Unlikely Influences: What Dan Koboldt learned about writing from bowhunting

Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.

This week’s installment is by my agency brother Dan Koboldt.

dan-shooting-bowWhat I learned about writing from bowhunting

by Dan Koboldt

A few centuries ago, my ancestors chased the dream and headed west to make their fortunes in the American frontier. For reasons that I still don’t understand, they got about halfway to the lovely California coast and decided to plunk their things down. Sure, the land is good for growing crops, but it would have been nice to be close to an ocean. Or even a decent mountain range.
Missouri has neither of those things. Instead, we have woods: 14 million acres of forest land. Hunting is one of the most popular outdoor activities here, especially deer hunting. The first week of deer hunting season is like a statewide holiday, especially in small towns and rural areas. Visit one in mid-November and you’ll see what I mean.
An experienced hunter can shoot a deer from over 500 yards away with a high-powered rifle. But some of us prefer a quieter, up-close pursuit of big game. We hunt with the bow and arrow. Bowhunting, as it’s called, is a fanatical and lifelong pursuit for many of us. In that respect, and many others, it’s much like the craft of writing. As a bowhunter who also writes science fiction and fantasy, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities.
The Most Important Advice
Last year I followed a poll in a bowhunter forum that asked hunters, “What’s the single most important piece of advice you can give a new hunter?” The answers were striking, because they’re quite applicable to the pursuit of writing as well. The top three responses were:
  1. Be patient. The effective range of a modern bow is probably around 50 yards, but most kills are made at about 20 yards. In other words, we have to ambush our prey. That involves a lot of waiting around. It was good practice for when I became a writer.
  2. Be persistent. It’s incredibly rare for a hunter (especially a new hunter) to walk out on opening day and shoot a 10-point buck. Usually we won’t see so much as a squirrel. Success at hunting requires dogged determination, just as success at writing does. You go out and keep going out until you get it done.
  3. Practice is critical. Bowhunters spend a lot of time at the archery range. You get one shot when a deer finally wanders into range, and you don’t want to blow it. This holds true for writing as well: you have one chance to submit your book to an agent or publisher. When that moment comes, you want to have put in the work.


bowhunter-writer-danFind the Right Tools
The success of retailers like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops is a testament to the outdoor economy. Hunters in the U.S. spend about $14 billion on equipment every year. There is a tool or gadget for every single aspect of hunting, from weapons to clothing to game calls and ATVs.
We hunters love our gear, and the manufacturers love to sell it to us. It seems like there’s a more accurate bow, straighter arrow, warmer boot, and more seductive game call every season. Most hunters don’t need all of these things. In fact, we’re pretty choosy about our equipment, because we have to carry it all with us. The same might be said of writing: there’s a million different writing tools (books, software, outlining methods, etc.) and a lot of it’s unnecessary.
My top three bowhunting tools might surprise you: binoculars, bug spray, and a GPS. I won’t go into the woods without them. My top three writing tools are also relatively simple things: my Macbook, Scrivener, and an old-fashioned notebook.
There Will Be Disappointment
If it were easy to shoot a deer with a bow and arrow, if success were guaranteed, many more people would do it. Deer hunters in the U.S. spend an average of 20 days “in the field” every season. Most of the time, they come home empty-handed. This applies even to the best hunters, the people who do it on television and write books about it. A season where you take one deer is a huge success.
All hunters are not equal, either. Some of my hunting friends consistently bag two or three deer in a season, whereas I’m lucky if I get one. In many states, there are far more would-be hunters than permits available. That’s just the way it goes.
Writing has its disappointments, as we all know too well. Rejections, bad reviews, disappointing sales, and financial hardship are part of the game.
SAMSUNGNever Stop Improving
Bowhunting involves many skill sets, most of which improve over time. Shooting accurately, moving quietly through the woods, and reading the signs of our quarry are all matters of experience and practice. I learn new things almost every time I go out into the woods, even if I come home empty-handed. I work at woodcraft and other fundamental skills because I want to get better.
Writing is also a skill where you can improve over time. You gain the experience of knowing what to do, and the skill to pull it off. Not all authors get better with time — some of them seem to write their best books early in their careers — but the vast majority of us will. If we work at it.
Be Part of the Community
Bowhunting, like writing, is largely a solitary activity. For one thing, it’s hard to fit two hunters in a tree stand or ground blind and still have room to draw your bow. We spend a lot of time out in the woods alone, but for the birdsong and buzzing of insects. Most of the animals out there are poor conversationalists, and we’re also trying to keep them from noticing us. In other words, it can get lonely.
Fortunately, bowhunters also have a large, tight-knit, supportive community. We have online forums to commiserate in failure, learn from one another, and celebrate our successes. Hunters have also embraced Twitter the way writers have, and we have our own hashtags to boot.
In both bowhunting and in writing, I struggled a little bit because I tried to do it alone. Things improved considerably once I joined the community. I made friends who understood the hardships, who were as dedicated as I was to finding success. In other words, I found my tribe. And my pursuit of each love was better for it.
Dan Koboldt is a genetics researcher and a science fiction and fantasy writer. He runs the Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. He is a member of the Codex writers community. Follow Dan on Twitter at @DanKoboldt.