Attention fellow authors: The NEA is taking applications for its 2014 Prose Literature Fellowships

Some of my personal favorites from the class of 2012.

The National Endowment for the Arts is currently accepting applications for its 2014 Prose Literature Fellowships. I won one of these in 2006, and in 2011 I served on the selection panel for the 2012 Prose Fellowships. If you are an American citizen or permanent resident and a published author of fiction or creative nonfiction, you should at least think about applying. The deadline for applications is February 28.

What this is: The NEA Literature Fellowships are $25,000 grants meant to support the recipients’ creative work. Fellowships are awarded annually, alternating between creative prose and poetry in successive years.

Who is eligible to apply: The full eligibility requirements are here, but the main points are that you must be (1) a citizen or permanent resident of the U.S. and (2) a published author of fiction or creative nonfiction.

How the Fellowships are awarded: All applicants are required to submit a manuscript sample of their writing (20 to 25 pages in length, double-spaced). These manuscripts are reviewed by a selection panel, which discusses and ranks their favorites. The highest-ranked manuscripts are recommended to the NEA’s chairman, who makes the final decision.


Frequently asked questions:

How many Fellowships are given out?

The exact number varies depending on the NEA’s current budget, but the average is around 40.

How many applicants are there?

This also varies, but there’ll be more than 1,000.

What are the judging criteria?

The quality of the writing, period. It’s a blind judging process: The manuscripts don’t have the authors’ names on them, so the writing is all the panelists have to go on. (In the event that a panelist recognizes or guesses the author of a piece, they have to report it, and if there’s even a chance of a conflict of interest, they don’t get to vote on that manuscript.)

Who is on the selection panel?

A mix of “experts” and “laypeople”: Writers (including former Fellowship recipients), book critics, librarians, and bookstore owners. The panel will be roughly equal numbers of men and women, ethnically diverse, and from all regions of the country.

Can you be a little more specific about how the judging process works?

There’s a full description of the process here. (N.B., the exact details may have changed since that pamphlet was written, but it’s a good general overview of how it works.)

Do genre fiction writers have a shot at this, or is it only for literary types?

The Fellowships are open to anyone with talent. You’ll be up against some stiff competition, but you shouldn’t think that writing in genre is itself a handicap. I got my Fellowship on the basis of an excerpt from Set This House in Order, a novel that also won a James Tiptree, Jr. Award. And Kelly Link got her Fellowship on the basis of a short story that had zombies in it. Don’t worry about labels; worry about being good.

Do you have any specific advice for applicants?

I’d offer these suggestions:

  • Follow the rules carefully and to the letter. Don’t put your name on the manuscript. Don’t exceed the maximum page length.
  • Don’t waste time getting to the good stuff. Your manuscript will be in a pile with over a thousand others, so you want it to stand out from the very first page.
  • If you are excerpting from a longer work, the excerpt needs to be able to stand and be judged on its own. It’s great to leave the panelists wanting more. What you want to avoid is a situation where they’re saying, “This intrigues me, but without knowing where it’s going I’m not sure what I really think of it.”
  • If you are submitting two or more short pieces, the most important thing is that they all be good, but if you write (well) in multiple genres, you should also think about demonstrating your range.

Good luck!