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The Art of the Grant

How to Get Arts Council Funding to Finish Your Book
Guest blog by Sandra Jensen

I am a writer. I am a writer with a chronic illness: M.E./ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome being but two of the names doctors use. I’ve had this for over 25 years, with increasing debilitation. Writing has, in a way, saved my life, giving me a sense of purpose in what is for the most part a very limited existence. I’m just grateful I never had a dream to be a Wimbledon champion!

‘I credit this success largely to two things: practice, and excellent assistance.’

Nevertheless, there are many impediments to writing with a chronic illness: having enough well hours to put in the work on a manuscript, the despair that accompanies a bad stretch, and, to be honest, financial scarcity. When I heard my recent application for an Arts Council England Project Grant was successful, it was an enormous boost. I can now focus on writing rather than how to bring in an income. The grant will pay me a living wage for my writing time, cover professional editing expenses and allow me to share my journey here, with you, via four blogs, two podcasts and a webinar. Most of all, I’ll be able to finish my novel, Seagull Pie. This is a comic coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old girl who wishes her family were the Waltons and her boyfriend Alexander the Great. Instead, her father is dead, her mother is a welder, her older brother makes bombs and her grandmother is waiting for the Ding Dongs to arrive in a “rocketship”.  It is largely based on my own chaotic childhood experiences…

This is my second successful application to ACE, and I credit this success largely to two things: practice, and excellent assistance.

I have made a number of literature grant applications. I’m a Canadian Citizen and am eligible to apply to the Canada Council for the Arts. I lived in Ireland for a number of years, and applied there. In both cases, my initial applications were not successful, but I kept at it until they were. I learned what each organization was looking for, and I also realised that even if an application wasn’t successful, the (often eye-watering lengthy) process was useful creatively: writing a synopsis of a novel or a short story collection is never easy and in doing so, over and over, I discovered aspects, negative and positive, about my project I might have overlooked if I hadn’t made the application in the first place. And, if I had to submit my manuscript with the application, that always inspired me to give it a bit more work.

When I returned to the UK in 2013, I decided to make an application to ACE. The process seemed daunting and complex when compared to the (then) process for Canada and Ireland. And, a few people said without a published book, the likelihood of me being successful was slim at best. I almost decided not to bother – especially given the severe brain fog that is one of my frequent symptoms. It felt as if I’d needed a PhD in the art of grant applications!

But I don’t give up easily. I believed that all I needed was help. The right kind of help. With a bit of online searching I discovered that a number of unpublished writers did in fact receive ACE grants, and many of them were Norwich based. So I approached what was then called the Writers’ Centre Norwich (now National Centre for Writing), one of many regional literature development agencies in England. I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Sam Ruddock, who was at the time Programme Manager for the Centre.

His review of my application was detailed and extraordinarily insightful. He gave me specific suggestions, which I implemented, and after another review with him I sent it off, and was successful. Of course I sought Sam’s help again for this recent application. Since 2013, ACE has implemented a new application process using online software that has its drawbacks so it was extra helpful to have Sam’s encouragement as I went through the process.

For all my grant applications I’ve sought help: preferably from someone familiar with making such applications, but at the very least from someone who understands the creative process and who has a good eye for language. Clarity and confidence are, I believe, critical. It’s not always obvious to me if I’m failing in either area, particularly self-confidence. Essentially you are selling your work, and yourself, so coming across as uncertain isn’t a good idea! I’m also blessed to have a friend who has proofreading experience. She’s caught all my typos and weird sentence constructions.

‘Don’t let yourself be put off by the application process.’

As I have a chronic and unpredictable illness, the open deadlines for the ACE Project Grant are great. I became bed-bound shortly after starting this recent application. It was some time before I could return to it, so I was grateful not to have the extra pressure of a deadline. ACE also offers access costs for the application process – they want to ensure anyone can apply, so if you have a disability that precludes you from using the online system, or another health condition or disability that makes it difficult for you to apply on your own, they will pay for someone to help you.

ACE has a number of guidance sheets and will also answer any questions that come up. If you are not successful, they will offer some feedback on why. Sometimes an application is very good, but there simply are too many very good applications and not enough funding.

I would say five things are vital when making a grant application:

  • Don’t let a lack of self-confidence in your work or yourself stop you from applying
  • Don’t let yourself be put off by the application process
  • Give yourself plenty of time
  • Find someone to help you
  • And, most importantly, don’t give up if you aren’t successful!

Sandra Jensen’s work has been published in a number of literary magazines and journals; her awards include winning the 2019 Bridport Prize for a first novel.

She was a guest writer and panelist at the International Conference on the Short Story and a workshop leader at The Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka. She’s received writing and travel grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of Ireland and Arts Council England. You can find out more about her at www.sandrajensen.net.

This is the first in a series of blogs that Sandra Jensen will write for Your Writing Launchpad over the next year. We will also be co-hosting a webinar in 2021.

If you would like help in accessing funds to support your writing, you can find out more about how Your Writing Launchpad can help you here.

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Allow me to introduce myself

Hello. I’m Sam, and this is You’re Writing Launchpad. Trust is important when you are investing in your writing. So I’d like to tell you a bit about me.

I have always loved books, words, and stories. My earliest memories are of stories at bedtime and learning them off by heart. I remember taking a copy of The Lord of the Rings into school when I was about 10, and carrying it around because it made me happy. (Full disclosure: I probably also enjoyed the kudos from reading such a long book!)

Reading, for me, has been both escape from my immediate surroundings and the way I learn about the world and the people around me. It is a headlong dive into empathy, even while also being an opportunity to do other things and experience different lives.

I’m a trained storyteller – in that I studied History and Politics at university, and have an MA in Modern History. I mean, what could be better background for understanding the power of a story than the writing and re-writing of history or the persistent fictionalising of life in politics?! I love Rudyard Kipling’s off-cited quote that ‘if history were taught in the form of stories it would never be forgotten’. I believe that every time we write history, we are choosing to tell a story about ourselves and the world as it is now.

I bring this training to my work today. I am perhaps best as a macro editor: helping you shape and construct the narrative and characters and themes of your work. Although I can offer line-by-line editing and feedback, I am not a copy editor. I will help make your book more readable, concise, and effective in communicating to your readers.

I began my career working for Waterstones where I started as a Christmas temp and went on to manage the fiction and front of store sections, institute a festival, and be nominated for Bookseller of the Year. I moved on to work for a brilliant and relatively new organisation called New Writing Partnership, which was to become Writers’ Centre Norwich and then National Centre for Writing. There I became Programme Manager and worked across a wide range of work – from international conferences to historic festivals, reading promotions to school engagement, industry development to writer support. In all of this work I got most joy from working with people in a front-facing capacity: talking about books, hosting events, helping writers develop their work, and most of all reading, always reading.

I joined the board of Gatehouse Press, and became Editorial Director. There I instigated the New Fictions prize which has worked to diversify publishing and support talented writers into publication. I was proud to publish Kumkum Malhotra by Preti Taneja, a brilliant author who has gone on to win the Desmond Elliott Prize for her debut novel We That Were Young, and a host of other talented writers.

Thanks to the incredible support I had at National Centre for Writing, in 2014 I was awarded a prestigious Clore Fellowship to spend a year learning and thinking about how I could become a better leader in the arts. There I learned that I didn’t want to lead an organisation but to stay close to artists and audiences, and to develop my own artistic practice. I trained as a coach, and learned the value of clear communication, spaces to think, and understanding myself and my own energies.

I returned full of ideas and keen to try to experiment with how books could be experienced in live events. I created Story Machine events in 2016 and 2017 and decided to focus on that in 2018. I got a dog, and started to work freelance from home. It wasn’t easy, and my income reduced, but I finally found a work-life balance that nurtured me.

I have been married for 16 years to a wonderful wife who makes me smile and helps me grow. Life hasn’t always been easy, and I’ve struggled with addiction problems which I recently talked about at a brilliant event – True Stories Live – in Norwich.

I am an introvert, which means that I prefer talking to people one-on-one rather than in groups, and need lots of time to myself to replenish my energy. I still love nothing more than reading quietly in the bath, and working quietly with my dog sprawled across my lap. Over the last few years I have invested in the things that matter to me: people and personal connections, stories, and shared experiences. I have learned a lot. Sitting on my couch now, typing this, I am more artistically fulfilled than before, more nurtured by others than I have ever been.

I hope I can use my skills, experiences, and passion for words, books, and stories, to support your writing. After all, this is YOUR writing launchpad.