Why a daily writing habit is key says USA Today bestselling author Rebecca Forster in an interview on the podcast Your Daily Writing Habit.
An Interview with USA TODAY Bestselling Author Rebecca Forster
From Marketing Exec to Full-Time Novelist
After earning her MBA, Rebecca Forster spent 14 years as a marketing executive before taking the leap from a corporate to a creative career. A full-time author, speaker, and teacher, Rebecca focuses on legal and political thrillers, but is known for bringing an uncommon sense of character and compassion to her work. Her Witness Series, featuring attorney Josie Bates, has resided on the Amazon bestseller lists for over three years in both the U.S. and U.K. and is a featured series at Audible.com. Before Her Eyes, a cross genre thriller, captured the winning votes for Reviewers Choice for Best Mystery. The CBS Legal Correspondent calls Rebecca’s books, “Perfect… impossible to put down.”
Christine: Let’s get to know you Rebecca, let’s let my listeners get to know you. All those years ago, way back when, what ultimately was the trigger for you to take the leap from marketing executive to full- time novelist?
Rebecca: Well, I have a rather strange writing background in that I didn’t always write. I was working. My client was married to a rather famous author but I didn’t know who she was. And I feel terrible to this day, but it was Danielle Steel. And I made a quip to my client that, “Oh, I bet I could write a book.” And was told, “Well, I dare you.” And so just to save face, and it sounded like a really fun thing to try to do (I had no children at the time), I decided, “Okay, I’m going to try to write a book.”
And lo and behold, my first one sold. But it sold I think because I did the research into how you sell a book, as opposed to my writing being spectacular. In fact, in my first editorial letter, you could tell my writing was not spectacular. But I did learn a lot in that research of how to approach New York. Kindle was nonexistent in that time, and we’re talking over 30 years ago.
I kind of got the fever after that first one. It’s like going to Las Vegas and you put in a quarter, and you get a jackpot and you think, “Oh, if I put in 50 cents, you know, maybe I’ll get more.” So I got the writing fever and I had some good luck, and then started getting rejections and then had some good luck again, and it was a fascinating kind of first couple of years.
I still worked in marketing, and I wrote and by then I had two kids. At some point, I realized – I love writing. I really had found my passion. I made a plan to transition from a corporate-having-a-paycheck career into a sort of wild and wooly creative career. The key for me to take the leap was to have a plan. So I transitioned out slowly, and when I finally was writing full time, it was really scary, but at least I knew I had a history already. I think it’s very difficult to simply leap into a creative career. There are too many variables, I think people really have to plan for that.
Christine: That’s excellent. And I agree, I’m quite a planner, as I sit here, looking at my planning tools all over my desk.
Rebecca: I think actually, you’re a better planner than I am. But I think when you have the basics of you, you have a goal, and you have the real foundation of what it takes to reach that goal, if you can plan for those two things, and you have that basic knowledge it soothes the soul a bit. And also, it makes your significant other feel better to know that you’re at least thinking about making a living out of all this.
Christine: Yes. And then also, for me finding the right tools to reach your goals. And that’s a question I get a lot as a book coach – what is the perfect writing software to write a book? My answer is, it’s the one that is actually going to result in you writing your book and not getting so distracted by the bells and whistles of the software that you forget you’re writing a book.
Rebecca: The only answer I have is that I just use words. And the reason being, you’re writing a book, you’re telling a story. I have a difficult time with bells and whistles. This is why I also don’t do critique groups. And I have been into critique groups. But what I found I need is real simplicity. I need one voice. I truly believe this is in my best interest. So, I use one editor, as opposed to a critique group. And I’ve used her for oh my gosh, 25 years, even when I was traditionally published. She was my pre-editor for story content. And I just sit there with my Word program. Because if I had things popping up all the time that said, you know, let’s do a character study here, or let’s do our beat sheet over here, I would find it intimidating. Because there are certain questions I can’t answer, even in my own book, because I feel them more than intellectualize them. Does that make sense?
Christine: Yes, it does. Thank you for that.
Rebecca: One thing I do tell people is, if this is a very personal endeavor, whatever works for you, works for you, whether it’s getting up at three in the morning and writing 1000 words, or if it’s working only on the weekends, or if it’s having a fancy piece of software. I’m also a big fan of not having a lot of overhead. Especially for new writers, be careful where you put your money. You’re going to need it for promotion, and all sorts of different things. So, software is sort of at the bottom of my list, but for someone else, it could be critical.
Christine: Absolutely. Yeah. Thanks for that behind-the-scenes glimpse into your process.
Rebecca: At the beginning of a book, you tend to write all different things. And then suddenly, you realize, oh my gosh, my characters have gone off on five different tracks, bring them back. That’s kind of like the way my brain works.
Christine: I think Josie Bates and your Witness Series is one of the strongest and really most interesting female characters I’ve ever read. I’m curious to know what your initial vision was for your witness series and how that kind of evolved and unfolded over the years.
Rebecca: The evolution has been shocking to me, frankly. I wrote the first book Hostile Witness and intended it to be a single title, a standalone book. My agent pitched it to Penguin Putnam and they came back and said, “Let’s make this three books.” So, I didn’t start out with the idea of ever extending Josie’s life. I had no clue what it was like to write a series. Of course I said yes. I mean, if someone says that to you, you don’t quibble. Okay, sure, let’s do three books!
At that time I didn’t really know who she was, and I think that was kind of a blessing. I knew the basic characters and who interacted with her. And she just grew over time and led me. I used to think that was sort of a silly thing for writers to say – “I’m led by my characters.” It felt a little pretentious. But quite frankly, now that I look back, I realized I absolutely was led.
The weird thing that happened was, after three books, Penguin Putnam said, “You know what we’re done. It’s [the series] not selling as well as we thought it would.” And this was the time of the transition, where bookstores were closing, distribution channels were drying up, and no one knew what was going on. Meanwhile, Kindle was just hitting the marketplace and there was the brouhaha about “oh, nobody’s going to want to read on an electronic device.” It was a real transitional time for books, and I completely understood why they didn’t want to continue with the series. They had contracted for three books, they were done. They weren’t flying off the shelves, but the shelf space that was left was going to the super bestsellers. You saw Stephen King doing a lot of real estate, and Dean Koontz and John Grisham and all those people.
I thought maybe I’m retired, I don’t know, I’ve been doing this for 25 years, maybe this is sort of a sign. It was my husband who said, “Have you seen this Kindle thing? Did you know you can put your books up directly yourself?” Since I was always very careful about getting my [intellectual property] rights back to all my books, I had about 20 books, so I started posting them on Kindle myself. Then one day, Hostile Witness just took off – I mean, absolutely took off. And readers started asking – “Where’s book four?” I had no idea…
Books one through three were traditional, legal thrillers in terms of courtroom drama. But I was finding I was much more involved in the emotional lives of these characters. So now the series became more of a saga where there are three main characters, and I was taking each of those characters and focusing on them with Josie always as the hub. It was a sort of hobbled together family she had created, that was becoming more and more real, and everybody had an emotional challenge. Everyone had a physical challenge.
If I could package what happened with Josie and those around her, I would do it. I have tried to recreate it. I think it was just that moment where they became so real to me, that their stories kind of poured out. I can’t tell you that I consciously thought about her. She just became what she became. It was sort of magical and kind of cool. And after all those years of writing, it was really exciting to find this sort of emotional and intellectual and creative home for my own brain. It was a Harry Potter moment where somebody waved a wand over my head and Josie Bates appeared. Her physical aspect, a tall, blonde woman, was based on a judge I know who put herself through law school on a volleyball scholarship at UCLA. She was very smart and very kind So there was an inspiration for this character, but I think Josie herself just kind of took it up 10 notches on her own somehow.
Christine: And what’s so awesome is that Josie is back on December 1  in a whole new Witness book!
Rebecca: The only reason it came about was because of the readers. At the end of Book 7, Dark Witness, I had left one character with an unknown future. And for me, this was fine. I thought the readers were going to love it, that it was going to be a very Princess Bride moment where the characters ride into the sunset, and the readers can decide on their own what happens to this character. Well, they didn’t like it. I was like, “What do you mean, you don’t want to use your imagination?”
They kept writing and saying – we want to know what happened to this character! I resisted for a long time. Finally, I just got one email too many. And I thought, you know what, let me analyze what’s going on here. I realized these characters had been so close to me, and obviously to the readers also, that I was kind of paralyzed. I didn’t know there were 100 roads that that this character could take, there were 1000 ways they could continue on. I didn’t want to really be responsible for making that choice. Because they were so real. I thought what if I make the wrong choice. And for the first time with this series, I had major writer’s block. I just did not know what to do. Do I want to bring him back? Who will he be if he comes back? What is he going to mean to all the rest of the people in the book? Honestly, it was gut wrenching. I just don’t believe everything should be wrapped up with a pretty bow.
But once I wrote the last line of this book, I figured out what the story was going to be. It wasn’t until the very, very end that I knew how this character was going to actually fit in. And it was oh my god, it was gut wrenching. When every day you wake up and you think is this going to be the right word, the right sentence, the right tone, the right everything, to make the reader happy. Are the readers going to be satisfied with what happens to this character? The book is dedicated to them because without their push, without them saying “we want to know what’s in your brain,” I wouldn’t have done it. It’s been an interesting year to figure out what was in my brain and what I owed to these characters. That was a great lesson.
Christine: That’s great. And that’s such a testament to the power of reader mail. Some of my authors are surprised when they get fan mail – like, yeah, there are people reading your books, and they’re having very personal experiences, and they’re connecting with your words.
Rebecca: I think the one thing that saved me early on was the fact that I didn’t have an expectation of anyone actually reading my book. When you approach it as a personal challenge, which I did, because somebody said, I dare you… I didn’t have the feeling that anyone expected anything of me, in fact, they probably expected me to fail. And it would be a good laugh and I could just go back to working in marketing. I think that’s freed me a lot.
I think new writers can become absolutely paralyzed with the fear of who’s going to read it, if they read it, will they hate it, will they think it’s stupid? I hear that a lot. And the thing is, new writers have to realize, even us old hands realize this, it doesn’t come out perfectly the first time. It just doesn’t. I mean, I’m on probably the 10th edit of this full manuscript, just to make sure the foundation of plot and story are correct, and that the characters have consistent voices… and nobody does this right the first time. And that’s, why I love to remind new writers – come on, we’re all doing the same thing. It’s going to be great. You’re going to free yourself a little bit. Let’s go for it.
Christine: Excellent advice. And since this is Your Daily Writing Habit, I need to ask you what are your most successful writing habits?
Rebecca: I love the title of your podcast because writing is a daily habit. I am really a fan of being consistent. This also comes from working in corporate and in general, working since I was 14. I always had a boss, an office to go to or, or someplace to go. When I did transition over to writing, I was trying to write at home and I realized this was not working for me. I found I needed to get away from the solitude of home. I needed to have people around me, not necessarily to talk to, but I needed the energy of life going on around me. Everybody has to find what works for them. What works for me is to literally get dressed like I’m going to work, minus the heels and stockings from my work days, but I do put on makeup, take my computer and go to the same coffee shop I’ve been working from for 20 years. They are so sweet. They let me sit there for as long as I want and do my thing. I’m usually there by about 7:30 in the morning, sometimes a little earlier. I write until maybe noon or one and then it I come home and do my chores. In the evening, I’ll answer fan mail and do marketing. For me that really works is to be on a regular schedule.
What worries me about new writers is that sometimes they say I have kids, I have a spouse, I can’t be a writer. To them I say – engage your family in what you’re doing. My biggest supporters are my family. I adore that. My husband would do the dishes, laundry, all the little things that gave me time to write. When my kids were toddlers, I took an old typewriter and put it on the floor behind my chair. When it was time for me to write, I said it was time for them to write their books, too. They would put the paper in the typewriter and bang on their typewriter. And up at my desk, I would bang on mine. (Yes, I started before computers.) When a book sold, I made sure to include the whole family in the celebration. In the early days, when I was making next to nothing, we would go to McDonald’s, and everybody got McNuggets. I think those habits of inclusion, celebration, make all the difference in the world.
And you need to figure out which daily writing habits work for you. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make it one day. But when you’re writing full time, at least for me, I needed to have a true schedule to know what I was supposed to do that day, meet those goals, and then come home and have a regular evening. I didn’t want writing to consume me any more than I wanted a corporate job to consume me.
Christine: That’s awesome.
Rebecca: Honestly, husbands, significant others… find the one voice who encourages you, and who will celebrate with you, because the one thing that makes me sad, is when I hear people say, my family thinks I’m being silly, or my family doesn’t think I can do it. Or my best friend says, don’t be crazy. You know nobody will read it. I cringe because then I want to be that voice for that person and say, “You know what, I know it’s going to be hard because the people closest to you aren’t encouraging you. But please move forward.” And I think your voice [Christine] also helps people do that too. The best scenario is someone who is close to you saying, absolutely, I believe in you. Boy is that the most wonderful thing you could ever hear. There are going to be people out there who love your book, that’s all you need to hear. And then you’re off to the races.
Rebecca: I encouraged a lady in England and didn’t think much of it. And now she’s like seven books in and she is having a ball. Her husband’s having a ball too. He hands out her cards on the train in Scotland. I love that. It’s like, “here my wife writes books.” How cute is that?
Now my husband won’t go that far. I must admit that. I don’t think he remembers the titles of my books. But he certainly makes it easy for me to write and, and I will bless him for that forever. But yeah, new writers out there. Please know that there are lots of voices who want to encourage you and we’re just two of them.
Christine: Absolutely. And you too Rebecca, please keep writing books! And if you’re a new fan of Rebecca’s, especially after this episode, look up all her books – the Witness Series, the O’Brien Series – everything.
Rebecca: I just love that this is the kind of business that you can keep going and going and going. I’m going to be 100 years old and still writing Josie Bates
Christine: Thank you so much Rebecca for being on the show today!
Rebecca: Thank you very much. And it’s so nice to talk to you. I mean get so involved in emails and texting and things that sometimes you forget there’s a voice on the other end so this was this was very special for me and thank you for the invitation.