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.