Becoming an Author: Not a Lonely Life

By Ayshe Talay-Ongan, Author of Turquoise, A Love Story

I thought I‘d never retire from being an academic; that I’d be carried out in a box, in fact. But I had to leave my university career on principle. I floundered and spent hours on the Internet looking for ways to occupy myself and divert my knowledge base to be of use to others. I volunteered. I accepted guest lecturer posts. I started piano lessons. My husband and I learned to salsa. Then I realised that this was a sterling opportunity to do what I’d always wanted to do: write. Write a novel that is, inspired by my life experiences. Boy, did I have a story to tell!

A hundred pages on, I sent my fledgling manuscript to be assessed. By then I was convinced that I had found my voice. My prose was mostly broken sentences, incomplete and replete with inferences left to the reader. It was all narrative. Poetry in prose, I claimed in vain.

“Rich, inner landscape,” they said. “But show, not tell.”

So I practiced writing dialogue. I wrote and I wrote. I squeezed my entire life into a long manuscript, making a different choice each time from my palette of words that indicated an utterance after the quotation marks — intoned, purred, whispered, asserted, claimed, went, exhorted among them. And said, sometimes.

Then I joined a week-long workshop for writers under the gentle but deeply revealing guidance of two very able and experienced editors. It was in Bali. Our time was balanced with group and individual sessions. Such a revelation to listen to other writers’ revisions and getting feedback on mine! My days ended with a massage and a languid swim. New knowledge seeped under my skin to stay. Coming back home, I started re-writing from scratch.

Firstly, I cut my manuscript in half —there was simply too much of a story (my husband had said to me earlier that there were seven novels in it and I’d turned a deaf ear). Then I simplified my sentences. I took the ornate descriptions and awkward metaphors out. Less was more! Used said at the end of a quote, nothing more. If I used three words to describe, I used two; between two descriptors I made a choice still. Then I started sending sequential chunks of my work to one of the editors who’d agreed to work with me. Each chunk came back with heaps of comments for me to think about. I revised, reread and revised again.

Now it was time for the structural edit. My second editor too, was wise and experienced; such good luck, because without that inherent sense of mutual respect and humor, productive collaboration is not possible and would tickle the reactive (arrogant?) bone.  She taught me about texture, language of character and place, pacing, tying loose ends, weaving the events and consequences. I rewrote my manuscript. Again.

Then I went to a writer’s conference in New York, feeling quite confident about my manuscript. In the first two days, were taught to write that magical, one page, and irresistible heart of our work to hook the prospective editors – the pitch. We made our presentations to three editors on day three. I was advised to think about changing the title of my novel during those few days too, so Loves Imperative gave way to Turquoise – A Love Story. I did get one editor interested and forwarded her my work. Came home with bells on my toes, but it was not to be.

I cannot possibly remember how many agents and publishers I approached with that pitch letter. Most were done with an email, some wanted the print manuscript, some an attachment. With each one, hope soared. But one grows a thick skin with rejections and falls into frequent self-doubt in this business. But there’s no giving up.

The three textbooks I published during my academic career had taken six months each to submit. To have my novel come to a publishable standard, polished to a shine took four years and another year from signing the contract with my publisher to having the book in hand.

I got my doctorate in considerably shorter time.

And now I’m working on the sequel to Turquoise. I feel better equipped, thanks to my apprenticeship with my mentors. Writing the second one may be a lonelier journey, but I doubt that it will be any less delectable.

Having lived in Istanbul, New York City, San Francisco, Paris, Florence and Sydney, Ayshe Talay-Ongan is a true citizen of the world. Turkish by birth, American by citizenship and Australian by residence, Talay-Ongan has called Sydney home since 1989. A psychologist (M.S., Ph.D., Columbia University), and emeritus academic, Talay-Ongan has three published textbooks in developmental psychology and dozens of research articles in academic

Turquoise – A Love Story (January 31, 2012, Sid Harta Publishers) is her debut novel. The book captures the saga a love that spans two decades, three continents and two marriages, and is inspired by Talay-Ongan’s own life experiences. Its sequel, Emerald, is currently underway.

Talay-Ongan lives in Sydney, Australia with her family and Burmese cat Simba, who likes sleeping on her head.