Saturday, May 03, 2014

If you love your mystery writer

The return of Charles Benoit!

One of the founding members of Type M for Murder, lo those many years ago, was the august Charles Benoit, he of the fast quip, hair-trigger sense of humour, and rather skewed way of looking at things – and that’s before he even picks up a pen in earnest. I’m thrilled to welcome him back, even if it’s only for two days. So take it away, sir!

I used to write mystery novels for adults, but now I write books for YA (Young Adult) readers.

I blame you for this.

Probably not you specifically1, but you as in the larger category of “readers of mysteries written for adults.” It was the way you treated me (and other mystery writers) that sparked the idea that eventually led to the switch. If you had acted differently back then, there’s a good chance I’d still be writing around-the-world mystery novels that were the darlings of fans and critics alike. Instead, I’m writing YA noir for a whole new crowd of readers who really know how to treat an author. As a public service2, I’d like to point out some of the behaviors that you routinely exhibited that forced me out of the field.

You’re way too nice. When I was writing mysteries, I averaged about 3 book signing events a month, more when a book was launching and less in those frantic weeks before a deadline. In all those events—and we’re talking a couple hundred—not once did anyone come up and say, “Your book sucked.” Now no book, no matter how good, appeals to every reader, and every author knows this. But when all you hear is praise, you know that somebody’s got to be lying to you. Hear too much of it, and pretty soon you wonder if anybody’s being straight with you. Teens, on the other hand, have no problem telling you exactly what they think about your book. When they love it, they love it with a passion that can be a bit frightening. And if, by chance, they were not pulled in by the story or the characters, they let you have it. “Your book sucked,” “I hated it,” and “BORING,” are just a few of the thoughtful ways they share this reasoned feedback. Sure, it’s no fun to hear, but at least you know they’re not just being nice. If you love your mystery novelists, be mean to them.

You ask easy questions. The Q&A portion of a book event could be the most amazing part of the night. Instead, it usually turns out to be 20 minutes of softball questions about developing ideas and cover images and writing schedules. Not so at a Q&A at a YA book event. There, an author had better be ready to defend everything—from names and settings to minor plot points, word choices, song references, snack food mentions and things that didn’t happen in the book but that kindda-sortta-might-have-happened in a different, never-written version of a similar book. Don’t have a good answer? Don’t worry, your teen readers will provide you with one, along with alternative endings, sequel ideas, play lists and lots and lots of new character names. If you love your mystery novelist, ask her tougher questions and she won’t wander off looking for a challenge.

You don’t ask us to do your homework for you. Ok, part of this may be that few adults who read mystery novels have homework, but even those who do, don’t ask authors to do it for them. By contrast, every author I know who writes for YA readers gets an email or two that insists that we help them with their assignments. The requests go something like this3:

Dear Mr. Benoit, I loved your new book, Cold Calls. It was the best book I ever read!!! I have a few questions about the book. 1. What was the theme of the novel? 2. How did the author use SYMBOLISM in the novel? (Be sure to cite specific examples. 5pts. each.) 3. How did the characters in this book compare to the characters in the books we’ve read as a class? Oh, and I need the answers tonight!!! THNXS!!!

I ask you, when was the last time you provided your favorite mystery author the opportunity to write insanely crazy answers to questions that you then handed in believing them to be the truth? I’m betting never. If you love your mystery author, give him the chance to flex his creative muscles on a pointless and potentially hilarious (not to you) assignment.

I love to write, whether it’s for adults or teens or adults who like to read teen books. And, like all authors, I like to discuss what I’ve written with my readers. The next time you go to a book event—any book event—let the author know you appreciate her work enough to act like a smart-ass teenager. Trust me, she’ll thank you for it.

1But maybe.
2And as a way to prevent more competition in the YA world.
3Edited version of an actual email I got this week.

Charles Benoit is Edgar-nominated the author of Relative Danger, Out of Order and Noble Lies. His noir-flavored Young Adult novels include YOU, Fall From Grace and Cold Calls. And he has this brilliant manuscript for a WWII caper novel this close to being done. Learn more at

Photo credit: Kurt Brownell Photography


Eileen Goudge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eileen Goudge said...

I can totally relate, having published in both YA and adult fiction genres. I agree, YA readers are brutally honest but you gotta love 'em. My favorite letters from kids were the ones that said, not only was mine the best book they ever read, it was the ONLY book and now that they were turned on to reading they would read more. That's when you really know you're doing something right.

Vicki Delany said...

A delight, as always. Nice to have you back, Charles.