From my experience in applying for fellowships in fiction, I can generalize only one thing: that I can't predict the results. Some people put it more succinctly: It's a crapshoot. There's no magic formula for most granting agencies, other than the quality of your work, which should be close to magic.
Unlike in applications for grants in the various scholarly disciplines, the proposal text in the arts is usually minor in weight. The committees lease their decisions mostly on the quality of work samples submitted with the applications.
Still, there are some tips I can offer to improve or at least not damage an application's chances:
- Research to find out whether your work falls in the range of what the foundation funds. For example, if you have not published a book, or don't at least have one under contract, it's safe to say that there's no point in applying for a Guggenheim fellowship. Likewise, if you have published ten novels, there's no point in applying for a fellowship for an emerging writer, such as the Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship or the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford.
- Select work that represents you well, and follow the guidelines. If you are supposed to submit only 30 pages at 250 words a page, don't give the committee 30 pages in a microscopic font. From having been on a couple of committees, I know that nothing puts jurors off more than font cheating. Sure, you don't have to be perfect—you can perhaps narrow a margin a little, and put 300 words on a page, but don't push it.
- Don't go overboard on your proposal. Although I say the proposal text itself needn't carry much weight, you do need to write it carefully, primarily not to make a faux pas anywhere, such as boastfulness. Don't tell the committee that you are a born writer to whom writing is as important as breathing, or that your work is a logical continuation and culmination of Proust's work. I know, we are primarily a sales culture in which one has to show confidence in one's wares, but writing is a little bit un-American in that regard: Let the work speak for you. In your proposal, clearly say what you plan to do. Your work should seem to be an important project, but don't tell the committee that it is important; the importance and seriousness should be obvious. A novel about coloring hair has less of a chance of appearing grant-worthy than a novel about TB or AIDS or genocide in Rwanda or labor camps or rural poverty, and a novel that probes into language and experiments with narrative structure in most cases would have a better chance than a pre-fab genre plot, such as a vampire novel that offers nothing new.
- Get good reviews and references. I had applied for the Guggenheim three times, and not having gotten it, stayed away for two years. Then, once I got some encouraging reviews, I decided to try them again. If you get any kind of recognition, use it to generate more recognition. Good reviews, even if from your local paper, will help your cause. Some fellowships require letters of recommendation. Find three or four people who are willing to say a good word on your behalf, and if you don't know any writers who can do that, go to a writers' conference and be genuinely sociable—you will meet enough writers with whom you can have a good rapport.
If you want grants, write your heart and mind out. After you have the evidence that you can do that, apply all over the place and you won't need to make big claims for yourself. You will be able—in a minimalist fashion—to say what you want to do, and the committees will believe you. I know, it sucks to say write your best and persevere and you will win grants, but that's the case. And apply only after you have written something you are proud of. There's no surrogate for good writing. In fact, I know quite a few successful writers who think that the time it takes to apply for grants should be spent in writing fiction, with much better results in the long run. On the other hand, in the lull when you aren't inspired to write fiction, you might just as well apply for a grant if you have a good writing sample to show.
Josip Novakovich has won an Ingram Merrill Award in Fiction, a Vogelstein grant in fiction, a Whiting Award, a South Dakota Arts Council grant, a Tennessee Williams Fellowship at the University of the South, a W.K. Rose Fellowship in Fiction at Vassar, an NEA and a Guggenheim. He is the author of Fiction Writer's Workshop and Writing Fiction Step by Step.