How Michael Connelly Writes… and What He Drinks When He Does It

An interview with the undisputed best crime novelist on the planet.

I wish I could tell you that the interview was with/from me, specifically for Storyfix.  But this link is from The Daily Beast  (click it to get to the interview, people are MISSING THIS, so I’m bolding this… so YOU won’t) was sent to me, and I’m honored to share it, typos and all (those aren’t mine, either).

In case you still missed it, CLICK HERE to read the article.

I’m particularly happy to see that he calls out one of “my” six realms of Story Physics as key to making a novel work (and not remotely to the exclusion of the others), using the exact same key word.  This is like putting forth a theory and hearing Einstein echo your thoughts… which doesn’t make you Einstein, it just makes you relevant.

I’ve never met Michael Connelly, whom, if you aren’t familiar with him, you should Google.  Or check him out on Amazon.com, where his Author Page provides a nice 101 on his ouvre, which will enhance this article for you.  There is no bigger contemporary name in the bookstore… any bookstore.

I do have three tenuous connections with him, though. 

Okay, two, and one of my own concoction.

I saw him well over ten years ago at a signing at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.  There were about three hundred folks awaiting his arrival, most with multiple books in hand for signing, which I estimated would take him until dawn to complete.  I remember him strolling in, Starbucks in hand, looking surprised and sheepish when he saw the size of the crowd.  I thought that was cool.

Someone in the crowd asked about film adaptations of his book (this was before Blood Work in 2002, and long before the Lincoln Lawyer, which he discusses in this article).  He said they’d all been optioned, and – with a  poker face – said those options had paid for his Los Angeles house.  I thought that was cool, too… as if anyone in the room could relate to that.

Not long after, in a stunning feat of naivete, I emailed him (through his website; no, I don’t have his personal email, fat chance) prior to the publication of my first book (Darkness Bound, which has just been republished by Turner Publishing), asking for a blurb.  That happens all the time to A-List writers, by the way, and unless you have a personal connection you have, like, ZERO chance of it happening.  Didn’t happen for me, either (though the publisher, Penguin Putnam, scored a couple of A-minus list blurbs), but here’s what was amazing: he answered me.  Unlike about 20 other known names who couldn’t and still can’t dust the guy’s keyboard, who didn’t answer.  I thought that was classy.  I’ve since learned — as you are about to experience — that everything the guy does and says is classy.

And finally, the third one is… well, let me know if you can figure it out (because I can barely speak it aloud, much less write it down).  It’s a connection through reference, that’s the hint.  Free book to anyone who gets it.

Enjoy the article.  Worth the time if you’d like a peek behind the curtain of process for a writer whose work will be remembered for decades after he, and us, are gone.

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Useless but fun sidebar: if you’re a reader here you probably have read the posts by Art Holcomb.  If you ever wondered what Art looks like, I’ll just say this: he’s a dead ringer for Michael Connelly.  Like, twins separated at birth kind of close.

Also… speaking of interviews… I have recently completed an interview with Phillip Margolin, who it could be argued is the Michael Connelly of legal thrillers (lawyers writing mystery/thrillers about lawyers).  Look for that here in about a week.

14 Comments

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14 Responses to How Michael Connelly Writes… and What He Drinks When He Does It

  1. @ ALL — the link is here (was all along), in the first paragraph (“The Daily Beast” is the link, identified as such). I added another link for you speed readers who have glazed right over it. The link at the end connects to Connelly’s Amazon Author Page (also noted) by intention. L.

  2. RS

    Hilarious. For the record, I had no trouble finding and clicking the article in the original blog posting. Interesting interview — thanks for the share. I thought his point on the “empathic [sic] strike between the reader and the protagonist” on page one was particularly salient.

  3. And what does “option” mean? Does it involve money?

  4. @Mike – not Laura, but thanks for trying. I take it from this that Connelly is also married to a Laura… or maybe my Laura used to date him… not sure, will dig deeper. (inserting smiley face here)

    An “option” is what every novelist wants (or should want): it’s someone from the movie business securing sole “rights” to a book for a specified amount of time (allowing them to “develop” the project, which means landing a studio for it, getting commitments from a director and main actors, even distribution; if they can’t put all that together, they’ll allow the option to lapse without a renew — author keeps the money — or, take another option on it.

    So, for example, they’d probably pay Connelly about $2 million for the film rights, payable upon – literally – first day of actual production. Prior to that, though, they’d take a one-year option, probably for about $250K. Less famous books and authors (which get optioned all the time) receive much smaller deals. I’ve had two screenplays optioned (not one of my books yet, though), for MUCH less (films weren’t made), which was enough for dinner for four at a nice restaurant for a 90 day option, “against” (that’s the terminology) the WGA minimum for feature film (which at the time was about $65K for a small budget movie; never got that far though). And another where the check bounced — I kid you not.

    Tough business, this.

  5. Daniel Azander

    Hi Larry
    Di you get into writing Crime inspired by To kill a mocking bird as well?

  6. @Daniel — actually no, that book was more a school assignment than a literary inspiration… at least then. I got into “crime” novels (a wide adjective in this context; mine aren’t hard boiled like Connelly’s purist take on the genre) via Nelson Demille (more thriller than mystery, actually). Before that I was sort of all over the map. Not a good thing, at least for me, it usually serves a writer to find a niche (or two) that they love to read, as well as feel comfortable navigating. Thanks for the swing at it, and for reading my stuff! L.

  7. sofia

    You usually reproach pansters. Guess Mr. Connelly is one of the gifted ones:

    “I don’t map out anything. I put nothing on paper but the books themselves. I don’t outline, I only carry in my head….I don’t put anything on paper. I’ll just know how my books are going to begin and end, and the stuff in between is ripe for improvisation.”

  8. @Sofia — that’s a bit of an over-statement, so allow me to clarify: there is a huge difference between a guy like Connnelly, who has written well over 20 successful books, who is a master of the craft, and someone who is new at this and tries to “pants” their way through a book. HUGE difference. I don’t think the world’s best heart surgeon has to have the textbook open next to the operating table. Connelly absolutely doesn’t make up the principles in his head, they’re already there. He KNOWS them inside and out. So when, as he puts it, he “improvises,” he’s merely engaging in the “search for story” at a much more advanced level than the rest of us, in a draft instead of a plan. But that draft IS the plan… I promise you, he reaches a final draft sooner than most (my guess is he tweaks the first draft into a final draft, he’s that good, because he knows that much about this). What he creates in that space (“improvising”) resides WITHIN the parameters of the principles, instead of just throwing stuff onto the page without understanding where it goes, and why.

    Notice, too, that he knows how his story will begin and end. That’s critical. That alone disqualifies him as a “pantser” in the purest sense of the term. Everybody, including me, creates moments within a draft that weren’t planned. The more you know about this craft, the safer that becomes. It’s like putting a flower on the dashboard of a car… which is different than trying to figure out where that dashboard goes.

    Trying to write like Connelly, in this fashion, is very risky… unless you are as good as he is. Otherwise, pantsing remains the longer, steeper slope to the top of the storytelling mountain (doable, viable if the writer just can’t do it any other way, as many claim), because you may not even know you’ve walked off a cliff.

    The biggest mistake a new writer can make is to try to write the story on the fly, WITHOUT knowing and understanding the blueprint for principle-driven structure. Once you know, you’re wide open to create anything at all, because you won’t make a mistake. Reaching that level of craft is the goal. Once you do, no matter what you tell an interviewer or tell yourself, you are no longer a pantser.

  9. John V

    Understanding story structure and the physics of storytelling as Larry explains is of great usefulness.

  10. You’re both big Raymond Chandler fans? Thanks for the homage to Michael Connelly. Very enjoyable. I’m sure he was a pantser on his first book, too. It’s in the blood, man. 🙂 But you’re right; nothing worse than a pantser who has no idea where he/she is going. Unless it’s an outliner who thinks the outline IS the book. hahaha

  11. Paula

    Is the 3rd connection the “empathetic strike between the reader and the protagonist”?

    BTW, what’s your drink of choice while writing? I simply can’t imagine drinking that much iced tea in a week let alone a day.

  12. Is your favorite Connelly book also The Last Coyote? (It’s one of mine, so that’s why I’m guessing that. City of Bones is also a favorite.)

  13. clive

    Hi larry read engineering and physics on kindle loved them both.

    Liked very much nine sentence outline (because i understood and it’s not a feat of memory to remember or to break down a film or book with it.)

    Your next story book…..
    I would like more on writing outlines.
    I would like more on idea concept premise. Lots of examples, breaking down of well known works (or your own)
    You’ve done engineering, you’ve done physics, call your next book evolution. And by the way aren’t some of the pants/outline arguments similar to the intelligent design rows?