My friend Steven is a movie nerd.
If you love movies, you’ll love him. He’ll tell you who shot the movie, the inspiration behind the film, the nitty-gritty dirty-fingernail-scandals onset (so and so slept with who?), and if you’re lucky, he’ll do all this while offering to share his famous, buttery popcorn.
He’s a Hell of a guy.
The other week, we were watching a movie by my favorite director, Quentin Tarantino. Now Quentin is an interesting cat. Aside from the fact that his fingerprints are firmly cemented on pop culture, he has a phoenix story; he rose.
After starting off as a virtual nobody, through sheer talent, passion, and will, he transformed his life from behind the counter of a video store to being the man who wrote, directed, and acted in some of the best movies ever grace the silver screen.
What I like most about Quentin Tarantino is he’s a writer. He’s written his own movies, dreamt up his own characters, and created stories worth sharing. Considering that you’re reading this on Medium, the hub for writers, I wanted to explore his philosophy to see if Quentin had any insights we can use to improve our writing.
Success leaves clues.
This is particularly useful for someone like me, (the smartass who’s trying to write an article about his clues). After a lifelong Tarantino appreciation, I’d like to share some of his wisdom on finding success and becoming a better writer.
Grab some of Steven’s popcorn; the show is about to begin.
Raise The Stakes
“I Had To Get Out Of Loserville” — Quentin Tarantino
Even though Aunt Florence and her trademark tapioca pudding really dig your writing, it doesn’t necessarily mean you made it. When I started writing, I made a personal blog (That my Aunt Florence fucking loved!), and over time I decided that this is how I want to make money. However, it donned on me, although I’m doing well in my corner of the internet, if I want this writing idea to work, I need to become vulnerable, risk rejection, and get my name out there.
So slowly, I did what must be done: improve my writing, apply to more prominent gigs, get rejected, swear, dust myself off, and apply again. Over time, I made some money, and that, to me, is the coolest thing ever. This all happened because I decided to raise the stakes.
Medium is a platform that is filled with established and emerging talent. If you have a knack for writing, this is the park you want to play in. What I’ve learned (as I’m still new to this platform) is to humble myself and ask how can I become a better writer? What are the things that the well-read writers do, and how can I learn from them? I can tell you one thing they all are doing. They raise the stakes.
Actionable Advice: Challenge yourself to submit to larger publications. You’ll never know how high you can climb if you’re afraid to take the first step.
“I am a writer. That’s what I do. It’s a writer’s job not just to write about himself but to look at the rest of humanity and explore it — other people’s way of talking, the phrases they use. And my head is a sponge. I listen to what everyone says, I watch little idiosyncratic behavior; people tell me a joke, and I remember it. People tell me an interesting story in their life, and I remember it.” — Quentin Tarantino
The best writers are wallflowers, except instead of listening to your father curse out the telemarketer who’s one errant call ruined dinner (like the kitchen wallflowers did at my house), we use our free time to write. It’s weird, it’s beautiful, it’s frustrating, it’s relaxing; it’s us.
I personally believe the single best way to improve your writing is to be aware. Be aware of the conversations you hear, the books you read, the shows you watch, and the music you listen to. By simply looking out for new words, new ideas, new expressions, well, (Spoiler Alert)– you’re going to notice them. Be present; it allows you to see life for what it really is — a gift.
Actionable Advice: Make a list or document of the phrases you hear in day-to-day life that stir your emotion. Later you can use this list in your work.
Work In a Flow
“Oh, very much so. Most of it should be subconscious, if the work is coming from a special place. If I’m thinking and maneuvering that pen around, then that’s me doing it. I really should let the characters take it. But the characters are different facets of me, or maybe they’re not me, but they are coming from me. So when they take it, that’s just me letting my subconscious rip.” — Quentin Tarantino
Most writers appreciate the idea of outlines. They are our guard rail providing comfort as we scale the giant, swaying, bridge from our mind to our keyboard. However, the nasty little truth about outlines is they can be restrictive. To me, this goes against the whole appeal of writing — freedom.
While I admit it’s useful to know where you want to go, magic happens when you have a thread, and you pull it to see how it unravels. The creative process is not knowing where you’re going and ending up with a better story because of it. It’s allowing yourself to get lost, so you can be found. Without a firm outline, it gives you the space to learn more about the characters, discover unseen motivation, and let your intuition take over.
As Steven King, the Sultan of Scare, phrases it: “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”
Personally, I do a mix of both — I start off with a rough mental outline but let the story flow from there. It’s exciting, it’s scary, it’s frustrating, it’s fulfilling — it’s me. You should do you, but no matter what approach you take, let your subconscious do the heavy lifting.
Actionable Advice: Figure out your story as you’re writing it. This will allow the creative process to bloom as it seems fit.
Be Passionate About Your Craft
“You don’t have to know how to make a movie. If you truly love cinema with all your heart and with enough passion, you can’t help but make a good movie.” — Quentin Tarantino
Passion is the cheapest insurance policy you can buy to improve your writing — It’s free. Here’s how the policy works: passion breeds discipline. Discipline breeds practice. Practice breeds mastery. If you want to be great, start with passion, it will keep you motivated enough to do the work.
In my opinion, the best writers aren’t the ones with the natural talent, (yes that helps), but it’s the passionate writers. They wake up early, stay up late, and put words on paper. Much like muscles growing on a body that regularly exercises, the writing quality improves with those who write. This idea reminds me of a universal truth. Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.
Simply put, if you’re passionate about becoming a better writer, then you’re likely to put in enough work to will it into existence.
Actionable Advice: Work on projects that you’re passionate about. Put passion in your lunch pail and bring it to work.