It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a good idea, must be in want of a grant. Last year I was on a Canada Council granting jury, and it not only enlightened me as to how the whole process works, it also renewed my faith in the Canada Council in general, and in the granting process in particular.
Over the years some of my writer friends had gotten the distinct impression that the Canada Council was this edifice of insiders. Those who got grants kept getting them, and those on the juries awarded grants to their writer friends. And this bitter conviction stopped many of them from applying. “I’m not going to win anyway, so why try?” It doesn’t help that by default, a writer’s life is an incessant litany of rejection.
But after having been on the jury, I’m now convinced we all should apply annually. The truth is that just by applying you help all writers because the Council takes those numbers and brings them to the government to ask for more funding for future years. Even if unsuccessful, those applications demonstrate a clear need.
Though I’ve applied and been rejected in the past, the biggest eye-opener for me was seeing just how high my chances of getting a grant had always been. Out of the 150 applications my jury read (including fiction, poetry, graphic novels, short stories, literary non-fiction, YA and kid’s books), fully forty writers, give or take, got grants. That’s a win rate of around twenty-six percent, or one in four. No lottery has ever been so generous.
And that’s the thing. It is a lottery. You can’t control who’s on the jury. If their tastes don’t align with your proposal one year, you’ll just have to apply again the next. I’ve now seen firsthand how jurors agonize over their decisions. We champion the diamonds that are rough, hopeful that grant-sponsored time can polish a great idea. We eloquently counterpoint prevailing opinions. Various members bring unique insight from their respective specialties. And though we were all quite diverse (in terms of geography, language, gender, race, sexual orientation, and writing genres), more often than not I was surprised to discover how much we concurred on our final assessments.
So take it from a fellow writer who is deeply skeptical and always expecting rejection: the Canada Council has your best interests at heart, and every year runs a lottery that you are uniquely qualified to enter. So enter!
To help you, I have some advice to offer:
DO START EARLY. The application is almost its own writing genre. It needs time to simmer. Go through at least several drafts. A friend should read it over. Any initial questions they have should be answered, because it’s likely the jury will harbour those same questions. Similarly, anything confusing should be re-written to be clear.
DO BE STARTLINGLY ORIGINAL. Easier said than done, of course, but it pays to go far afield with your concept. If you have the misfortune to be the fourth applicant with a post-apocalyptic road trip underpinning your plot, the jury may be inclined to favour the best of the bunch.
DON’T GET TUNNEL VISION ABOUT PITCHING JUST YOUR STORY. Discuss the larger impact of it on you and on the society it will go on to live in. Why does it matter to you? Is it personal? Will it matter to other people? Are there themes that will resonate in the larger world?
If rejected, DO CALL THE CANADA COUNCIL. The program officer takes notes during the jury discussion of your project, and they’ll relay these to you. But only if you call them for feedback.
If rejected, DO RE-APPLY the very next year. You may want to tweak the same application, or apply with a whole new project. But don’t not apply.
If successful (yay!), APPLY THE VERY NEXT YEAR WITH ANOTHER PROJECT. Now, in the past, if you got a grant, you were prevented from applying again until your final report for that grant was submitted. But in the current system, you can apply every single year, even if you already got a grant and are currently working on something, as long as it’s for a new project, and there’s no overlap in the project dates you’re proposing.
DO ALWAYS INCLUDE A SAMPLE FROM YOUR PROPOSED PROJECT. Even if you have a more refined short story that you think will show off your writing chops from a couple years back, take the time to also write up a small sample of the actual thing you’re pitching. It helps the jury see it. Juries are unkind to sample-less applications.
And that’s it! Vow to apply every year. Think of it like voting, but you’re the candidate. It’s your civic duty to your art! The world needs all the odd and diverse projects it can get! Be the strange you want to see in the world.
Sherwin Tjia is a Montreal-based writer and illustrator. Their latest book PLUMMET is a graphic novel about a woman who wakes up one day to find herself in freefall forever. It was named one of CBC Book’s 20 Best Graphic Novels of 2019. Their Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style book from the POV of a housecat, You Are a Cat!, published in 2011, was the winner of that year’s Expozine Award for best English Book, and has never been out of print. Their collection of 1,300 haikus, The World Is a Heartbreaker, was a finalist for the 2006 A.M. Klein Poetry Award. And their first graphic novel, The Hipless Boy, was a finalist for the Doug Wright Award for Best Emerging Talent, and also nominated for four Ignatz Awards.
Photo credits: Sherwin Tija (header image & headshot)