The road to publication is often met with challenges, and for some writers, those challenges are harder to overcome. In order to dedicate time to their craft, writers often apply to writing grants, but not everyone wins them easily. Speculative Literature Foundation Director Mary Anne Mohanraj knows just how frustrating – and intimidating – the application process for writing grants can be. To combat prejudice in the publishing field, Mohanraj decided to build an organization where members are dedicated to rewarding and promoting diverse writers or diverse stories with more attainable writing grants.
Mohanraj founded the Speculative Literature Foundation in 2004 while she was a graduate student at the University of Utah, studying for her Ph.D. in Creative Writing while also applying for grants. Although she’d been working on mainstream fiction, she always had a fondness for science fiction and founded Strange Horizons, an online speculative fiction magazine. From her network of SF/F writers, Mohanraj observed that many did not apply for grants, awards, or residencies for two reasons: (1) perceived prejudice against SFF discouraged them from applying and (2)
SFF’s historical reputation as a commercial field meant that popular
writing was to be expected and publication would be enough to support
“There wasn’t an understanding for the need for grants to support writers,” Mohanraj explained. “Essentially, we wanted to create a space to do what the NEA does for literary arts but focus it on SF/F, create gateway grants that would be easy for general writers to apply for, and have a low bar for the application process with the hope of facilitating the creation of really great work.”
The SLF offers several grants such as the Older Writers’ Grant, the Travel Grant, the Working Class Writers’ Grant, and the Diversity Grants. In 2014, Mohanraj was contacted by two women who work in New York publishing – Senior Publicist Ellen Wright at Hachette Book Group and Associate Publicist Faye Bi at Little Brown Books for Young Readers. They’d been keeping up with the discussion about the lack of diversity in fiction and wanted to do something about it. Wright and Bi ran a marathon and asked for donors to support the SLF’s diversity grants. They raised $3,000 to fund the two diversity grants for three years.
The two diversity grants include the $500 Diverse Writers Grant and the $500 Diverse World Grant. The Diverse Writers supports underprivileged and underrepresented writers while the Diverse World supports stories that present a diverse world regardless of the writer’s background. Both grants were modeled after awards granted by the Carl Brandon Society, of which Mohanraj is a member. In some years, the grants are awarded to the same person, and other years they are awarded separately.
“There was a dual need…to support diverse writers who might be facing additional barriers to publication,” Mohanraj said. “We also wanted to support and celebrate anyone who was doing a really great job of portraying a literary, fictional world that was as diverse as the one we live in.”
Currently, the SLF has raised the first $1,000 out of $5,000 for their goal of offering grants for another five years. Mohanraj’s primary focus is to ensure solid funding for the grants. Instead of running a marathon to raise funds this time, the SLF created a Kickstarter Drip.
Although there was a delay, a winner has been announced for this year. Mohanraj expressed her delight whenever she hears back from previous winners and how the grants have changed their lives. As a writer who struggled to find a travel grant for her research trip to Sri Lanka, Mohanraj wanted to make it possible for other writers to do what she wasn’t able to do. Her experience brought about the SLF’s Travel Grant, or the Gulliver Travel Research Grant.
The SLF’s biggest challenge is sustaining members because all of them are volunteers. Mohanraj mentioned that there has been a constant flow of people who are interested in helping, but it takes time to train newcomers. One of her major goals for next year is to hire at least a part-time paid staff member – someone who can handle some of the paperwork and keep things going that allows the organization to expand and do more.
Aside from awarding grants, the SLF also hosts workshops such as the Writing Creativity & Publishing Workshop and the Serendib House Workshop, which started this year. Mohanraj explained that the workshops are worthwhile and the people who take them seem enthusiastic.
“There’s only so much you can learn on your own,” Mohanraj said. “SF is very lucky that we have this convention culture and people can go to cons and attend panels where they get to hear from pros. Some conventions have writing workshops attached to them, which is also great. I think there is an added benefit to the more dedicated workshops. I did Clarion West as a student and then taught at Clarion San Diego. I think those are incredibly helpful workshops.”
During the Writing Creativity & Publishing Workshop, Mohanraj flew in an agent from New York. Writers were able to hear about what works and doesn’t work when pitching a novel. A mentorship program had been under development but Mohanraj explained the difficulty in rounding up professional writers to volunteer their time for newer writers.
In the next 10 years, Mohanraj believes the SLF has the potential to be huge. She explained that speculative fiction is blooming in China and India, and the SLF could be a large international organization supporting writers across the globe.
“We don’t just serve writers; we also do things like host syllabi for professors who are teaching classes in SF/F,” Mohanraj said. “We list resources for copywriting, resources for publishers, resources for readers who are looking for advice. I’d love to add an illustrator database – it’s one of the things that I’d love to see us do going forward so that we are able to serve artists as well. There’s a huge field there and there’s so many ways that we can help support it.”
As a professor, Mohanraj tells her students that the main thing that gets in the way of them being successful writers is that they don’t write. Her advice to aspiring writers is to write as much as they can and read as much as they can.
Mohanraj hopes the SLF can provide easy access to the application as well as an easy application process. After encountering many closed doors in her life, she would like to open a gate for writers and keep it open for as long as possible.
To support the SLF’s writing grants, please check out and consider donating to the Kickstarter Drip, which will run through Dec. 15.