On shelving a book when it was your lifeline
I still remember the first time I spoke to someone about the idea percolating in the back of my mind that would eventually turn into Allie Mae Doesn't Get the Guy, a YA contemporary I spend four years rewriting and six months querying unsuccessfully.
It was late 2016, and I was visiting my friend at her apartment in Astoria. We went to a park and we sat in the grass, and I sketched out an idea that was overcomplicated and inflated and involved five love interests who each served as a take on a trope and a girl who got...none of them.
Needless to say, the finished version of Allie Mae bears little resemblance to that far-fetched take, but that's where it all started. The finished version of Allie Mae is about a 17-year-old aspiring romance writer who is dying for a love of her own. She's ignoring the depression coloring the edges of her vision, and she's been crushing on a boy at her work for nearly two years now. Until she meets a boy in Williamsburg, sparks fly, and well...romance ensues.
Plot happens, and Allie Mae winds up sent to Italy for two months to live with her estranged aunt. There she meets a new boy and suddenly she's confused and she does a lot of angry running through the streets (the kind where you're, like, running away from someone, not going for a jog) and she gets deeply depressed and there's kissing in Venice and tacos in Brooklyn and boys on motorcycles.
And I love this book. I really do, with all of my heart. I think it's filled with heart, I think it's doing its best, and I think it would have been a great book to debut with. This is the story I wrote to convince myself that it's okay if you don't have romantic love in your life. This is a story that still deeply resonates with all the parts of myself I've ever hidden and hated.
But that was before I queried 50+ agents and all of them said no. They had their reasons — good ones, even! — and with some distance I've seen that maybe they were right. Maybe the book wasn't ready, or the market wouldn't have known what to do with it, or the pandemic is sucking the life out of us slowly and it just wasn't the right timing. Maybe it's a bad book! (I don't think so, but maybe.)
The point is, I shelved Allie Mae. I started work on a new project that captured my heart and attention, and so it didn't hurt as much as it maybe would have to slowly stop sending agents queries for this one. I started focusing on a new heroine, and writing romances, and writing queer leads, and it fit a part of my soul that I didn't know was there, and I won't say I forgot Allie Mae but I did stop thinking about her daily.
Recently a friend of mine read the book and raved about it and it was a nice reminder that, hey, this ISN'T a bad book. It may even, someday, be a published book! Now just wasn't the right time for it, you know?
Shelving a book is...painful. There's really no other way to describe it. You spend months if not years scraping a story out of your heart and committing it to paper, then even more time wrangling it into decent shape, and you have friends and strangers read it and tell you, "that plot hole's the size of Jupiter, sheesh," or, "I really love this one throughline you have," and you fix it up and you feel good about yourself and you decide maybe it's time to send it to a gatekeeper.
And rejection sucks, man. It burns a hole right through your chest and heart, reaching into your soul to give a lil shake and a, "you're not good enough." It makes you feel unworthy and you start to question every decision you made — not just about the book but able every step that led you to willingly putting yourself in the path of this heartache.
But you keep doing it. Rejection comes in, take a deep breath, send another query. And again. And again. And ag —
Until you have to stop. You've run out of agents, or of patience, or of strength. All of those are okay reasons to shelve a book! You are valid. But your pain is real, too. I think that merits saying, sometimes. You can soak in it or ignore it or do whatever you need to handle it, but just know — it's valid.
As we get to the point where I should wrap up this post, I find I'm not sure how to neatly close this out. I did query another book after Allie Mae. That didn't go anywhere either. I'm still writing. I'm still hoping, and believing in myself and my characters.
And ultimately, maybe that's all we can do: write, rewrite, and have faith.