Sarah Gates on her 'dream run' year and everything you need to know to win a grant.
I received press releases and emails for months before the closing date of Carclew’s $12,500 Colin Thiele Scholarship for Creative Writing. It was my job, as Administrative Officer at SA Writers Centre, to upload competitions and opportunities to the website. The first time I saw it, I thought ‘This is really cool!’ and then promptly dismissed it. But with each passing glance, I started considering it. Could I go for it? How would I propose to spend the prize—which was more than I, as a full-time student, made in a year?
In the end, it was the ‘all applications receive feedback’ promise that pulled me in. The grant was limited to people 26 years old and under; I wouldn’t be competing against people with 20 more years writing (and life) experience. I still didn’t think I had a chance. I was 21-years-old and had only recently re-discovered the dream of publishing a book. The older, more experienced applicants would get it for sure. In the meantime, I would practice my grant writing skills and work on my creative CV.
Pulling together a grant is time-consuming. It took me months to plan my proposal, contact referees and, most importantly, line up a mentor who agreed to take me on in the event of success. The latter was the most awkward part. I was asking a respected author who I didn’t know to read my sample work, agree to a mentorship arrangement and write a letter of support—committing their time and effort—when I was sure I wasn’t going to win. But I did it and I took it seriously. I aimed high—proposing to write and edit a novel in eight months with the help of bestselling romance author, Victoria Purman. I would then travel to Melbourne for the Romance Writers of Australia (RWA) conference and pitch my novel to the big-name trade publishers face-to-face.
I submitted my application. It had been edited by my mum, I had glowing references from my colleagues at the SA Writers Centre, and I had Victoria Purman’s support letter. About four months later, I received a call from Carclew and I held my composure long enough to get off the phone before I started crying.
Winning a grant is an amazing feeling. It’s not just the money, support and opportunities to do what you love. It’s the validation. I knew many of the people who’d also put in applications and if I’d known when I was doing it, I would’ve given up. When I compared myself to them, I felt inadequate, intimidated and untalented. But a panel of professionals believed in me—and that gave me the huge boost in confidence that I sorely needed.
In the next six months I wrote Love Elimination—an 80,000 contemporary romance novel set behind-the-scenes of a reality tv dating show—sending chapters off as I went and meeting Victoria every month or so to receive my feedback. Then I took a month to study furiously for first semester law exams, cursing myself for not factoring that into the plan (note to future applicants: make sure your proposals are realistic and factor in your other commitments). I signed up to see Harlequin Australia, Penguin, Random House and Tule Publishing at the RWA conference in August. Meanwhile, the SA Writers Centre pulled together their first annual Adelaide Pitch Conference in July. So, as I threw myself back into editing, I also registered to pitch to Hachette, Pan MacMillan and Simon & Schuster.
The conferences were three weeks apart. I pitched to the seven publishers in total and received manuscript requests from all of them. I spent a month longer editing, then I sent it off—hoping I hadn’t rushed and blown all these opportunities.
Two weeks after submitting, I received an email from Harlequin asking if I’d received an offer yet. They were taking it to Acquisitions. Another two weeks and I received a phone call within an hour after my last law exam of the year. I was still at uni and I could barely hear them: three editors sat around a phone, obviously somewhere along a flight path. But I got the gist—they wanted to publish my novel. I would be an author. The plan had worked perfectly.
It took two weeks for the memo offer to come through. Another month to negotiate a contract. Then, finally, I was signing on the dotted line and I could make the announcement. Love Elimination was published on 1 July 2016, a year and 10 months after I started writing it.
If you’re considering going for a grant, do it. It’s worth it just for the practice (and the lovely reference letters are always a boost to the ego). Here are my top grant writing tips:
Be ambitious: I thought my write-edit-and-pitch-a-novel-in-a-year proposal was pushing the limits. The year I won, every other applicant (across the other disciplines) travelled overseas for training and opportunities. The things they did were amazing and in retrospect, I could’ve done a lot more.
Spend the time: Grant applications take months to plan and write. Put in the thought and give your referees/mentor/etc plenty of time to produce an excellent letter.
Cultivate referees: Build networks in the industry with people whose names do wonders for your application. I had the director of my state writers centre write a glowing reference and my mentor was a board member of multiple arts organisations.
Put yourself in the draw: You can’t win if you don’t enter. You should see my submissions record—it’s about 98% rejections. The more grant applications you write, competitions you enter, pitches you send, the better you’ll get and the better your chances of success. So keep trying.
Join Writers Bloc TONIGHT (8pm AEST) at our webinar on Grant Writing with Alison Croggon. Generously supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund, you can sign up to attend the free webinar here.
Sarah Gates is a 22 year old romance writer based in Adelaide, South Australia. Her first novel, Love Elimination, was published by Harlequin Mira in July 2016. She was the 2015 winner of the $12,500 Colin Thiele Scholarship for Creative Writing.