A new nightmare in town

I have a new nightmare. Not the kind in which I’m being chased, hunted, or physically threatened. I actually don’t mind those ones so much, probably because even my subconscious recognizes the implausibility of zombies invading San Luis Obispo. So I wake up a little nervous, but manage to shake off the effects of the dream long before I leave the house with a last injunction to the cats to “make good choices.”

Not so when the nightmare in question raises questions about my professional qualifications or performance as a student. Dreams in which I’m late to class or work—or outright fail to show up—color my entire day. They make me doubt myself. And though I haven’t been a student in more than eight years and acquitted myself quite well when I was, those dreams still kick in my overachiever instincts. In fact, I suspect it’s the fact that I am an overachiever with no hope for reform that makes these nightmares so debilitating.

Last night I dreamed that Scourge of the Righteous Haddock received a negative review. And it was agonizing. In my dream I was paralyzed, hurt, and confused, as a woman, a stranger, read what she had to say about the book to me. She complained that there was cursing (which does occur twice, although the words are what I think of as curse words lite) and insisted that the book was so poorly put together that she couldn’t stand to have it under her roof for a single night, so she sold it. The encounter had a potentous quality to it, and I’ve been analyzing it ever since.

Eventually, a bad review will come. The best I can hope is that it’s overwhelmed by other, more positive observations and feedback. It’s possible that my subconscious is preparing me, toughening me up for what’s to come. I do crossfit four days a week to remain physically tough (and sane, though that’s another story). But it’s something of a puzzle to figure out how to distance yourself from the response to something you poured yourself into, even if you know it’s not perfect and that you could, realistically, benefit from feedback. I’m not very good at letting go of things. I never have been. I still remember criticism from teachers in elementary school. And it still stings.

This is not a plea for anyone to pull any punches when reviewing my book, by the way. Please don’t. You won’t be doing me any favors, as a writer or person. Be honest. Hopefully there’s something you like to help balance whatever you don’t, the flaws and mistakes of a first-time novelist. I need those reviews. Both to improve and to attract new readers.

I’ve been practicing dealing with rejection with humor and grace. And it seems to be working. I receive rejection letters from literary agents and publishers and it’s unpleasant but not debilitating. In fact, I’ve made a point of sharing these rejection letters with the hope that other writers will come to understand that the worst they have to fear really is fear itself. They’re just letters, and they’re almost always far too vague to offer any specific criticism of your work. I’m hoping this attitude and exercise will help prepare me for those negative reviews.

With that in mind, here’s a rejection letter I received this morning from a publisher I queried some six months ago (and yes, the book has since been published, so this one stung only minimally). It is the spirit of civility and undeniably the most touchy-feely of the rejections I’ve received:

Dear Ashley Schwellenbach,

Thank you for your submission to Bailiwick Press. We appreciate your interest in our press and in the importance of good literature for children. After reviewing your work, we’ve decided that it is not a good fit for us. We hope you’ll continue to find ways to tell the stories that are in your heart.
Sincerely,
The team at Bailiwick Press
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