Study Hacks Blog

Michael Connelly Starts Writing Before the Sun Comes Up

September 11th, 2020 · 27 comments

One of the notable realities of my life, given the topics I write about, is the regularity with which people send me various articles about the work habits of the novelist Michael Connelly. Here’s a representative sample from an interview published in The Daily Beast: 

“I get up to write while it’s still dark, 5 or 5:30. I start by editing and rewriting everything I did the day before, and that gives some momentum for the day. I get to new territory when the sun is coming up. I take a break to take my daughter to school…then I get back to it. If it’s early in a book, I’ll only write til lunch, because it can be hard for me to get that momentum going. If it’s late in a book and really flowing, I’ll just keep writing and writing until I’m either too tired or have been called to dinner.”

He later elaborates that he uses blackout shades to transform his writing office into a space beyond time. “You don’t know if it’s light or dark,” he explains. “I just try to put everything else out of focus and look only at the screen of my laptop.”

This routine is common among popular genre fiction writers (see, for example, John Grisham or Lee Child). To fulfill the economic necessity of publishing one book per year — which, as I can tell you from experience, is really hard — they strip down their work habits to support maximum cognitive output.

For the rest of us, drowning in our inboxes and Zoom invites, this should be more than a source of aspirational escape. It represents a reminder that getting the most out of the messy jumble of neurons known as the human brain requires sacrifices. To instead orient work around pleasing everyone who might need you in the moment is to ultimately please no one with the quality of what you produce.

27 thoughts on “Michael Connelly Starts Writing Before the Sun Comes Up

  1. JR says:

    I did the same technique to pass the bar exam and it works. You won’t be very popular because most people have no comprehension how to work at that level. I scheduled breaks every 45 minutes to rest and ice my back. I also used to take a walk at 5:00 PM to work off the stress, nervous energy, and exercise my back for the big exam.

  2. Yuan-Hao Chiang says:

    Staying in the dark sounds interesting, I will give it a try and take my laptop to our little one’s room which has blackout shades.

    A lot of my productive moments happen when it’s dark — but it’s mostly dark here before 5:00am, so that’s around 3:00 or 4:00am. It’s the time of the day that I know for a fact neither my wife nor my 2-year-old will call my name and. If I manage to get a great night’s sleep (sometimes sleeping at 8), this is my go to time to wake up.

    Happy to find a place/blog where people might not think I am crazy!

    Thanks for the share Cal.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      You are decidedly not crazy!

    2. Johannes says:

      Yuan-Hao Chiang,

      you are not alone. There are people seeking depth everywhere around the world. And a lot of them leverage the early hours like you and me. Sometimes it does not feel this way as others don’t understand what you are up to. As JR wrote in the first comment of this post “You won’t be very popular because most people have no comprehension how to work at that level.” But be assured you are not alone!

  3. Charles says:

    As a public school teacher I can relate to this. I get into school a hour early to take care of administrative duties, and when the students arrive for breakfast at 7:05AM, I’m ready to give them my full attention. Sometimes we even go outside during the winter to see the sunrise together.

  4. Jan says:

    Side remark, from the image: is this really how Connelly works, all day hunched over a small laptop screen? That can’t be good for you.

  5. Gerard says:

    “To fulfill the economic necessity of publishing one book per year”
    I don’t think John Grisham needs to do it for the money, and he’s probably not the only one. So I am unsure of what you mean by that.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      In genre fiction it’s assumed you need one book a year to retain an engaged audience…

  6. One book a year isn’t a lot, actually. You’ll find that Michael Connelly isn’t doing just a book a year. He’s writing short stories and editing anthologies as well. Nora Roberts does at least 6 a year and has over 200 books published. Dean Wesley Smith finished a book in 2 weeks and between he and his wife, they have over 800 books published. I’m doing 52 short stories in a year, plus novels, so I can learn how to do both at the same time with my day job.

    But it’s also a skill that has to be learned. When COVID kicked off, a lot of part time writers suddenly had extra time to write. Instead, they went on the internet for a few minutes and suddenly the whole day was gone. I remember when I was furloughed, which was Friday off every week for about a month, and I thought I was going to do all this writing and I didn’t. It’s a really huge mindset thing to be able to turn off the inner critic and spend the time immersed in deep work.

    I’ve been thinking about turning my walk in closet into an office. No windows, no distractions (no power either!). Might be worth doing that now.

  7. Jeff Hess says:

    I’ve known a few, a very few, writers who work in the afternoon or evening, but by far we are creatures of the small hours before dawn.

    My best work comes before 10 a.m.

  8. David Drake says:

    I find that the extra sleep is more important than getting up so early to do focused work like this. As a scientist, if I am sleep deprived, how am I supposed to start deep work at 5:00 in the morning. With my administrative responsibilities and national responsibilities, I have very long days. This approach would work for those who have much less on their plates. Don’t get me wrong; deep focused work is important and I block some time on my calendar to do this. But I am NOT going to lose precious sleep so I can start at 5:00!

    1. Robert says:

      Yes, this specific advice is for people with early chronotype. Working at 5:00 am sounds impossible to me but probably so does working at 1:00 am for those people.

  9. Pam says:

    It was the “or when I’m called to dinner” that particularly stuck out to me. Who’s making that dinner and does that person also get huge swaths of time to do deep work?

    1. Mel says:

      2nding this!! Whose domestic labour is supporting his career and why doesn’t it get credit?

    2. Christie K says:

      I thought exactly the same thing. Would that we all had the same privilege.

    3. Study Hacks says:

      I think he said he typically works only until the afternoon, and that the working until dinner is something that happens less frequently — like during a deadline push. My assumption, given that he takes his daughter to school is that it’s also his job under normal circumstances to pick her up in the afternoon as well.

      But a legitimate question about this comment thread: wouldn’t it be normal for someone who has a day job to not be doing housework or childcare during their day job? Is it just the fact that his day job occurs at this home instead of in an office building that we suddenly think something unusually privileged is going on?

      (During COVID, of course, all bets are off with these issues as home and work life mixes; but this interview is from 2014 so unrelated to the current moment.)

  10. It represents a reminder that getting the most out of the messy jumble of neurons known as the human brain requires sacrifices. To instead orient work around pleasing everyone who might need you in the moment is to ultimately please no one with the quality of what you produce.

  11. Katharina says:

    Loved the first part. Yes, I do that too and then interrupt for my kids’ school prep.

    But “I write until I am caleld to dinner” implies to many conditions.
    – Someone is taking care of the kids
    – dinner is made or bought by someone
    – no other household duties.

    I really hope that what misses from this piece is the following:

    “When early in a book, that means that after lunch I will take care of houshold, daughter and care work. My partner can work on their projects long on those days. Then, while getting closer to the end of the book, our roles switch: I turn up fulltime, and my partner takes over the household.”

    Because otherwise the sacrifice is all on the partner, which (if the partner is a women) just underlines how often women still have to take more than half of the care work.

    I’d appreciate a clarification on this.

    Katharina

    1. Nick says:

      You’re projecting.

      What if Mr. Connelly is single? What if his partner / husband / wife loves to prepare dinner and would have it no either way?What if he batches his week into writing days and other / admin days where he does in fact do all the cooking?

      Someone that follows routines, rituals and habits in pursuit of a goal does not need to provide “clarification.”

      1. Katharina says:

        The text said he brings his daughter to school.

        If indeed they batch days – or weeks or even months, as the text could imply, that is all very fine. I just do not like the idea of one person going all in all the time while the others get to make everything else work.

        1. Andres says:

          I don’t like that idea either, but i’m nobody to tell the whole world how they should be living.

    2. EA says:

      I am pretty sure that he pays people to do chores, fix things, pay bills etc. as he has lots of money. The concept is that his time is more valuable by writing/working than actually doing other work such as the dishwasher. The opportunity cost of not writing in a certain way is probably too high for him.

    3. He’s treating it as a full time job, and it is one. With writers though, they must set up boundaries and rules, and enforce them. A lot of people see writing as not really being work–they think, “How hard is it to write a novel anyway? I could do that.” (So not true.) So when they see the writer at home, they assume he’s available and interrupt. “You’re not busy. How about just one favor?” But if writer doesn’t produce words, he doesn’t make money.

    4. Study Hacks says:

      I wrote a note about this above as I was a little confused by the question. The vast majority of knowledge workers go to an office during the day to work and then come home around dinner (at least, pre-COVID). They don’t do housework or childcare while at the office. I’m not sure what’s exceptional about Connolly here? The fact that his day job is at home instead of an office building?

      1. Katharina says:

        No, I work from home myself. Exceptional is that he has a daughter young enough to be brought to school – and still he can afford to work more than full-time.

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