Writing Routines

George Pelecanos’ Writing Routine: “There is so much happening in the world that can make a writer passionate and angry.” 

George Pelecanos is an American author and television writer, best-known for his detective novels and collaborations with David Simon on HBO’s The WireTremeThe Deuce, and We Own This City.

I never use the word lucky, but I will say that I’ve been fortunate to be able to do what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. How many people can say that? I just never forget that I’ve been given this opportunity. The only thing standing in my way is time. But I will never retire. There is so much happening in the world that can make a writer passionate and angry.

Interview with George Pelecanos | The Idaho Review

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With a career spanning decades, Pelecanos has established himself as one of the most celebrated writers in his field, with Stephen King dubbing him “perhaps the greatest living American crime writer” and Esquire hailing him “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.” His work is often compared to that of legendary crime fiction writers like Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, and James Ellroy.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Pelecanos was never much of a book person by his own admission; he was more of a “movie freak” as he describes it. But during his time at the University of Maryland, where he was studying film, he took an elective on Hardboiled Detective Fiction and he was instantly hooked.

“I decided then that it was what I wanted to do,” he said in a 2008 Writer’s Digest interview. “It took me 10 years of living some more, though. In that 10 years I just read everything I could—a couple books a week.”

The D.C. writer’s career didn’t take off right away though. In between his first writing class and publishing his debut novel, he worked several jobs, including a woman’s shoe salesman, line cook, and dishwasher. In later interviews, he would credit these jobs as integral to his writing career — “I mine those experiences for my fiction to this day,” he told The Daily Beast. “But I think the greatest influence those jobs had on me was that they gave me my work ethic as a writer.”

In 1992, at the age of 35 years old, Pelecanos would make his debut with A Firing Offense, a Washington, D.C.-based crime thriller that revolves around marketing executive Nick Stefanos and his investigation into a missing colleague. In a 2018 interview with The Idaho Review, Pelecanos recalled the thrilling rush of writing A Firing Offense while juggling a family life.

I had never even written a short story before I attempted to write my first novel. And as soon as I finished it and sent it off, I started another one, because I was jacked up on the process. I wrote in the hot attic of our bungalow, with my young sons outside my door, and our dogs vying for my attention, and music playing in my office, and it was chaotic but perfect for my frame of mind. It was a tremendously creative time for me, with no one telling me what to write or trying to micromanage me, because my advances were ridiculously small. I wrote eight novels like that, working at night and in the early morning, while holding down a daytime job. I think I’m a better writer now, but I’ll probably never recapture the kind of energy and the full-on rush of creativity I had then.

Interview with George Pelecanos | The Idaho Review

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George Pelecanos’ daily writing routine

These days, George Pelecanos has more than just novels on his mind. When he’s not writing books, then he’s out there creating TV shows, executive producing, show running and occasionally directing. However, when he is in book mode, then it all starts with an idea, then the act of discovering the novel as he’s writing it.

“I start with a situation, then go out and do a bunch of street research, as well as interviews and archival work if need be,” he told The Daily Beast. “When I have all my ammunition I lock myself in my house and start writing.”

During his writing time, Pelecanos typically writes in two shifts — one in the morning which lasts three to four hours, then one in the evening where he revises what he wrote earlier in the day. In between his writing shifts, the D.C. is usually outside doing something physical — exercising, riding his bike, kayaking or taking a walk in Rock Creek Park.

He also doesn’t like to take day offs when he’s writing. “The reason for my no-days-off policy is that if I leave that creative tunnel it is difficult to find my way back in,” he explained. “I’m not telling you that is the way to write a book, only that it’s my way. I’ve been doing it like this from the start.”

When it comes to his writing routine, Pelecanos gave readers a glimpse of his creative process when he published his work schedule on his website.

My work habits are fairly rigid. When I’m writing a novel, I write seven days a week. I don’t feel that you can leave that world for days at a time and still remain engaged. I begin early in the morning and write into the afternoon, until I have to break for lunch (I put lunch off for as long as possible; once you’ve got food in your stomach, you’re done). In the evening I return to my desk and rewrite what I did in the morning, so that I’m ready to move forward the following morning. You can see where I’m headed with this: I write one draft, rewriting as I go along, and usually that is the draft that is sent up to my editor in New York. With that schedule, it usually takes me four to six months to write a clean novel. Having said that, I don’t mean to give the impression that it’s a cakewalk. I struggle with every book, especially in the first couple of months. Much of my working day, in fact, is spent pacing around the house, bouncing a rubber ball, listening to music, etc. Work means working it out. Since I don’t outline, it’s a matter of finding your characters and then your plot. Once I have gotten to that point, the work accelerates. I can go on writing jags for ten, twelve hours at a time. And that’s when this job gets really fun.

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