Guest Post by Matt Witten
Meet the Killer… or Not
It was three a.m. in Laugarvatn, Iceland, and I couldn’t sleep. Now partly that was because it’s still light in Iceland in June, and my circadian rhythms were bouncing all over the place. But there was a much deeper problem. Here I was, two thirds of the way through the first draft of my mystery thriller Killer Story, and doubt held me in its iron grip. Had I chosen the wrong murderer?
That seemed impossible. This was my sixth mystery novel, and I’ve written lots of mystery episodes for Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Medium, and other shows. When I start writing a mystery, there are things I’m not sure of: who all the red herrings are, and what all the plot twists will be. But two things I’ve always known, absolutely: who gets killed, and who does the killing. The beginning of the novel/TV show, and the end.
But now here I was, on my skinny little bed at the Gullkistan Artist Colony (great place, BTW; highly recommend), retracing the entire book in my head. I was finally facing up to the cold hard truth that my murderer didn’t really appear until page 80 of the book. I mean, he kind of showed up in the second chapter, but barely. And if there’s one thing about mysteries that I’ve always believed, it’s this: the audience has to meet the killer early. Otherwise the solution to the murder at the end of the book won’t be satisfying.
Hit the Panic Button
So I tried to think of ways to introduce the killer earlier. Maybe I could give him more to do in chapter 2. But it didn’t really make sense. Could I bring him in again at page 40? No, not really, it would kill the book’s flow.
Well, maybe page 80 is soon enough…
No, I’m kidding myself.
Panic set in, along with that old feeling I think all writers have: I’m a fraud.
And that’s when the thought hit me, born of desperation: if I have the wrong murderer, who’s the right one?
Well, it can’t be character X (avoiding spoilers here). It can’t be character Y. It can’t be character Z…
Or can it?
No, there’s no way it can be Z. For several important reasons.
Although, if it could be Z, wouldn’t that be cool?
But it can’t.
But what if…?
Saddle Another Horse
I lay in bed for another five hours, and by the time I got up for breakfast, or dinner or whatever it was, I had decided: the killer is Z!
First time I’ve ever changed that horse in midstream, and you know what? It worked out great! The end of the book, where the hero figures out who done it, is my favorite part.
I took away a couple of lessons from that. One is, if you have a voice inside you telling you that something isn’t quite right, listen to it. Honor it. (Unless it’s the voice telling you you’re a fraud. You can ignore that one.)
The other thing I learned, or relearned, is: it’s really valuable when you’re writing to take some time to reflect. Whether you’re in bed, out walking, swimming, or biking, try to get a little distance from your book and take the long view.
Maybe you’ll learn that your character Z is the killer!
I’ve written in all kinds of genres: novels, TV shows, stage plays, and movies.
My mystery thriller KILLER STORY is now out! How far will Petra go to catch the killer – and make her podcast a hit?
Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter and bestselling author Hank Phillippi Ryan calls Killer Story “riveting and irresistible – a deep dive into journalists’ tactics, ambition, and cut-throat passion.”
Áine Cain, host of the podcast The Murder Sheet, calls Killer Story “a slick, smart crime thriller for the internet age!” For more info on Killer Story and my other novels, and the inspiration behind them, you can check my website, mattwittenwriter.com.
My thriller THE NECKLACE came out from Oceanview in September, 2021. A small-town waitress fights for justice for her daughter. The Necklace is optioned for film by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way and Cartel Pictures. Lee Child says: “This is as fast and tense as a great thriller should be, but it’s full of warmth and humanity too. Buy it today and read it tonight!”
I’ve written four mystery novels starring amateur sleuth Jacob Burns. These books were all originally published by Signet; now they’re all available on Kindle. The first novel, BREAKFAST AT MADELINE’S, received the Malice Domestic Award. The Library Journal called BREAKFAST AT MADELINE’S “the perfect antidote for a rainy day.” Publishers Weekly, reviewing GRAND DELUSION, said “Witten delights with his charming characters, especially Burns himself.” The Romantic Times said, “Told with warmth and wit, STRANGE BEDFELLOWS is a wry story that packs a wallop of an ending.” Murder Express called THE KILLING BEE “a fast, witty, thoroughly engrossing novel that I was sorry to see end.”
TV: I’ve written for House, Law & Order, Pretty Little Liars, Medium, Homicide, CSI: Miami, Judging Amy, Supernatural, and other shows.
Plays: My published plays include The Deal, Washington Square Moves, and The Ties That Bind. They’ve been produced in theatres all over the world.
Movie: My movie DRONES, directed by Rick Rosenthal and starring Matt O’Leary and Eloise Mumford, premiered in 2014 at the London Film Festival, the Austin Film Festival, and the AFI Fest. It’s available at Amazon.
So that’s my professional life in a nutshell! My wife Nancy Seid teaches at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, and our sons Zack and Jacob do machine learning, CRISPR, and all kinds of amazing stuff.
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Matt! I haven’t faced changing the killer yet, but I certainly have been known to write an entire draft without knowing HOW the killer did it. Or even why… 🙂
I don’t think I’d ever have the courage to write an entire draft without knowing who the killer is! (Even if I ultimately turn out to be wrong!)
What a great story.
I’m like you in that I start mysteries in both of my series with the end— who is the murderer and why.
Only once in seven mysteries did I write a complete first draft only to sit back and think: Z has a much better motive!
So my Z became the killer in revisions and that’s where it stayed~
Nice to know there’s another writer who also went with Z!
Thanks for visiting! I’ve written five books. In four of them I didn’t know who the killer was until I was more than halfway through the second act. Have grown used to it.
So fascinating, how writers’ processes can be so different!
I’m am so comforted by this tale of woe. I’m not sure if I have either the victim or the murderer right in my WIP and the realization first startled me, and then came the panic and self-doubt. Should I just ditch this story? But then I realized, the book would be so much better if I accepted reality and forged on. I’m delighted to be in such fine company, Matt. Thanks for sharing.
Accepting reality – always my goal, occasionally achieved!
This sounds great! Plus I’m intrigued by Gullkistan Artist Colony.. Sounds like a wonderful place to go.
Gullkistan is great. Contact me if you’d like any info about it!
My killer almost always changes midway through. I’m always amazed when I go back to reread it that my subconscious has left clues in all the right places. Killer Story sounds great. Can’t wait to read it.
I wish my subconscious were that wise! I hope you enjoy Killer Story.
I almost never know who the killer is ntil at least halfway through the first draft. I’m always amazed when I reread the draft that my subconscious left clues in all the right places! Can’t wait to read Killer Story. It sounds great.
I’m struggling with the same thing now in my WIP. Have I given the killer a story that will cause readers to be angry when he’s revealed as the killer? Should I switch to someone else? But that won’t tie in with the subplots. Or should I change his story…or give it to someone else? Hmmm.
Excellent things to ponder!
This was delightful! (and I feel validated 😉 )