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30 Things I’ve Learned About the Writing Life

On Thanksgiving, I celebrated 30 years since the sale of my first book.  It’s a crazy milestone and made me consider this writing and publishing life with a sense of bemusement. To celebrate, I have collected 30 things I’ve learned in those three decades.

1. Persistence is more important than talent.

2. Be nice to everyone. It’s a very small world. The meek editorial assistant of today will one day be running the prestigious imprint you most want to break into.

3. No one actually knows what talent means.

4. Don’t compare yourself to others.

4. Don’t buy into your own press. There’s nothing more obnoxious than a writer who swans around in a perfume of her own self-importance.

5. Learning never stops—which is one of the best things about the writing game. No one can possibly understand all of it.

6. A great agent will be your best ally—and the relationship can last as long as a marriage. I’ve been with my agent Meg Ruley for 20 years.

7. A bad agent is worse than no agent at all—by far.

8. ALL writers need good editors. I plan to write an entire blog on this very subject in the near future—editors are enormously important to creating your best work, and creating those relationships can make you a much better writer. No book should enter the world without editorial eyes. Period.

9. Some books will do better than others for absolutely no reason you can fathom.

10. Some books will flop. Also for no particular reason.

11. If you’re lucky, some books will soar. This almost certainly will happen if you keep writing and keep improving. That persistence thing again.

12. Understanding who your own particular readers are is powerful in today’s marketing landscape. If you don’t know, you can’t target and if you can’t target, you’re going to waste time, effort, and money.

13. Learn to save your money. The fact is, your income will go up and down. Some seasons will bring monsoons of cash, while others will be as dry as a California drought.

14. Meet your deadlines. Sometimes a gigantic crisis will mean you simply cannot, but otherwise—just do it.

15. The above will be easier if you are realistic about what you can reasonably produce in a given period. If you don’t know, spend some time observing your habits and extrapolate.  It’s better to underestimate than to overestimate.

16. Conduct yourself professionally. All the time. Online, at conferences, at meetings. If you don’t know what that means in this world, ask someone you trust.

17. Be yourself. You don’t have to pretend to be sophisticate from the Northeastern corridor if you’re a country boy from Kansas.

18. Every book deserves the best you’ve got.

19. Every book is part of your backlist, your body of work. You want to be proud of it.

20. Let your work grow over time.  As you grow and change, so will your work.

21. Not everyone will love your work. Or you.

22. A bad review is just one reader’s opinion.

23. A great review is from YOUR reader.

24. Your circle of friends is one of the most important things you have. Nourish it.

25. Your writing is not the only thing in your life that matters. Make sure you take care of the other parts—health, family, time for other pursuits.

26. Give back as you are able. Judge contests, teach, offer to help with local writing organizations or chapters.

27. The outside world is never really going to understand what you do.

28. An earnest reader letter is one of best things you can get.

29. Trust yourself. Trust your vision.

30. It really is a dream life. The only one I wanted—and even better than I could ever have imagined.

What have I missed?  What nuggets have you picked up on your journey?


About Barbara O'Neal [1]

Barbara O'Neal [2] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [3], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [4].