Writing “11 Ways to Ruin a Photograph”
|October 7, 2011||Posted by Darcy Pattison under 11Ways|
How big is your heart?
by Darcy Pattison
I stared at the email: We are pleased to announce that you have won “The Help” children’s story writing contest.
I won? This story had been rejected so many times, it was amazing for it to be chosen as winner, especially by Lou Berger, former head writer for Sesame Street. This story–it was a special one for me, a story I had never given up on.
I live near the Little Rock Air Force Base and have watched military families for many years. One sad, but frequent, event is saying good-bye to a loved one as he or she is deployed overseas for a long period of time. When a father or mother, wife or husband is gone for months–often up to a year–it’s a time of struggle.
After the Iraq War started and deployments became even more common, I wrote my story, “11 Ways to Ruin a Photograph.” A girl decides that if her Dad is gone, the it’s NOT a family photo album. She vows that no photograph of her will turn out good until Dad is home.
The story was fun and easy to write. All I had to do was think of ways that a kid might ruin a photograph: hiding behind an umbrella, knocking a camera into a pool and so on. I was pleased with the story and I sent it out eight times; eight times it was rejected.
Here are some of the rejection notes:
- I like the idea behind the story, but in the end, the mss just feels a bit too slight, at least to me. I kept thinking that messing up the photographs is not all this kid would do if she were upset.
- It’s timely and potentially very funny yet touching. However, in the end, I think we felt that we couldn’t connect enough with the main character to really latch on to the story.
- There is a great emotional core at the center of this mss, and I appreciate the empathy with which you’ve written of a child’s struggle to deal with a parent at war. However, the plotting of this story felt episodic, and didn’t build to the climax in a satisfactory way for me.
Have you watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”? Do you remember the ending where the Grinch’s heart grew two sizes?
Rejections like this make me feel that my heart is two sizes too small. The story was meant to empathize with any child whose parent has to travel for long periods of time for work. Especially the military, yes, but for any type of work. It acknowledges the hole left when a parent is gone, and in that sense, it could touch the heart of any child with a parent missing for any reason. Those rejecting the story just didn’t get it.
Yes, I am an old pro at rejections with enough rejections to paper a bathroom; or in these days of email rejections, enough to burn a couple CDs. I know it’s not personal; I know that the editor must connect with the story; I know that one editor’s opinion is just his/her opinion and that opinions vary widely and someone else might love the story. I know rejections.
But somehow, after a while, I just feel that my heart is two sizes too small. It’s not the writing or the story that is bad. It’s my shriveled heart.
I stopped sending the story out.
I sent it nowhere for two years.
In August, 2011, I saw that Take Part media, in conjunction with “The Help” movie (www.takepart.com/thehelp), was holding a writing contest to promote the movie. The categories were a recipe, an inspirational story and a children’s story. I don’t usually enter contests, but this one was interesting because the prize was professional illustrations; the judge was Lou Berger, children’s author and former Head Writer for the popular children’s television series Sesame Street; and, of course, everyone I knew was talking about “The Help.” This was a legitimate, credible contest, with an interesting prize.
I looked over many manuscripts, but in the end, I pulled out “11 Ways to Ruin a Photograph.” It was 600 words, 200 words over the contest’s limits. I added a Nanny and took out 200 words. An hour later, I submitted it and forgot about it.
Amazingly, I won. Response to the story has been amazing and enthusiastic.
With this success, has my heart grown two sizes like the Grinch’s? No. The sting of rejection is real and lasting. I suffer from the belief common among writers and artists that this success was just a fluke. That my art wasn’t rejected, but in the end, I was weighed and found lacking, that I was personally rejected. It’s the struggle that we must fight and overcome every time we sit down before a blank page.
But at least for today–I can look at this book and say, “From my heart to yours, this is a story I care about.”