Overcoming writer’s block – the Holy Grail of Writerdom

Writer’s block. That horrible moment when your mind, usually careening along at a hundred miles an hour, hits a brick wall. In an instant you go from feeling like the new Hemingway or Rowling, to feeling like a flattened hedgehog. You are stuck. Writing your own name becomes an excruciating, sweating, nerve-shredding, Himalayan endeavour. You loathe the idea of approaching your laptop. You talk to yourself, you gee yourself up. Scenes from the Rocky movies burst into your consciousness. You punch the air – jab jab hook, then sit down determinedly at your desk. And …

Nothing.

The mind is a blank vacuum, as vacant as the vastness between stars.

 

writers block

If this were professional sports you’d go talk to the team therapist, who’d look moistly into your eyes, and ask you if your mummy held you too much as a kid (or something like that, I suppose. Why do grown sportsmen need therapists anyway?)

As an author (I write a light-hearted crime series set in India,  featuring a baby elephant, the first of which is The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra), I have been here many times. So what should you do?

  1. Hurl laptop against wall, and swear a sacred oath never to write another word?
  2. Sit there until you overcome, never leaving your room, or washing, or changing your clothes, descending slowly into red-eyed, cackling-laugh madness?
  3. Remember that you were once a human being with a real life, and many interests?

c) is the answer (though a) and b) are often employed by first-timers to the Block.)

Forget the writing. Go do something else. Play cricket (badly, as I do, and without the safety net of on-tap therapy). Buy a present for someone you love (or remotely like even). Read those books you’ve been putting off. Watch a crap movie. Stuff your face with ice-cream sundaes. Live a normal life for a while . . . and then come back to it.

Lo and behold. The train judders, the stationmaster blows his whistle . . . and you’re off.

All the clichés are true. The mind becomes jaded, overfull, like a bunged-up toilet, and sometimes it really is just a case of giving it a well-deserved rest, a metaphorical chance for the crud to seep away. Routine is important, but taking a break from the routine is also an important part of the routine. If you see what I mean.

Even the Great Ones suffered from Writer’s Block. No doubt Shakespeare snapped many a quill in his time, and went out for an ale and a game of quoits when the drought hit him.

If it was good enough for Shakey, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

Just saying.

What am I currently reading …

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkBilly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel is a war satire seeking to use comedy to say something profound about America’s involvement in the Iraq war. It is billed as the Catch-22 of that war, but it is certainly not that. Catch-22 was groundbreaking, one of the best novels of the century, a book whose images and raucous language stay with you. This is a good book, and well written, but not in the same league. The story follows a unit of American soldiers – including Billy Lynn – who are being feted at an American football game in Texas. The author creates an amusing cast of caricatures, and takes the time to explore the unit’s experiences in Iraq, and the attitudes of American civilians to the conflict. Billy is a sympathetic enough central character, and there is plenty of satirical humour. I found it an engaging read, with some neat prose. A solid debut.

View all my reviews

An author’s take on World Book Day

So, last week the ‘world’ celebrated World Book Day, on the face of it, a wonderful idea. It is the prevailing wisdom that children are falling out of love with the written word. A report by Common Sense Media, entitled “Children, Teens, and Reading,” suggests that, in the US, “since 1984, the percent of 13-year-olds who are weekly readers went down from 70% to 53%, and the percent of 17-year-olds who are weekly readers went from 64% to 40%.” The mechanism by which WBD aims to reverse this trend is to create an emotional connection between children and the characters in books. WBD encourages children to bring to life their favourite literary characters – hence the frightening number of Harry Potters stalking the streets on the big day. This is the 19th year there’s been a WBD. Organisers send resources and activities to participating schools. Millions of book vouchers reach children who can take them to a local bookseller and pick one of 10 designated books, or get £1 off any book at a participating bookshop. All of this sounds worthy, but the question remains – does any of it actually achieve the stated objective?

wbd

Because the ‘downside’ of World Book Day is that this has unwittingly become yet another source of competition between children, with the inevitable consequences for parents. Ian Midgley of the Hull Daily Mail comments “During World Parent Disruption Day poor bedraggled parents are charged with finding increasingly bizarre costumes at vast expense so their kids can wear them at school for a few hours before discarding them in the dressing up box never to be seen again.” Midgley goes on to say: “It’s a scam. A swizz. A Brave New World attempt to make us shell out endless more cash for endless more products we don’t need that has absolutely nothing to do with books or reading or literary endeavour.” Alice Winter of the Telegraph trawls through Twitter to showcase the struggles of costume prep for WBD in this illuminating feature: World Book Day costumes: a parent’s 7 stages of crisis 

As an author (I write a light-hearted crime series set in India and featuring a baby elephant, the first of which is The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra) I sit uncomfortably on the fence. For me the vision of WBD is sound. Children learn through fantasy and role-play – this has been amply demonstrated through research. In their paper “Symbolic Play and Emergent Literacy” Sandra J. Stone and William Stone state: “Both literacy and symbolic play require the ability to use words, gestures or mental images to represent actual objects, events or actions. The very nature of symbolic play … has an intimate relationship with reading and writing … in that children use similar representational mental processes in both.” Yet unintended consequences are also part and parcel of such schemes, as Midgley suggests.

I work in a university. Evidence-based thinking is part of our DNA, and so, personally, I’d like to see a systematic review of WBD – what evidence is there that it really enables reading, or embeds a love of literature? If so, what is the effect size? Does this effect persist as the child ages? I know, I know, I’m a killjoy. But, then again, some argue that the millions spent on WBD costumes each year might be better spent on books. Now, that’s a novel idea.

Finding inspiration – following in the footsteps of J.K. Rowling and Ian Rankin

Recently I found myself in the beautiful Scottish city of Edinburgh for the first time. Whilst there I took the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of two of my favourite authors, Ian Rankin, creator of the John Rebus detective series, now in its twentieth iteration, and the inimitable J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels.

The Rebus series has long been a favourite of mine. I have marvelled at the way Rankin has created a character that, on the face of it, we shouldn’t be drawn to – Rebus is a dishevelled drunk with an oft dubious approach to police work. And yet Rankin wins us over. He imbues Rebus with a wonderful sense of moral unstoppability, whiskey and all. Edinburgh is John Rebus’s city and Rankin has not only brought the place to life, but chronicled its evolution over the past two decades. I decided to pay homage to the series by walking the ‘Rebus route’, checking out such iconic locations as Fleshmarket Close, and slogging my way up to the top of Arthur’s Seat, a high hill just yards from the modernistic new Scottish parliament building and the old Holyrood Palace. From Arthur’s Seat I had an incredible view of the city, and I could imagine Rankin sitting up here on a bright and breezy day penning the next tale in the series.

The following day I found my way to The Elephant House café where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter novel. Nowadays the café has become a pilgrimage site – I saw people from all over the world there to take pictures and partake of a coffee in the ‘birthplace of Harry Potter’. I ordered a fresh orange juice, and a smoked salmon and scrambled eggs breakfast, then took my seat on a comfortable sofa with my notepad and began to write. I could not have asked for a more perfectly inspiring venue – given that my crime series, featuring the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency, has a baby elephant as the sidekick to Mumbai police inspector Ashwin Chopra. The wonderful response to the first book in the series, The Unexpected Inheritance of Chopra, has made me realise that a lot of people really love elephants! And there are over 600 elephants in The Elephant House – my little Ganesha would have been quite at home, I feel! Beneath the eyes of J.K. Rowling, I spent two wonderful hours writing and people-watching. By the end of that time I’d written out a rough outline of another novel in the series. That’s the power of inspiration for you!

 

A day in the life of a crime author

I was recently asked by the Crime Readers Association to provide a blog piece about a day in my life ie. the life a crime author. Truthfully, however, the piece should be entitled ‘a day in the life of a crime author who also has a full-time job, plays cricket and juggles half-a-dozen other commitments whilst fervently praying that he doesn’t drop any of the spinning plates…’. At any rate, if you would like to read the piece entitled ‘A day in the life of author Vaseem Khan’ please click here’

 

vaseem with book

What makes an elephant a great sidekick for a crime novel?

Many readers have asked me why I chose an elephant as the chief sidekick in my debut novel ‘The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra’, the first in the light-hearted Baby Ganesh detective agency crime series. Aside from the fact that I am passionate about these magnificent creatures, there are many perfectly valid reasons that elephants make sense in the role of sidekick to a detective.

I discussed these reasons in a blog piece for Sainsbury’s ebooks. Click here to read.

Just chilling

Just chilling