December 2 – 8: “Do day jobs get in the way of writing thrillers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Do day jobs get in the way of writing thrillers? And, while we’re at it, when might they help? This week we’re chatting with ITW members Joel Barrows, Dawn Ius, Susan Sleeman, Colleen Winter, Tom Wither, J. H. Bográn and Felix Francis. Whenever you’re ready just scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!


Felix Francis took over writing the ‘Dick Francis’ novels from his father. He recently published his fourteenth novel Guilty Not Guilty. Felix lives in Oxfordshire, England with his wife, Debbie, and three dogs who are really in charge! He is a member of the International Thriller Writers as well as of the British Crime Writers Association. He was recently International Guest of Honor at Bouchercon 50 in Dallas, Texas, the world’s largest crime fiction convention.


Dawn Ius is a professional writer and editor with more than 20 years experience as a journalist, communications expert, and published author. She has edited numerous international publications and published upwards of 500 articles in a diverse spectrum of magazines and newspapers across North America. In her first professional assignment, she interviewed former Soviet politician Mikhail Gorbachev through a translator. In various communications and media relations roles, Dawn has spearheaded award-winning awareness campaigns for corporate and non-profit organizations. Dawn has published three young adult novels with Simon Pulse (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), the latest, Lizzie, being a modern re-imagining of the infamous Lizzie Borden hatchet murders. She lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband, two giant breed dogs, and three bearded dragons. Yes, sometimes she will respond to “Khaleesi.”


Susan Sleeman is the bestselling author of more than 35 romantic suspense novels with more than 1 million books sold. She has won several awards, including the ACFW Carol Award for Suspense for Fatal Mistake and the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Thread of Suspicion. In addition to writing, Susan also hosts She has lived in nine states but now calls Portland, Oregon, home.


Tom Wither is a thirty-two-year Air Force intelligence professional and twenty-five-year affiliate of the National Security Agency.  A veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he has led the design and implementation of unique signals intelligence systems supporting Air Force space and cyber operations during Operations ENDURING FREEDOM, IRAQI FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and INHERENT RESOLVE. Tom was most recently awarded the Exemplary Civilian Service Award for his contributions to the liberation of Raqqah, Syria from ISIS.


Colleen Winter is a science-fiction junkie and uses her electrical engineering degree to create stories that walk the line between what is real and what is possible. In a previous life, she worked as a journalist and now is a communications consultant in the Ontario electrical industry. She lives near Toronto, Canada and spends as much time as she can rock climbing and hiking the beautiful places of the world with her family and her dog.


J. H. Bográn is an international author of novels, short stories and scripts for television and film. He’s the son of a journalist, but ironically prefers to write fiction rather than facts. His genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. He currently divides his time as resource development manager for Habitat for Humanity Honduras, teaching classes at a local university, and writing his next project. He lives in San Pedro Sula, Honduras with his wife, three sons and a “Lucky” dog. His motto is “I never tell lies, I only write them!”


Joel Barrows is an Iowa district court judge who regularly oversees both criminal and civil trials. Prior to his appointment to the bench he was a practicing attorney for nearly twenty-three years; the last eighteen of those spent as a state, and then federal, prosecutor. He holds a Bachelors and Masters degree in History, a Law degree from Drake University Law School, and a Master of Laws in International and Comparative Law with distinction from Georgetown University Law Center. He has traveled extensively in Central America. He lives with his family in eastern Iowa along the banks of the Mississippi.


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  1. Does a day job get in the way of writing my thrillers? Well, yes….and no. The obvious impact is the consumption of your time for research, writing, working with your agent and editor, and aiding your publisher with marketing, etc. during normal business hours. A day job demands time, focus, and energy that could be put toward your writing. Assuming eight or more hours a day, 1,500 to 2,000 words of polished work every eight hours, five or more days a week – you lose a lot of productive time when you have bills to pay. The 125,000 word manuscript you might have generated in a couple of months of focused effort now becomes a six month or more project because of the need to divide your attention and work nights and weekends, especially when you consider family obligations, the odd instance of a cold or flu in the winter months, holidays…oh, and if you travel extensively for your day job, you might want to add other month or more.

    I’m sure there are other downsides unique to specific professions, so let me share one that is specific to my profession. Being a professional member of the intelligence community who enjoys writing includes the non-negotiable requirement that the government review my stories for classified material prior to publication – a lifetime obligation I will always have to adhere to, unless I switch to writing cookbooks, or something similarly unrelated to my day job. To be clear, it’s not the professional obligation to have my manuscripts reviewed that creates an issue, it’s the time that gets added to the process of preparing the manuscript for publication by a publisher that extends an effort that is normally lengthy and requires that a publisher advance a manuscript through sequence that results in printed books/e-book availability for purchase.

    Here’s a practical example of how this impacts my writing. A house that wants to publish my work must acknowledge the requirement to have any significant additions or re-writes to a manuscript reviewed (deletions pose no problem). Additionally, the house must understand that the review process timeline, while stated as 30 working days by the government, may take longer and impact the publisher’s internal processes as they work toward a pub date – and there is nothing I can do to make the review process close out more completely. So far, over the course of three novels, my publishers have been very understanding and appreciate me identifying the issue early. This allows them to build the additional time for a potential review into their internal timeline after an editor and author have agreed to the final pre-copyedit manuscript version, which (ideally) will not obstruct the publication process.

    The upside for me is that I write in a genre that is very familiar to me as a result of my professional experience within the intelligence community. Understanding how military operations are planned, having a solid grounding in world events viewed through the lens of what the intelligence community is aware of, and most importantly the many military members and civilians I’ve worked with over the years give me a deep background to draw from when it’s time to design fictitious characters, plots, and events to fill a novel length manuscript.

    Another example of the upside of being a professional is probably best illustrated with a brief anecdote. In my first novel, I have one of my characters in-briefed to a fictional special access program security compartment. After the book was published, a colleague contacted me after having read the book and told me she wished we read people into security compartments the way I described it. I had taken the actual, somewhat dry and administrative process and upgraded it to something more high-tech and exciting, specifically to capture the reader’s interest. I really enjoyed that conversation and hung up the phone with a smile. Knowing that I was able to catch the eye of a fellow professional with my writing hopefully meant that other readers who loved thrillers but didn’t have the benefit of her experience might also feel drawn deeper into the story through that scene as well.

    I’m looking forward to answering any questions you may have and this week’s discussion. What would you like to know?

  2. Do day jobs get in the way of writing thrillers? Well, they certainly get in the way of writing them with any expediency! I have to carefully budget my time so that I can take advantage of the few hours I have available to write, while also making certain to not shortchange my family. On the other hand, one of my prior day jobs is the foundation upon which my writing is built. They say write what you know. Being a federal prosecutor gave me an understanding of the inner workings of the criminal justice system that lends a realism to my work. Hopefully, that makes the reader feel like an insider. That has always been my goal. The downside is it makes me feel compelled to get every little detail just right. So, I spend a LOT of time doing research. Fortunately, I mostly enjoy it.

    More generally, I think anything that gets you out in the world, interacting with people, listening to how they communicate, observing how they deal with each other, improves your writing. There is only so much you can learn sitting in front of a computer.

  3. Writing books is now my day job but for many, as it was once for me, writing has to fit around other more mundane activities, like earning a living. But, in many ways, it is the other things you do in life that allows you to make your writing have a breadth of interest. I can’t imaging that someone, who has done nothing in life but write, could bring any experience to the table that would give their work the necessary depth.

    Charles Dickens had a fairly traumatic childhood, initially compelled to leave school aged 12 to work in a boot-blacking factory to support his family after creditors forced his father into Marchalsea Debtors’ Prison in Southwark, London. Charles’s experiences of this time were later a source of huge inspiration for his thrilling novels. Ian Fleming made use of his time in British naval intelligence during World War II to create James Bond, while Alistair MacLean’s service as a torpedo operator on the Artic convoys was the basis of his first and perhaps greatest thriller, HMS Ulysses. And, of course, my father, Dick Francis, used his experiences as a champion jockey and horseracing journalist in his novels, notably in Forfeit, winner of the first of his three MWA Edgars for best mystery novel of the year.

    So, in conclusion, I feel that day jobs are good, even though at times we all feel they could go hang.

  4. I am blessed to make a living as a writer and don’t have a day job, so it doesn’t get in the way of my writing, but I once did work full time and can say that the experience you gain in working is very valuable when writing a book. You can draw from those experiences to write authentic character occupations or as a suspense writer you can even use the job as part of your method to solve a crime. And while working, you interact with other people and that always gives you fodder for characters and insight into how humans work. As a full-time writer, I sit behind my computer in solitary a good bit of the time, and I miss out on how people are changing and evolving in our world. On what the norm is for behavior these days, so I have to consciously find ways to observe other people. Hmm, that sounds a bit creepy, but I am a suspense writer after all so I guess it fits.

  5. Day jobs both hinder and help me when writing thrillers. Since I write technical/scientific thrillers being constantly exposed to the current technology and the lightning speed changes that are continually occurring helps me stay on top of what is happening and definitely feeds into ideas for books and the dilemmas my characters will face. Since I write near future thrillers the decisions that we face on a day-to-day basis as people and as a society often fuel my characters choices and the theme of the book.

    Of course, day jobs also are a huge hindrance in that they take up vast amounts of good writing time and sap our creative energy. With a full time job it takes a significant amount of discipline to find your creative space each day and not let the rest of the world intrude.

  6. According to my family, I’m more of a juggler than a writer, specially when I list the jobs and events I take of:
    -Work as Resource Development for Habitat for Humanity in Honduras
    -Run a Korean-themed restaurant (although that’s more my wife)
    -Assistant Editor to The Big Thrill, and obviously, Roundthriller Coordinator.
    -Some independent counseling projects.
    -Father of 3, plus one dog.
    -And and yeah, write novels in between.

    Considering all of the above, it’s not surprising I’ve never completed a Nanowrimo. Writing a novel for me is a commitment of months instead of weeks.
    It doesn’t make me stop, it just takes me longer to get there.


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