Jan Ackerson is one of the best-known members of FaithWriters – for her writing lessons on the FaithWriters forums and for being a FaithWriters-approved editor for fiction. But it is her Writing Challenge entries that may have given her the most attention. She has had a total of five entries recognized in FaithWriters’ Writing Challenge Best of the Best over the years – the most recent, second place with  her lovely piece “More Beautiful.” Read along as Jan shares tips on writing a great title, how her writing has changed over the years, and her passion for FaithWriters and the Writing Challenge.

JOANNE SHER: Congratulations on being Best of the Best runner up. What was your reaction when you found out your piece was among the winners?

JAN ACKERSON: To be honest, after reading Ann’s Relinquishment (note – see her Best of the Best interview) just before BoB would be announced, I was more eager to see the announcement to see if that story took a well-deserved first place. Anything I might win after that was gravy, and I was delighted for my dear friend. I will say that More Beautiful wasn’t one that I expected to rise to the top, and it made me shrug a bit.

JOANNE: Well, I hope you know it didn’t make ME shrug (or the judges!) I have always enjoyed your title choices for your challenge pieces (they are generally a HUGE struggle for me). How do you come up with your titles? Which comes first generally – the story or the title? Any tips for the rest of us in finding just the right title?

JAN: For me, the title is definitely the last thing. Once the piece is written, I read through it a time or two specifically with the purpose of finding a phrase that I can take verbatim from one of the sentences. I like a title to have strong and interesting words, but not to give away anything significant that I’d rather the readers get as they make their way through the story. I avoid anything that’s not original to my story—no familiar phrases or clichés, nothing that’s already the title of something else.

If I can’t find just the right phrase within the story, I’ll try to think of something that’s in the same mood and voice as the story.  That’s harder to do, and sometimes I really agonize, if that’s the case.

JOANNE: Great tips – thanks! Your winning entry, “More Beautiful,” is evocative and poignant. What gave you the idea for it? How did it come together? How much research did you have to do? Did it turn out how you wanted?

JAN: The story is based on an actual Japanese artform called kintsugi. I don’t remember when I first heard of it; it was several years ago, and it struck me as being ripe for spiritual and emotional metaphor. I wrote a blog entry for the Jewels of Encouragement blog that was more literally based on kintsugi, and then put a much shorter version of that blog entry into my book, Stolen Postcards. When the challenge topic (Accidents Will Happen) suggested kintsugi again, I knew I’d have to write a completely new story—new characters, new setting. So I wrote this little fable that doesn’t even mention the artform specifically, and is set in a vaguely Asian place, but not necessarily Japan.

The research had already been done when I first wrote about kintsugi, so it was just a matter of refreshing my memory and checking a bit on the processes of firing and glazing pottery. I figured that if I made any mistakes, I could shrug them off with ‘well, it’s a fable.’

I like the story quite a bit, and was especially tickled when I got to what I thought was the end (the heir to the throne accepting the damaged princess) and saw that I had enough words left over to give the apprentice potter and her master a happy ending, too.

It interests me, though, that my BoB entry from last year (‘Salvo’) was written in a very similar style—another little fable. I might write one of those per quarter, as it’s not my default writing style—nor my favorite by any means—but they seem to do well. Go figure.

JOANNE: Well, apparently, you are good at writing them as well. What advice do you have for other writers? What is the best writing advice anyone has ever given YOU?

JAN: Don’t write badly. Learn the writing rules and follow them, until your writing has progressed enough that you’ve earned the right to break them.

Read like a writer, especially if you find a book that really speaks to you. Read that book again, but this time, try to determine why that writer chose that time to use a sentence fragment, wrote in that POV and tense, used a semicolon there instead of a period. Carefully study sentences that particularly appeal to you.

If you’re unsure whether you’ve developed the ability to discern good writing from bad, read a proven classic. Then read another one, and another.

Work on your vocabulary.

Accept criticism.

Be an avid observer of people. Don’t write about idealized people—write about real people.

Research, research, research.

Don’t write anything that’s in the least bit like anything you’ve ever read before.

As far as writing advice I’ve received—I can’t think of any. My brother, a talented writer, did tell me to “manage my expectations” when I published my book. He couldn’t have been more right.

 JOANNE: You have entered the Writing Challenge over 200 times over the past 12 years. How has your consistent contributions helped your writing improve? Do you still read over old pieces on occasion – and can you see your growth? What is your favorite entry from your first few years? How about this past year?

JAN: I do read old pieces occasionally, and while some of them make me cringe, it’s heartening to see a general upward trend in the quality of my writing. I learned immensely from talented writers who were contributing to FaithWriters when I first started.

My favorite entry of all time—I doubt I’ll ever write anything better—is called ‘Sacrament.’ It didn’t start out to be an image of communion, but just a story about three precious little boys. But then I neared the end and realized that communion was about to happen—I’ll never forget the satisfaction I felt as a writer when I went back and put the juice box in the cupboard.

My favorite entry this year was for the ‘Calendar’ topic, and was called ‘Arrurrú Mi Niña’ (breaking my rule about titles, as it’s the name of a Spanish lullaby). It was loosely based on the circumstances surrounding my granddaughter’s first month of life, and I also loved the narrator’s hopeful grasp at faith in the last paragraph.

JOANNE: Those are ALL some wonderful pieces. Tell us a bit about your family and life away from FaithWriters.

JAN: I’ve been retired from teaching for eight years, and now I do some freelance editing and a few other jobs that I can do from the comfort of my couch, with coffee and cat nearby. I have two adult daughters and two absolutely precious granddaughters, and my husband and I enjoy traveling. We’re looking forward to a trip to Scotland for our 45th anniversary in a few years.

JOANNE: Scotland sounds like such a special adventure! How can people connect with you?

JAN: I’m on Facebook as Jan Worgul Ackerson and as Superior Editing Service. If you’re looking for an editor (fiction only), check out my editing website: http://www.superioreditingservice.com/

I have Twitter and Instagram accounts, but they’re largely defunct.

On the FaithWriters forums, I have writing lessons on just about any topic related to both the art and science of writing. I haven’t added new lessons for several months, as I ran out of topics (and interest was seeming to wane), but I still respond to anyone who goes through any of the lessons and posts a ‘homework’ assignment or a question.

I have another forum there that I thought would get more traffic, called “Ask an Editor.” I’d be happy to answer questions about writing at that forum.

 JOANNE: I hope you get more responses – and that people connect with you. Is there anything else you would like to add?

JAN: If you used to write at FaithWriters and are no longer active, I encourage you to start entering the Writing Challenge again. I’d be very sad if the site were to fail, but occasionally it looks as if it’s headed in that direction. A Writing Challenge with a healthy number of contributors can be a life-changer; I know dozens of people who can testify to the positive influence of the Writing Challenge on their lives. But there’s nothing even remotely like FaithWriters out there, and if it folds, there will be nothing to take its place.

JOANNE: I couldn’t agree more – and I REALLY need to get an entry in (it has been too long for me). Thanks so much, Jan – and congratulations once again!

Watch for an interview withe the second runner up, Amy Gaudette, here on the blog in the next week or two!

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