How One Writer Got Paid to Develop a Novel

Mei Li fund-your-proj_z-2-01

To get answers for the Fund Your Passion Project series, I turned to Shruti Swamy. Her passion project? A fiction novel exploring themes of blindness. And as the 2012 W.K. Rose Fellow, she got paid $50,000 to work on it. Here, she spills on the habits that got her living her dream.


My Goal

I have one goal as a writer, and that is to write one great singular work, like a novel or short story collection, that makes a difference. And I don’t know if I’ll ever, if that’s like a crazy goal, but that’s my only goal in life.

My Plan

When it comes to creative writing: I don’t know if I have a method. I just sit down every day and write. When it’s hard, then I tell myself, “Okay, it’s hard, it’s not going to happen exactly in this moment, but it’s going to happen over a lifetime of hard work and hard work is right now what you’re doing, so just keep doing it.”

Right now, I’m just focusing on writing my novel. I’ve never been able to generate more than one story at a time. I’ve never been good at multitasking. It’s especially frustrating to be writing a novel and trying to be so active in getting published because you start to get anxious like, Oh my god I’m wasting my time on my product. But art takes time.

When it comes to publishing short stories: I’ve gotten published in enough of the free, small journals that now I want to focus on my top tier journals like Boston Review, One Story, and Agni. I’m making One Story read my entire short story collection because they keep sending me the rejection letters that say, “Thanks, this isn’t quite right for us but please send us something else.” So I do.

For awards, fellowships, and residencies: My rule is I ask three questions: Do I really want it? How much does it cost? And how likely am I to get it? If it meets two out of three of those, then I’ll submit.

My Income

Savings from previous jobs, a fellowship, publications, and part-time freelance work

Right before I got my fellowship I had these two jobs, working part-time doing PR and freelance copywriting for a company that markets nonprofits. I saved up all this money from these two jobs and then I got the fellowship so for a year I didn’t work. After that, I started doing freelance copywriting again but I’ve been really lucky because I can turn down projects because I can keep living off these different sources of income.

My Hours

On the freelance day job: 6 to 7 hours daily

The way it goes is you have weeks or months where you work a lot and then it mellows out for a while. When I’m freelancing, I spend 6 to 7 hours a day for 2 to 3 weeks at time, depending on the job.

On my novel: 3 to 4 hours daily

When I’ve got a freelance job, I would like to write more but often I don’t and if I do then, it’s for an hour in the morning or not at all. Between jobs, I’ll write 3 to 4 hours a day. I usually start working at 8 until 11 or 9 to 12. Sometimes, I’ll write in the afternoon and I want to not be so fussy about the time that I get for myself because it’s all time and it’s a matter of how I use it. But I feel my most focused in the morning. That’s the time when my brain is working the best and I’ve had some caffeine. I’m going to dedicate my novel to caffeine.

On getting residencies, awards, and published: 3 to 15 hours weekly

That’s looking up literary magazines, writing cover letters, writing applications, writing grants. I’m on some email lists and I sometimes google fellowships. If I’m working on an application, I can spend 10 to 15 hours on it.

My (Book) Diet

I feel like an Olympic athlete! I have to watch what I eat. My novel is currently most influenced by Michael Ondaadtje. Ondaadtje’s books are really sensual in a way I’m interested in. You enter them like dreams. Plot happens, it’s the bones of the book but not the engine. And that’s what I want my novel to be like. It’s like being inside a mood rather than person. It’s so vivid and rich, a memory of mood.

See Shruti Swamy write, read and nap at and

Illustration by Pablo Sanchez. Design by Zaldy Serrano.


About Mei Li Ooi

Writer. Editor. Diet Rebel.

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