If you know how to apply for grants, they can become essential tools that propel your writing to new heights. My own work has been totally transformed by the grants that I’ve received and, quite honestly, my first two novels would be just shadows of what they turned out to be if it wasn’t for funded research.
I’m grateful every day for the agencies that believed in my work. They made travel possible, they supported my writing time, and when it came time to shop my manuscript around to agents they immediately sat up and took my work seriously. Over the years I’ve received tens of thousands of dollars from local, regional, and national agencies. If done right, you can do this too.
My first novel, The Commandant of Lubizec, was fundamentally shaped by the three research trips I took to Poland. Granting agencies saw that my work with the Holocaust was unique and they understood that I had to walk the soil of various concentration camps in order to write about this moment in history properly. They recognized that I had to talk with survivors, visit museums, and spend hours in archives. Thanks to my detailed applications, I was able to spend considerable time at Auschwitz.
I returned the following year—thanks to a different grant—to research the death camps of Belzec and Sobibór. A third trip allowed me to see Treblinka where nearly one million souls perished. All of this happened thanks to grants that got me onto airplanes and, as a result, I saw things I never could have imagined from the safety of my desk. These funded research trips turned The Commandant of Lubizec from an idea into reality, and there’s no reason this can’t happen for you, too.
My new novel explores the real-life connections between the Holocaust and the Apollo Program. The grants I won for my first novel made it easier to find support for the second. I had proof that my hard work ended with publication, and this meant granting agencies were even more willing to take a chance on my ideas. Of course, it took time to apply for these grants but I was able to visit Dora-Mittelbau—a secret underground concentration camp in Germany where slave labor built the world’s first rocket—and it also allowed me to do research at the Kennedy Space Center, the Johnson Space Center, and the Marshall Space Flight Center.
If I hadn’t spent time in these places, this new novel wouldn’t have the crisp details that bring fiction to life. That’s what grants can do for you: they bring new ideas to your work. By using grants to travel, you’ll sniff out new thoughts and plot points that you’d never imagine if you stayed home. In the Shadow of Dora is a gripping real-life narrative thanks to the places I was allowed to go. Grants transformed my writing. And here’s how you can do it too.
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Applying for Grants
First, you’ll need to sit down and do some research. What grants are out there? Do you qualify? What are the deadlines? I’ve created a document that outlines different agencies and the rotating calendar of when I need to get material to them. Getting grants is a lot like getting published; the more places that you apply, the greater your chances of success. If you get rejected—and you will—don’t take it personally. Just send out another proposal.
Most grants ask for two things: a Statement of Purpose (what you’re going to do with their money) and an Artist Statement (how you envision what it means to be a writer). Think of the latter as a mission statement and, if you don’t have one, maybe now is a good time to create one because it will guide how you view your writing.
My own mission statement is pretty simple: I strive to write novels that are enlightening and un-put-down-able. I expand upon this for grant applications and discuss my feelings about the relationship between the reader and the writer. I talk about how good writing is an act of hypnosis.
As far as the Statement of Purpose is concerned, you’ll want to spend time explaining what makes your project unique. More than anything, you’ll need to make the granting agency understand why funding will enhance your project. Just asking for money won’t be good enough—you’ll have to offer specific examples of how you’ll be a good steward of their financial resources.
This means creating a comprehensive budget that includes flights, an inexpensive hotel (make it clear you won’t stay in a snazzy four star room), mention any ground transportation you might need, as well entrance tickets, library fees, and honoraria for guides. Be precise and make a detailed daily itinerary. This shows the granting agency that you’ve done your homework and know what you want to accomplish.
You’ll notice that I didn’t mention a per diem for meals. I intentionally leave this out because I want agencies to know I plan to work, and that I won’t be spending my time at fancy restaurants. Make it clear that you don’t view this as a vacation. Let them know you’ll use every hour of grant money wisely.
Spending Grant Money
With luck an email will appear saying—Congratulations!—you’ve won the grant. Now what? The first thing you’ll want to do is ensure that you follow your budget as closely as possible. Book a flight. Contact a hotel. Consider how you’ll get from Point A to Point B. Invest in a journal that will be used solely for this research project. I like Moleskins because they have durable covers, a binding strap, and a pocket at the back for loose notes.
When you begin your research, make sure you save your receipts. You may need these for the granting agency but, even if they say they don’t require them, what happens if you’re audited by the IRS? This might happen, so you’ll want to record your financial footsteps. Years ago, I bought a special wallet that has two different compartments for bills. This allows me to keep grant money separate from my own money. You’d be surprised how easily the two can get mixed up, so I keep business expenses away from personal expenses (e.g. gifts for my kid, toiletries, meals, a bottle of wine).
I usually get up early and make my way to whatever I’m researching. This could be a library, an archive, a museum, or—given what I write about—a concentration camp or an interview with a survivor. I take plenty of photos and scribble notes into my journal. At night I return to my hotel, turn on my laptop, and pull up a spreadsheet. I’ll rummage through my wallet and enter my daily expenditures.
I update the spreadsheet every night and put my receipts in a Ziplock bag that I leave near my suitcase. I then send the spreadsheet to my email address in case my computer fritzes-out, gets stolen, or is accidentally dropped on the ground. I also make a point to email the agency and thank them once again for the funding.
And then? I usually write for a few hours. In my application, I make it clear that I plan to write each night—this isn’t a vacation—and during this time I turn my notes into prose. On one particular night in Lublin, Poland, I was writing a chapter called “The Roasts” for The Commandant of Lubizec and it was just flying out of me. My fingers couldn’t keep up with my imagination; however, a wild thunderstorm was raging outside and the lights in my room kept browning-out. My computer had a weak battery and I knew that if we lost power I’d lose momentum.
To this day the narrative energy of “The Roasts” crackles with urgency, and this only happened because of what I was experiencing at the time. It makes for a good story. In fact, I mentioned it to the agency that funded my trip when I filed my Final Report. Which brings me to…
Reporting Back on the Grant
While some grants don’t require a summary of what you did, others will expect a narrative of what was accomplished, as well as an itemized budget. Your hard work with daily expenditures and a log of what you did each day will make writing this much easier. I usually submit a Final Report within a week of returning to my office because everything is still fresh in my mind.
Moreover, getting a report sent off quickly shows the granting body that you’re timely, detail orientated, and it shows that the faith they placed in you wasn’t a mistake. I also think it’s the right thing to do. After all, you’ve been given a gift—one that makes your literary art stronger—and the best way you can thank them is by being grateful and professional.
It’s also a good idea to include a writing sample. More precisely, send along something that you wrote during the funded period. I always chose a promising chapter—it was “What Came from Berlin” for a grant that supported In the Shadow of Dora—and I enclosed it with the Final Report. Although this isn’t required, it’s good to let them see what you created. They can read this fresh chapter and know that it came about thanks to their financial support.
And on that glorious day when you approach agents with your manuscript, you’ll be able to mention the grants you received along the way. A contract will hopefully follow, along with galley proofs and a cover design. Take a moment to look at your Acknowledgements page. Thank those institutions that made your book possible and, if appropriate, mention people by name.
One last thing: consider giving back. I donate part of my initial sales to organizations that support the arts, and when I do readings I often announce that a portion of the night’s profits will help emerging writers. If you’re lucky enough to have the trajectory of your career changed by a grant, take a moment to think of the writers coming up after you. Reach out a hand and lift them up—just like someone once did for you.
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