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

Lessons from Harper Lee … writing that all important second novel

With Harper Lee’s second novel due to be launched today and generating unprecedented excitement around the world, many writers not blessed with a fan base who have patiently waited 50 years for their next offering are left to bleakly ponder the Herculean task of following up a first novel with another of equal attraction, particularly if the first has been in any way  successful. Having climbed the peak, it is disheartening to realise that the only way is down. Nevertheless, herein lies, perhaps,  the acid test. If a writer is to enjoy a long term career – to make the transition from hobbyist to full-time author – then a second novel is not only a must, but must be good enough to bring along the fans that the first book created.

How does one do this? What is the secret?

I have recently been learning that there are some rules of thumb one can use as a guide. I have just completed the first draft of the second novel in my series about the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency. The first in the series is The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, out in August 2015. The second is entitled The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown. As this is a series, my task is made that bit easier. For one, the lead characters are the same. But it is not enough to simply reintroduce them. The characters must grow. Fans expect to learn something new about them in each entry in the series. This is not as easy as it seems, because whatever ‘newness’ you introduce must be consistent with the prior character you have built. For instance, the baby elephant Ganesha now reveals a greater emotional depth, and begins to branch out on his own, an adventure within an adventure. Secondly, there must be new characters, not just because it is a new story, but because the world you created must be fleshed out. No one lives in a goldfish bowl. The tone of the second novel in a series must be consistent – there is nothing more jarring than a series that suddenly seems to be penned by another writer (in some cases it is!)

The plot itself is the key. If the plot of your first novel was the single biggest thing that attracted your audience you have now set the bar frighteningly high. It is unlikely you are going to find another brilliant killer twist, or incredible tale to tell. But you do need to ensure that you find something that stacks up as a solid second effort. This means taking the time to allow that idea to germinate, then flower. Publishers are keen to strike while the iron is hot, ie. while you are hot. But sometimes it pays to allow a quality product to simmer to the boil before unleashing that all-important second offering upon the world.

What do writers do at their first literary festival?

For a newly published author a first invitation to speak at a literary festival can be a daunting prospect. After all, if your sole experience of such events has been in the capacity of bibliophile it is quite a dramatic change of mindset to approach it from the other side of the fence. This year I was invited to speak at the Greenwich Book Festival on a panel discussing the inspirations behind crime writing.

Naturally, the first reaction is delight. Am I now important enough to be invited to speak at major literary events? Hurrah! I have arrived. The incipient megalomania, however, is swiftly tempered by a concatenation of realisations that thud into your mind like a barrage of cannon-fire … oh, God, I have to meet my readers!  How can I possibly appear charming, witty, debonair, interesting? What if they despise me? Will I put them off reading future books? Will I come across as a smug self-satisfied narcissist? What if I’m asked a question I haven’t prepared for? How sweaty can one get on stage and still look composed?

Calm down. The good news is that most literary festivals are very well organised and most people in the world of books, particularly readers,  are wonderful and sympathetic. Greenwich University was a beautiful location for such an event, on the banks of a Thames dappled by May sunlight.  The organisers had thoughtfully set up a room so that I could meet my fellow panellists and the chair, a very jovial Dr Michael Fiddler, in advance to plot strategy. When the curtain rose I felt relaxed and at ease. To use a cricketing metaphor the chair deftly bowled half-trackers at me which I proceeded to hit out of the park. When the floor was opened to questions the audience was gentle, and kind. My fellow panellists – one of them bestselling author Clare Mackintosh, the other talented writer Paula Lichtarowicz – were wonderful.

So … my advice? Embrace any such opportunity that comes your way. For writing is a lonely business at the best of times, and literary festivals are the great gathering places of like-minded souls. What is there to be afraid of?

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