Seriously, I drove up to Indianapolis today to sit in on the IAC Literature panel, and I am so glad I did, and so glad the process permits that kind of openness -- it was a fabulous learning experience. I got there a bit late and missed the first few applications, but I heard most of them. There were four panelists, a moderator and a coordinator and a tech guy; the discussion of each application was kicked off by the first reader, who presented their evaluation (generally reading from something they'd written out), and then the discussion opened up. Some of the applications didn't take very long to discuss, including a couple which were immediately deemed "no-brainers" (as in "we'd be crazy not to fund this"). Some received more in-depth discussion and, in a couple of cases, some back-and-forth that may have swayed some panelists' evaluations. There was a big three-ring binder with all the applications available for the audience members to peruse, which was really nice.
All in all it was VERY interesting, and from what I could tell, I think the panelists did a good job of getting right to the point and picking out the most important points of each application, positive and negative. They weren't brutal, but they didn't hesitate to "get real" (as Randy Jackson would say) -- one panelist said about one application, "I suggest that you should get to be a writer before you apply." Ouch! Some of the day's recurring themes:
- Timeline. Several people were proposing to write entire novels in the course of the grant period -- one had even included "marketing" as a line item in the budget, for a novel that hadn't really been started yet. The panelists consistently saw this kind of thing as "unrealistic" and overly optimistic.
- Preparedness. One writer with no publication credits & not that much experience in the genre of the proposal wanted funding to go to Bread Loaf; the panelists thought that being accepted there would be a challenge at this point in the writer's career, since Bread Loaf is highly competitive. If the writer had included a Plan B, perhaps a less selective workshop or conference, I think the proposal would have done better. They also liked to see writers who've already done some work on their own rather than applying for a grant too early; "writers need to make a commitment on their own before asking the State of Indiana to commit [financially] to them." It's also a very good idea to do your research, and really target what you're asking for -- if you want funding for a workshop, be careful to select a workshop that will give you something specific that you need for your project. For example, they really liked that I'm planning to take a workshop on revision, because that shows I've thought about what I most need help with and what will move me towards my goal. (That's exactly why I chose Carl Phillips' workshop at FAWC over other, equally attractive-sounding workshops -- I thought it fit best with my overall plan. I'm so glad the panelists agreed!)
- Along similar lines, don't ask for funding for something that won't push you forward to the next level in your writing. One writer wanted to take a workshop that the panelists felt was "beneath her" -- that she was already doing quite nicely in this area and the workshop wasn't going to benefit her enough to justify the expense.
- Professionalism. It should be obvious that if you're asking for money to write, then you should make damn sure the writing in your application is good. This means: spell things right. Also, be professional in the sense that you know something about how the writing world works; this goes along with selecting the right workshop if you want a workshop, knowing when mentoring is appropriate and helpful, etc.
- Specificity. Whatever you're requesting funding for -- is it the best way to get what you need? Be clear about what you intend to derive from the workshop, retreat time, travel, whatever you're asking for -- and make sure that is the best option for you. Don't ask for funding for an elaborate writing retreat, office space, etc. when what you really need to do is just sit down at your kitchen table and make yourself write. Grant funding is no substitute for self-discipline and initiative.
- Overall -- what they wanted to see most of all is GOALS that are clearly stated, appropriate to the project and to the current stage of the writer's career, and realistic. And provide evidence that shows you will be able to follow through on your proposal. "We should spend our money on artists who have a track record that indicates they can take the next step." "There are so many wonderful ideas, but we need evidence that the person can make them happen."
Without going into embarrassing detail, I will say that my application seems to have met with a fair amount of support. I wasn't one of the "no-brainers" but I got some very positive, very encouraging feedback. One panelist said that the work I'd submitted wasn't his cup of tea, but that he did see that it was good and "worthy of attention" -- I can definitely live with that. One thing they particularly liked was that I was quite specific, in each phase of my proposed project, about what "success" would mean. There were 18 applicants in literature, and about 230 overall, with enough money for 40 grants -- so it's very competitive. I won't know until June whether or not I get a grant, but I feel hopeful. And even if I don't, I can rest easy knowing that nobody laughed my little application out of the room, that I was in the right ballpark.
And now if you'll excuse me, I have a little orangey cat who's just flung himself headlong into my lap and flopped over onto his back for a bit of a belly rub. Speaking of clearly stated, realistic goals. *grin*