Before They Were Authors: Sybil Johnson (from software development to crime fiction)

Today on BEFORE THEY WERE AUTHORS, we have Sybil Johnson, who worked in software development for twenty years before turning to a life of crime writing. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she now resides in Southern California where she writes the Aurora Anderson Mystery series (FATAL BRUSHSTROKE, PAINT THE TOWN DEAD and the recently released, A PALETTE FOR MURDER) featuring computer programmer and tole painting enthusiast Aurora (Rory) Anderson. To find out more about Sybil, visit

 Judy: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers with day jobs? 

Sybil: Persistence, persistence, persistence! The life of a writer is filled with rejection. It’s hard not to take it personally. But, just because one editor or agent rejects a story, that doesn’t mean they all will. Sure, sometimes it needs to be rewritten, but not always. Most of the short stories I’ve sent out were rejected multiple times before finding a home. The same goes for novels. It took me many years and many drafts before my first book was published.

The other piece of advice: keep on writing. The more you write the better you’ll become. Write the kind of stories that you want to read. If it’s a novel, you’re going to spend a heck of a lot of time with the story so you should like it. If you’re bored with the story, that will come across in your writing.

Judy:  What made you decide to become a writer?

Sybil: I’ve loved reading, particularly mysteries, since I was a kid but never thought of myself as a writer. Then, sometime in my early 40s, I woke up one morning with the image of a young woman finding the body of her painting teacher in her garden. That image stuck with me for days. I was coming to the end of a programming contract and was looking for a new challenge so I decided to dive in and give writing a mystery a try. Many years and lots of trial and error later, that idea became my first published book, FATAL BRUSHSTROKE, the first book in the Aurora Anderson Mystery series published by Henery Press.

Judy: What was the best job (besides being a writer) that you ever had, and how has it influenced your writing?

Sybil: I started studying Computer Science before the IBM PC came out, when FORTRAN was king and a time share system was state of the art. For twenty years, I worked in software development in a lot of different roles: programming, designing software, managing programmers and projects.

In many ways, it prepared me to be a writer. The most obvious – I was used to sitting in front of a computer screen by myself for long periods. Writing and programming are both fairly solitary activities, though since I worked on large projects that required many programmers, I had more interaction on a day-to-day basis with people when I was programming than I do now.

Cover of The Fortran Automatic Coding System for the IBM 704 EDPM, said to be the first book about Fortran.

One of my favorite things to do was designing software, figuring out the overall structure of the code. The process is similar to outlining a story—deciding on the crime, the victim, the setting, the general plot points. As you might have guessed, that’s my favorite part of writing.

Software development also taught me the importance of creating intermediate deadlines. As a programmer, you have a code completion deadline to work toward, but you often have to create your own deadlines in between to make sure you get everything done on time. Same goes with writing, especially if you have a book contract. You have to break down the tasks and figure out what needs to be done when in order to meet that date.

It’s a pretty exciting thing creating something from nothing, whether it’s a piece of software or a novel. An elegant piece of code is a beautiful thing, to my mind just as beautiful as finely crafted prose.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story, Sybil.

5 responses to “Before They Were Authors: Sybil Johnson (from software development to crime fiction)

  1. Kristina Stanley

    It’s fun to think of all the things that seemed so modern at the time.

  2. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks Kristina! I don’t remember Fortran, but Sybil certainly does. I do remember when our computer monitors were the depth of old TV sets!

  3. Kristina Stanley

    I remember Fortran. Seems like a long time ago. Great article today.

  4. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks for sharing your story!

  5. Thanks for having me on your blog.

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