Publishing Tips

How to Build Your Own MFA Program

Tara Wohlberg

In the August 2017 Publishing Tip, Alicia Elliott provides a helpful outline for aspiring writers who might not have taken an MFA program but would like to further their writing and publishing skills.


Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario with her husband and daughter. Her writing has been published in The Malahat Review, The Butter, Room, Grain, The New Quarterly, CBC, Globe and Mail, Vice, Maisonneuve, Maclean's, Today's Parent, and CWILA. She's currently Associate Nonfiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths, and a consulting editor for The New Quarterly. Her essay, "A Mind Spread Out on the Ground" won a National Magazine Award.


Photo credit: Ayelet Tsabari


How to Build Your Own MFA Program

From an outside perspective it definitely seems like if you want to move ahead in the Canadian literary industry, the best way to do so is to go through an MFA program. However, that's not always a possibility for those who don't have the access or opportunity. Maybe you aren't financially able to move to the cities that offer these programs; maybe you can't leave home due to family obligations; maybe professional commitments are in your way. Or maybe, like me, you got rejected from every MFA program you applied to and, dreams momentarily shattered, you accepted your need to take a lowly barista job at Starbucks to pay the bills.

Regardless, it's important to know that the traditional MFA path is not the only path into the literary industry. There are things that you can do to try to build up your career outside of that model. Basically, build your own MFA Program.

Read Everything – Good and Bad

The first thing I'd recommend is reading widely—and actively. Read with an eye towards craft. What is the author revealing? When are they revealing it? Why then? What makes a main character compelling? Don't just read "good" literature, either. Reading "bad" literature can be even more illuminating on how craft works. Why? Because the best literature is often so good its craft is rendered invisible. With "bad" lit, you can see what mistakes the author is making and figure out how they could have fixed those mistakes. Then take that knowledge and apply it to your own work.

Ask for Critique and Edit

Find a group of dedicated writers/readers to give you feedback. Obviously, if you can join a local writers' workshop to get critique, do it! That's great! But don't let lack of access stop you from getting valuable perspective on your work. Any person can read your work and be able to tell you whether or not they understood it, whether or not they connected to the characters, whether or not they felt anything while reading it. Remember: the general book-buying audience isn't entirely made up of trained writers. That isn't to say you should let everyone's opinion dictate your work, but if, for example, numerous people are telling you they don't understand a plot point or sentence, odds are you can rework your writing to make sure that's not an issue. You want to edit with the intention of leading your reader where you want them to go—which means you have to keep the path as clear as possible.

Research and Submit to Literary Journals

Literary journals are a good entry point for most aspiring authors. They often publish new and upcoming writers alongside established writers, giving your work more of a chance of being read. You should research what literary journals get the most awards nominations, which have the highest (or lowest) acceptance rate, which welcome new writers, and most important, whether your work will fit the publication. For example, there's no point in submitting a short story with a conventional narrative to a journal that primarily publishes experimental writing. Considering how long you typically have to wait to hear back from literary journals—could be a few months, could be up to a year—if you aren't carefully considering what journals would be a good fit for your work before you submit, you're wasting their time as well as yours. And you're setting yourself up for a lot of unnecessary rejection.

When you do have a piece you think is ready for publication and a list of journals you think would be a good fit, send it off. If you want to know more about literary journals, Rachel Thompson, an editor at Room Magazine, runs a very valuable course called Lit Mag Love that would be well worth your time.

Research and Submit for Grants

It's also important to research grants. The great thing about grants is they buy you time to really develop your writing, the same way an MFA program would. The main difference is instead of paying a university for the privilege of writing, arts councils are paying you. Learn what it will take for the Canada Council of the Arts, your provincial arts council and your city arts council to consider you a "professional artist." Most offer alternatives to published books; for example, the Canada Council considers you a "professional artist" when you have at least 40 pages of fiction published in literary journals or anthologies. Most granting bodies are quite specific about what types of publications they'll consider. The Ontario Arts Council, for example, counts any publication that pays you for your work. Helpful hint: contributor copies of a journal or anthology count as payment.

Knowing what you need to do to be considered a "professional artist" will give you a tangible goal to aim for so you can actually start applying for grants. I've been able to take time off work with the help of grants; I've been able to make valuable contacts through grants. Don't let yourself be scared away just because you don't have a book under your belt. I have friends who have graduated MFA programs and published books who had no idea how to write a grant, or even what types of grants were available, so the sooner you start, the better. There are plenty of websites that can walk you through how to write an artist's statement or project description. I've found reading others' applications helps me figure out what makes an application strong, and from there I can figure out how to best approach my own application. Keep your application focused. Make sure you're actually answering the questions they ask you. Follow all the guidelines. Don't give the jury an excuse to dismiss your application.

Submit Your Manuscript

Once you have a manuscript ready to go, research authors who are writing work similar to yours. Who has published their books? Who is their agent? Who is their editor? This can give you insight into who you should pitch your book to. Research what makes a good pitch, a good query letter. Practice, practice, practice.

Expect Rejection

The most important thing to remember is that—MFA under your belt or not—you're going to get rejected. A lot. And it's really, really going to hurt. But after about the fiftieth "no," the amount of time it takes you to recover (and stop cursing the name of the editor that rejected you) starts to lessen. You can more easily accept that your work wasn't for them, that that's okay, and that you're going to keep trying anyway. Because when you do finally get a "yes," that feeling is so much sweeter, so much more memorable than any "no."

* * * * * * * *

The Malahat Review posts "Publishing Tips" as a bimonthly guest column on its Publishing Tipswebsite and in Malahat lite. Follow it in order to learn how to improve your professional skills, from the writing of cover letters, to what house style means, to choosing a rhyming dictionary, to having an author photo (as opposed to a selfie) shot. If you have a Publishing Tip you'd like to share, email The Malahat Review at, with "Publishing Tip Idea" in the subject line. Tips should be 750 words or less. If yours is accepted, you will be paid an honorarium of $50.