“Suddenly deer were everywhere, and I had the sensation of having just stepped into a covey of quail – only on a much larger scale. At least a half dozen white rumps bobbed away into the brush amidst pounding hooves and alarmed whooshing. I could only stand frozen, bow in hand, in the middle of the rutted road, watching the dancing snowy flags disappear into the fading November light.”
I WROTE THAT OPENING PARAGRAPH in 1964 hoping to sell a completed magazine article titled “Beginner’s Luck.” It documented my first-ever successful bowhunt for a whitetail buck that I tagged on the very last evening of the ’63 Indiana archery season. I thought it was a neat story and so did Roy Hoff, Editor of Archery magazine, the official publication of the National Field Archery Association. He bought it, asked for more of my hunting stories, and printed it in Archery’s August 1965 issue. It was, in fact, my first published magazine feature and launched an outdoor writing career that continues to this day. I was 24 at the time.
That’s not to say I wasn’t already a nationally published author. An avid teenage reader of Louis L’Amour Western novels and murder mysteries penned by Mickey Spillaine and Ed McBain in the 1950s and 1960s, I tried my own hand at writing short stories for the booming pulp fiction market. By the time I’d turned 20, I was selling stories about straight-shooting cowboys and stone-cold killers. It was heady stuff for a young writer, getting paid for having his fiction published in numerous magazines.
Much later I taught college kids at three separate Indiana-based universities the fundamentals of literary composition and advanced creative writing techniques. I always stressed that all successfully published writers have at least three things collectively contributing to their success: talent, discipline, and luck.
All of us have some degree of writing talent, thanks largely to grade and high school teachers who started us down the road to learning basic communication skills. A very few students seemed to be blessed with more than their fair share of God-given talent, while others struggled to string words into coherent sentences and paragraphs. Regardless, both extremes can succeed at writing interesting, readable stories because discipline – good ol’ stubborn stick-to-it-iveness can overcome a lack of natural talent. And, finally there’s the element of luck (or more specifically good timing), over which we have zero control. No matter how well we write and believe our stories are important to share, editors and publication budgets generally determine whether a story is purchased or rejected.
Also, anyone who is thin-skinned and averse to criticism will not last long in the highly competitive business of writing stories for publication and anticipating payment for the effort. Yet since it’s natural for hunters to want to share their adventures with other hunters, many write and submit detailed accounts of their adventures. It’s as natural as friends swapping their day’s happenings around a campfire at the end of a full day afield.
DURING THE 35 YEARS I spent as Bowhunter magazine Editor and an author of the publication’s editorials, feature articles, and columns, I learned through on-the-job experience what it takes to recognize and write material that readers liked, appreciated, and benefited from. It certainly helped me improve my own writing and has become a check list of musts. So, to help would-be writers with their own efforts, I offer a handful of points to ponder before submitting anything for publication anywhere, whether a popular national magazine, your state hunting’s organization’s newsletter, or even social media online posts.
Always write for readers first and yourself second. Telling your hunting story is important to you, but it needs to resonate with others to fully succeed. It’s a writer’s primary job to focus on making sure the finished manuscript is not simply a “look-at-me” article but more of a “this-worked-for-me-and-can-work-for-you” feature.
Don’t imitate; be original. Trying to imitate the voice and style of a favorite writer is rarely effective. At best, it comes across as a poor imitation. At worst, it seems contrived and falls flat. Be yourself, be comfortable, and discover your own natural storytelling voice.
Be selective; choose what’s necessary and ditch the rest. Telling a hunting story from rolling out of bed early to returning to camp or home late the same day is way too much to include. Also, there’s no rule that says you should begin at the beginning. Pick an attention-getting opening that will immediately snag a reader’s attention, then supply key details before neatly wrapping up the story.
Pay special attention to the story’s opening sentence and paragraph. Hook readers at the outset and make them want to keep turning pages. Boring openings will lose them before the story even gets rolling. Note: I readily confess I’ve rewritten my opening sentences and paragraphs multiple times before I’m finally satisfied.
Always submit error-free manuscripts. Editors are instantly turned off by misspelled words, poor grammar, faulty punctuation, etc. They deal with professional writers who submit polished manuscripts requiring little if any editing, and typically may not even bother reading error-filled manuscripts. Proofread. Proofread. And proofread a final time to catch all mistakes. Lastly, if grammar is your weakness, find someone who’s proficient to help you.
Add appropriate photos or illustrations. Writers who are proficient with cameras can add value to their manuscript by supplying quality pictures or art to complement their story. Modern cameras are capable of producing pro-quality images even if the user is not a professional lensman.
Finally, you should clearly understand that there are no guarantees you will ever realize a dream of your words appearing in print and being read by thousands of appreciative hunters. But I do know this: taking my advice to heart will improve your odds of writing a marketable manuscript. And even if that never happens, don’t overlook taking time to collect your personal memories in written form – and saving them in a folder or journal – because that will be a treasured gift that your friends or family will have to read and reread long after you’ve made your final hunt.
M. R. James Authors New Book
Fans of the writing in M. R. James books, magazine features, and columns should welcome the news that his first novel, a Montana-based murder mystery about the hunt for a sadistic serial killer, is now being sold as a Kindle eBook and paperback available at www.Amazon.com. Search Amazon books for “Dream Killer” by M. R. James.
For a signed paperback copy, contact the author directly at M. R. James, Blue Jay Books, P. O. Box 1, St. Meinrad, IN 47577. The cost is $12.50 (including postage and handling. Direct any questions to MRJames12640@aol.com.
For more please go to: Thoughts and Tips with M.R. James