Jon Acuff is a New York Times best-selling author and an inspiring voice on the career advice speaking circuit. He’s also very candid about what it takes to make dreams turn into realities, but that’s different than being brutally honest.
It’s all about the delivery. There are people out there who say they are merely being “blunt” when they address important or sensitive topics in harsh ways. They take the white gloves off, abandon the light touch, and delve right into the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Acuff inspires because he’s real, but in a constructive manner. He genuinely cares about the subjects he covers in his books and speeches, which are full of actionable advice laced with humor. He’s also extremely conscious of his delivery. Given that most writers take their craft very seriously and like their truth spoken to them with light-hearted quips, I reached out to the successful author for some advice about marketing, the state of the industry, and using the principles he shares in his book "Do Over" to reach one’s writing goals.
Here’s what the successful author had to say about his current projects and writing in general:
How is the “30 days of Hustle” going? (The “30 Days of Hustle” is Acuff’s online program that fuels self-motivation.)
The “30 Days of Hustle” is doing great. I was blown away by the response. We had 2,500 people try it and it’s been so fun to see people from so many different countries and so many different ages. We have moms, UFC trainers, a wide variety of people. I think people have been overwhelmed in a good way by the amount of content. It’s really a 90-day program packed into 30 days, so it’s been a blast.
I imagine you are getting a lot of writers in there too with everyone trying to write the great American novel in 2016.
Oh, without a doubt. We are going to do a survey to get a sense of that and I might at some point do a “30 Days of Hustle” focused on writing specifically because that’s what I’ve done for the last few years. I’ve learned a lot and it’s fun to share with other writers. And because of the response, we’re doing another one. I think a lot of people in the group are writers.
Many authors finished NaNoWriMo in November. They made the first step toward their Do Overs. What do they do to get from first draft to querying without getting divorced, fired or both?
One of the big things is giving it time. It might have taken you 30 days to write it, but it could take you three years to get it picked up by somebody or three years to get attention for it. So one thing I’d say is don’t confuse the time that you spent writing with the time it took you to get it noticed. Any time you give yourself a long timeline, things are a lot easier. Be patient with the results.
I think a lot of people do rush and it probably hurts their publishing chances because they get so excited to be done that they don’t want to really polish it up.
They (writers) don’t want to take the time to get it in really good shape or they don’t want to take the time to show it to people who would give them really honest feedback. I think there’s a number of things that if you’re not careful will really force you down the path sooner than you’re ready to go down the path.
You have been very candid about areas that you have struggled with in your quest to become more awesome and acquire more queso. (Acuff frequently writes and speaks about his love for queso.) What was a major stumbling block for you as a budding writer and how would the "Do Over" principles have helped you overcome this challenge?
I would say learning something new. Sometimes, we get so used to the handful of things we know how to do that we don’t want to learn new things because it’s embarrassing to learn something new. You don’t know how to do it. You’re an amateur again.
I talk a lot in "Do Over" about being a tourist. Be okay to be a tourist. When you’re a tourist, and you go to Paris for the first time, you shouldn’t be like a local. You’ve never been. You should use a map. You should ask questions. You should need help. A lot of times, we struggle with the idea of, “Well, I had this success in this one area, I don’t want to take a step backward and learn this other thing.” Maybe you wrote a really good draft and then you talk to a publisher and the publisher says they’d really like you to have a blog and build up an audience. And you think, “Oh, I don’t want to have to do that. I just want to write books and then sell them magically.” The idea of having to go back and learn all these new things is intimidating. (It’s) the idea of getting over yourself and getting past the discomfort of learning something new.
Any time you try something you have never done before, it’s completely normal and natural for you to have a feeling of, “Oh no,” and that’s where it’s so much easier to go back to your comfort zone, but you don’t get to grow and you don’t get to change when you do that.
You often talk about hustle in terms of seasons. How can writers find balance during seasons that pull them away from their manuscripts for long periods, which can spell disaster for their work?
It comes down to a couple things. The season idea is based on the idea that hustle isn’t always the same. An easy example of that is parenting. I had someone who told me that they were getting up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to work on their goal just like I said, but it was getting harder because they had a three-week-old. And I said, “I never said that if you have a three-week-old you should still get up at 5:00 a.m. to work on your manuscript.” That’s crazy. You’re in a young parent season. The idea of seasons is recognizing where you are and adjusting accordingly.
Say you had a really good month, maybe December was an empty month where you had some things to do, but you had two weeks of vacation and you got all this writing done. It would be dumb during January to go, “I’m failing in January because I’m not getting the same amount of work on my book done as I did on vacation.” Well, you aren’t on vacation anymore. Of course, you’re not. That would just be silly to shame yourself that way.
Seasons is recognizing where you are and adjusting accordingly so that you recognize on a broad level, “Wow, I have young kids that require a lot of attention.” They’re not in school yet. That’s different than when you have high schoolers that have their own friends and want to do their own things and have different needs than a three-year-old has. I would encourage writers to recognize the season you are in, stay connected to the work, but know that it’s going to ebb and flow because life ebbs and flows.
Many aspiring writers feel bound to unfulfilling careers due to financial constraints, so they hesitate to pursue a career in writing, even though they always dreamed about it. With the publishing industry in a state of radical evolution, do you think aspiring writers should still call a "Do Over?"
They have to adjust to how the market is adjusting. I relate this to what my friends that are musicians go through. I live in Nashville, which is Music City, and over the last ten years, my friends that are smart have had to readjust their expectations in what they do in their industry because albums no longer sell. I had dinner last night with a friend who when he would run his album used to sell 400,000 copies. Now, if it sells 40,000 copies, that’s considered a success, so he has to find other revenue streams, other ways to make a living, other ways to be flexible, other ways to be creative if he wants to continue to have the privilege to be a full-time musician.
If you want to continue to have the privilege to be a writer as the industry changes, you have to change too, because that’s going to happen. If you’re a full-time writer, you don’t get to go, “I want my books to sell the same way for the next forty years.” That’s not going to happen. You’re going to have to plug in to different ways. A writer in the ‘60’s didn’t have to be involved in social media because it didn’t exist. A writer today has to. You have to pay attention to what is changing and change along with it or eventually you become a dinosaur.
Marketing is an area that countless writers struggle with, but you have a decade of experience behind you. Publishers are spending less money on publicity for midlist and below authors. How can writers build this skillset so that their hustle isn’t wasted and readers can discover their books?
It’s a number of different things. I think one thing is to get rid of the myth that if you reach a certain level or a certain publisher that you don’t have to own the marketing. As the author, you always own the marketing, regardless of the publisher you are with. You will care more about that book than anyone else ever will. It’s your book. It’s your name on it. You are going to stand by it for ten years or twenty years, it has got to be you. There’s never a point at any level of success where you can say, “Well, if I was a bigger author than I wouldn’t have to do these things.” You always have to do these things.
You have to figure out how it fits your life. Maybe Twitter is not a great medium for you. Maybe the type of stuff you like to write is really visual and Pinterest is a better medium for you. Or maybe your audience is primarily on Facebook. Or maybe you’re writing to a young adult audience and they’re on Snapchat. You have to tailor how you approach it to what you write about and how you like to write. For me, I like Twitter a lot. I now have to make the transition to do more with Snapchat because a lot of my audience is moving in that direction, so I’m going to have to adjust for that.
At the core, you have to remember it’s on you. You’re going to see ways to be creative about it and care about it in a way that no one else will. Publishers are amazing at adding and amplifying and growing things. I couldn’t be happier with the publisher I had for "Do Over." They did an amazing job, but as an author, you have to own the marketing.
Do you have any personal writing advice that you would like to share with authors? Something that helped you to get through your books?
I just always encourage people not to get discouraged. Sometimes, it’s overwhelming when you go to a bookstore. You feel, or at least I do anyway, like the world doesn’t need another book. Like, we have enough books. Look at how many books there are. What can I possibly add or say that’s going to be different or unique or interesting?
Anne Lamott’s "Bird by Bird" is my favorite writing book. (I like) the idea that you have to go through the terrible parts of it to get to the good parts of it. I think, a lot of times, what happens is that we pick up a book we love or remember a book we loved and we forget that the book is finished. That book was edited and went through multiple rounds of proofreading. You’re looking at the completion of the project and then you compare it to the start of your project. It’s such a toxic way to feel bad about the book you’re working on. You’re looking at somebody’s finished work, of course it reads better than your first draft. It better, it went through multiple people. I try to encourage people about that.
When you get the opportunity on your book tours or through social media to connect with writers that are in the process of doing their "Do Overs," where do they normally land? Are they stronger in the skillset? Are they weaker in the character area? Do you see any kind of a pattern there?
I often find the one that is lacking is relationships. I think we live in a pretty isolating culture right now. Technology gives us the appearance of connectedness, but I think, a lot of times, it also gives us a hiding place too. I would say that of the four things that I think are important as a writer, relationships are the one that people, the ones I’m meeting anyway, struggle with the most. When I talk to somebody who is about to make a big decision and I ask them, “Well, what does your team say?” they rarely have a team. And by that I mean a group of people that they are able to share honestly about what they are working on. A group of people that knows them and encourages them. So, I think relationships.
Now that you've read the interview, you may be interested in learning more about Jon Acuff's work. His website offers a deep pool of resources, including his "30 Days of Hustle" program, which consists of a bevy of print and video content and a private online group that fuels self-motivation. Acuff is still in the early stages of writing his next book, but readers can learn more about their starting their "Do Over" and read the first chapter of his latest book doover.me.