Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Au Revoir, Genève

The Schynige Platte: a nice spot
for some writing
For two and a half years, I have spent my days tidying stories in a turret. I have lived in a wood-panelled room – a land-locked ship’s cabin, I like to think – and I have watched the drifting of the clouds and the phases of the moon through the windows above my head. I have walked to a market each Sunday, or else taken a tiny orange train up a hillside to visit my cousin and his family. I have explored: cities, lakes, woods, summer mountains on foot, winter mountains on skis. I have become used to the unfamiliar, not just languages and cultures that aren’t my own, but the sound of church bells in the morning, the smell of cooking cheese or vin chaud in the street, the sight of little old men walking giant chess pieces around giant chessboards in the park… Reflecting on it all like this, I realise how wonderful and strange my time in Switzerland has been, almost like something from a story in itself. And now it is coming to an end - as all stories must.

I have always been driven by the desire to write – and the hope that writing could one day make up the bulk of my income. My Literary Consultant job here has been fantastic, but now I have the opportunity to put aside the editing and administration and concentrate on freelance ghostwriting and my own stories. And I know the place to do that is not in this charmed but expensive and faraway city, but in my beloved Edinburgh – my home, to which it is time to return.

View of Grand Rue, Geneva Old Town, the street on which I've lived and worked

Despite feeling fairly confident about this decision, it's breaking my heart a little, leaving Geneva while I'm having such a good time. I think perhaps it would help to dwell on the negative: the endless bureaucracy here, for example; the lack of sea; the customer service that borders on abuse. But I can’t. Switzerland, despite its reputation as a rather twee and snoozy little country, is an extraordinary place - not least for the fact its people once had the bright idea of dipping bread in booze and melted cheese. 

The mighty Matterhorn
It's also beautiful. I remember learning about  nature inspiring feelings of the sublime when studying Gothic literature at university, and I have felt that sensation again and again in Switzerland. When I hiked around the Schynige Platte above Interlaken last summer, or under the Matterhorn’s domineering shadow in early Autumn, the sights made my heart soar. I think I now understand why Julie Andrews went twirling off towards that mountainous horizon singing all sorts of silliness about musical hills – she just couldn’t keep it in. If you have never been to Switzerland, I urge you to visit at the first possible opportunity.

Of course, it’s people that really complete a place, and I have made some amazing friends out here. Geneva is a transient city, where most only stick around for a few years (or even months), so I’ve been very fortunate in this regard. Whether we’ve been indulging in thimble-sized glasses of wine in expensive bars, or slobbing out in front of TV shows in each other’s apartments; whether we’ve been lounging in the sunshine at the Perle du Lac park, or zooming down ski slopes in the biting cold - my friends and I have experienced this mad and magical place together. 

In many of these friends, and especially in my colleagues, I have also found kindred, creative spirits. We’ve swapped new story ideas, we’ve made colourful spreadsheets of competition deadlines together, we’ve read one another’s fiction – first drafts, fourth drafts, last drafts – and offered our comments. We’ve been there to share in each other’s successes – and commiserated in the face of a few, inevitable setbacks. We even made it official, forming The Pen Poppers writing group for regular practice, feedback and encouragement. As I have said before, writing is such a solitary occupation, I find it best to try and share as much of the process as possible. 

Skiing with my creative colleagues
(and two of my favourite Geneva people), Helen and Elodie

Which leads me onto my writing in Geneva. One of the reasons I want to pursue the next stage of my career in Edinburgh is that I have been a little starved of writing opportunities (as opposed to writing people) in Switzerland. But, in a way, being cut off from the UK literary scene has encouraged me to connect more in cyberspace. In the past few years, I have set up twitter and LinkedIn accounts, dedicated more time to Writer’s Block, completed Nanowrimo twice, joined two Reading Challenges, acquired Goodreads and Amazon author profiles. Now I think about it, I’m not sure I would have made my online presence quite so known, had I not felt far away.

I know I’ll return to Switzerland, both physically and in my writing (I’m already noticing a lot more mountain scenery popping up in my fiction), so I’m sure this is not the last time I’ll talk about my experiences here. But I wanted to get at least some of it down before I went, because I know it’ll seem different in a few weeks, and more different still a year or two down the line. So this is how it is right now, on the brink of leaving Geneva - and this is how I am: happy, grateful, inspired, better organised, more focused, more like a writer, even a little more worldly. And, conversely, because of all that, I'm also ready to go.

Jumping for joy at the top of Mont Salève

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ghosting, Introduction: What is a Ghostwriter?

When I moved to Geneva a couple of years ago, I went to a few getting-to-know you events in order to avoid becoming a complete social outcast. Because of the corporate-humanitarian focus of this city, I always felt something of a curiosity amongst all the frighteningly ambitious young bankers and jaded UN interns at these drinks, especially when the inevitable question came up again and again: what do you do? And I learnt, after a few evenings of clutching at an overpriced glass of wine and trying to make conversation with - shudder - strangers, I could answer this question in two ways...

Answer One: I'm a Literary Consultant. I work in a Geneva-based publishing house doing editing, proofreading and coordinating the administration.

Answer Two: I'm a ghostwriter.

Both are true. Answer One is my day job, Answer Two is my freelance work. But I'm sure you can imagine which one always provoked the better reaction.

But what is a ghostwriter?* Although it varies from job to job, generally a ghostwriter is hired to write or rewrite a piece of text - whether that be a book, short story, report or article - by somebody who will be credited as the official author.

Going back to those drinks, this explanation has prompted some incredulity in its time: Is that a thing? I've never even heard of that.

By this point, I've found the easiest way forward is to mention the multitude of celebrity autobiographies that grace the bookshop shelves and bestseller lists. Of course, there are a lot of ghostwriters of fiction out there (myself included), but I would imagine the biggest pool of work lies in biographical writing; the self-penned stories of actors, sports stars, businesspeople and so on. In fact, I think most people would be surprised how many books out there are written, at least in part, by someone other than the named author.

And it's not a bad thing. That's another issue that arises from the ghostwriting conversation: there tends to be judgement - not of me, but of the clients - as though it's somehow shameful to have put your name to something you haven't bashed out on a keyboard, word for word. It's not. Plenty of individuals have stories to tell, but not necessarily the time, skills, education or even the confidence to tell them without a little help.

I'm hoping to return to these issues and more in an (occasional) series of posts entitled Ghosting. Firstly because the three and a half years I've spent as a ghostwriter have hugely affected my own creative writing - almost entirely for the better, believe it or not. Given that Writer's Block is intended to track my writing progress, it would be strange not to talk about it.

I also freely admit to not knowing a huge amount about the world of ghostwriting myself because, for obvious reasons, much of it is shrouded in secrecy. In Ghosting, I'll be talking about my experience in general terms, to protect the anonymity of my clients, and I would love it if other ghosties could come forward and do the same, in order that we might learn a little from one another. After all, I suspect there are a number of you out there, haunting the internet, so do give me a wail or rattle your chains in my direction if you feel so inclined.

*Incidentally, many don't need me to explain the concept of ghostwriting to them, because they've seen the Ewan McGregor film The Ghost Writer, or read the Robert Harris novel Ghost on which it's based:

In my experience, the profession is not nearly as exciting or dangerous.