Cool Story, Bro
By PJ DelHomme | PUBLISHED October 19th, 2022
Before I started my own writing business, I spent nearly 15 years as the hunting editor for an elk hunting magazine. I would read around 300 unsolicited hunting manuscripts each year and select around 10 percent of those stories for publication.
After a few hundred stories, I noticed patterns in the stories we chose to print. Here are a few reasons those hunting stories rose to the top of the stack and why the others went into the recycling bin.
Keep It Authentic
In our Instagram highlight-reel world, it can be hard to remember that life isn’t all 400-class bulls. But if you kill the big one, you must keep it real. For instance, I worked on two stories about world-record elk, and the hunters were vastly different people. One killed the world-record nontypical elk with help from an outfitter, hordes of guides, and a six-figure Governor’s Tag. The other story was about the archery world-record typical elk killed by a do-it-yourself hunter who worked for the local highway department. Can you guess which story was more enjoyable to edit and read? Of course, it was the latter. The archery hunter could have been any of us, making it relatable and authentic. I don’t know anyone willing to drop $150,000 on an elk tag. If a reader can’t relate to your story, they will stop reading.
Every Story Needs a Hook
This one time, at hunting camp, I killed an elk with my dad. We brought it home. It was the “Hunt of a Lifetime.” That scenario made up roughly half of the stories I read every year. I’m sure it was a great time, but a story needs to stand out from the crowd. What happened on your hunt that made it unique? Did it snow six feet? Did a horse die because of exposure? Did you dig your way out with a giant Rubbermaid lid? Now that’s a story—and one that we printed.
Not every story has to be a near-death experience, but it needs to be unique. It will likely be boring if it reads like a play-by-play journal entry. And remember, not every hunt makes a story someone else will want to read.
Not Every Story Needs a Dead Thing
Many of my favorite stories ended with an unfilled freezer. Why? Because those stories had something other than “we came, we killed, we high-fived.” The authors of those stories found something more than a nice set of antlers. Maybe they bonded with a sibling, parent, or relative. Maybe they did have a near-death experience. Or perhaps they had bear spray go off accidentally in their crotch—we printed that story, too. All the stories had hunting as a backdrop, but life happened along the way. Those authors recognized that unique angle and wrote about it.
Be Your Biggest Critic
Just about anyone can write. Few do it well. A good story typically doesn’t happen in one evening at the computer. By all means, sit down and crank it out. But then let it marinade for a week or so. Come back to it. When I do that to my work, I often wonder how much I drank while writing the first draft.
As you revise—a vital part of the writing process—be hard on yourself. Ask yourself a few basic questions. Why am I writing this? What is the reader going to take from this story? Every event, person, and piece of dialogue needs to add to the story. If Uncle Levi’s appearance on day three of the hunt has no bearing on anything else, chances are he can stay out of the story. If he shows up with his mistress, who shows everyone in camp how to quarter an elk without gutting it, then let’s meet Levi and Elvira.
Stories Are Everywhere
"Professional” writers did not write most of the stories we published. One guy, Mike, was not a writer by trade—though he should be. Once upon a time, he flew fighter jets for the Air Force and wrote some of the coolest stories we ever published. In this story, he recalled how he met an older man in the parking lot of a grocery store after noticing a hunting sticker in the back window of the man’s pick-up. They struck up a conversation, and the old man told him about his one and only elk hunt. They shared some laughs—and tears—chatting over the bed of his truck. Then Mike wrote a story about an encounter in a parking lot! And it was memorable, not just for the author and the old man, but for me. Four years later, I can still tell you how it ends.