them.


CathM said...

Very informative. Thank you!

Douglas Bruton said...

Just a kick in the pants off being a quarter of the way to your word count target for the novel... keep in trucking (sorry, that's a very 1070/80's expression).