A Killer Makes Himself Known

I’m writing a series of police procedurals under the new pen-name, JJ Sullivan. Book 1, Drawn to Murder, is already complete and when I went to bed last night I was 17,000 words into Book 2, Westwood, but I don’t plan to publish until I have three books ready to go.

Most people who read mysteries probably read them to find out who the killer is, and why. It may come as a surprise to readers who are not themselves writers to find out that that’s also why I write them. I want to know who the killer is, and what motivates him or her.

I say, “him or her,” because Drawn to Murder features two serial killers working together – and they are both women. I must have written 15,000 words of that book before I realised that the male serial killers I was writing about couldn’t have done what they were supposed to have done and the killers must be female.

What that tells you is that I’m a pantser and not a plotter. When I start writing the book, I know very little about what’s going to happen. Westwood starts like this:

Jensen Bartholomew was Zooming with his brother, Cedric. A stranger sharing Jensen’s screen would have taken it that Cedric was not doing too well – the room he sat in was poorly furnished and Cedric himself looked as though his next full meal would be his first for some time. Cedric had just finished the first ten minutes of a series of moans about his predicament that experience told Jensen was likely to last for some time when the door behind him opened and a figure entered covered from head to foot in a black gown and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. As Jensen watched, the figure wrapped something around Cedric’s neck and pulled it tight. Cedric half rose from his chair. His hands struggled to free himself and his feet were stamping a furious tattoo on the worn lino beneath them, but the figure did not relent. In less than a minute, Cedric had sunk out of sight, to all appearances dead. The figure leaned in close to the screen and pointed through it at Jensen. In a deep and gravelly voice, it said, ‘You’re next.’ Then the screen went as dead as Cedric.

And that’s all I had. I didn’t know who killed Cedric, I didn’t know why he needed to die – I knew almost nothing. But I did have the confidence that comes from having written a large number of books, most of them published under other people’s names, to know that the characters would help me out. The most extreme case of that was when I was writing Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I wrote the first sentence:

All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers.

I didn’t know where that sentence would take me – but Billy, the lead character, extracted himself from the story and stood over me as I wrote. “Poppy wouldn’t have said that.” “It didn’t happen like that, it happened like this.” “Don’t forget to tell them about the anger management.” And so it went until the book was complete. You could say Billy McErlane wrote that book and not me – and Billy McErlane doesn’t exist.

Something very similar happened today. With a quarter of Westwood written, I still had no idea who had been doing the killing (the body count by then was three) and nor did I know why. And then, at 4 o’clock this morning while I was still in bed, the killer announced himself. ‘It’s me,’ he said. ‘And this is why I’m doing it.’ He’s been in the book from the start and he hadn’t for a single moment been a suspect in my mind – but as soon as he identified himself, it made complete sense.

I’ve spent the day first in rewriting work already done and then in adding 3400 words to take account of what I know now and didn’t know before. This is the stage at which I know for certain that the book will be finished.

When it is, you’ll be the first to know.

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