February also is the month when Punxsutawney Phil gives his weather forecast. From what I understand, we’re in for six more weeks of winter. Might as well get used to it. It’s still winter, but this morning outside my kitchen window, even with fourteen inches of snow on the ground, there was a flock of birds flitting back and forth, birds that delighted me with ideas of spring. There were several cardinals, a blue jay, a woodpecker, a bunch of chickadees, some juncos, sparrows, and a robin! I only saw one robin, but most likely another one was nearby. In spite of what the birds may know about the weather, no doubt we’ll have more snow and ice. After all, it’s still February.
February also is the month when I pick up the poems and short stories submitted for our Arts Commission’s county-wide writing contest. I’ve been chairing the Snowbound Writers’ Contest for more than twenty years. I take off the cover pages, sort them, and get the entries to the designated judges. I do not judge these entries. In fact, I don’t even read the entries prior to submitting them to the judges.
I’ve judged other writing contests, and I’ve learned a few things in the process. I’m always amazed how many entries don’t follow the directions for submission. Everything turned in should be grammatically correct. Typos and disregard for contest directions are definite negatives. Moreover, short stories should have a beginning, middle, with an ending that is logical, satisfying, or surprising. There are only so many universal themes, so it’s important to make the story tight and “say” something unique to life. Similarly poems should surprise the reader with some fresh image or concept. A poem should have cadence and rhythm, although it’s not necessary to have rhyme.
Both poetry and fiction should reflect the writer’s voice, a tone that is defined in literature as “the attitude of a writer toward his subject and toward his audience. It is the emotional coloring, or the emotional meaning, of the work, and is an extremely important part of the full meaning.” (from Sound & Sense, chapter 10, page 123). Readers easily can discern whether the author’s attitude is playful or mocking, reverent or excited. Each writer has his/ her own voice, and I find it interesting to recognize that element. Consider, for instance, the voice and tone of Hemmingway vs. Faulkner.
If you get the change to judge a writing contest, accept the challenge. You’ll be surprised by how many entries deal with the same subjects—the death of a favorite pet, the memory of a certain relative, the sunset, the sunrise, seasons of the year, and such. It’s okay to write about these things, of course, but given that many deal with the same theme, make sure your version offers a fresh view about the subject.
Your writing will be different after you’ve judged a writing contest. You will strive to make your voice distinctive, your viewpoint personal, and your perspective universal.