What does it mean to be an artist?
In China, there is a rapidly growing interest in art. According to the New York Times article, “Own Original Chinese Copies of Real Western Art!” written by Keith Bradsher, art colleges are popping up all over China and are turning out tens of thousands of skilled artists each year. However, most of these artists are not creating their own masterpieces, but rather recreating other people’s work and selling them via the internet. One fellow, Zhang Libing, has apparently painted more van Goghs than van Gogh himself.
Is this art?
As a writer, one of the ways I’ve tried to improve my craft is by studying other people’s writing. In the last month, I’ve read a number of novels by Susan Elizabeth Phillips who is a best selling contemporary romance writer, something I aspire to be. Based on the three books I’ve read so far, I’ve discovered a few things about this beloved writer’s work. First of all, every one of her books (keep in mind, I’ve only read three) has the same basic premise. There’s the hero, the jock who is somehow involved with the Chicago Stars football team (usually a player). There is the heroine who is completely unlike any woman the jock has ever met before (in that she doesn’t have big boobs, flawless makeup and mile-long legs). And, there is always a secondary love story. There are other things that appear consistent throughout each story that might make someone like me, an aspiring writer, say, ‘Aha! See there is a blueprint!”
After scrutinizing this author’s ‘template’ one might wonder why I continue to read her work. If I already know what’s going to happen, why is it that I can’t put her book down once I pick it up? Here is where the art comes in. Susan Elizabeth Phillips has taken the basic principals of the craft, the character arcs, the conflict, the motivation, the development of scene, the tension and all the stuff that I’ve been told are important, and she has perfected it. Even her ‘hook’ is textbook. Here’s the first line from her book, Natural Born Charmer; “It wasn’t every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of a road, not even in Dean Robillard’s larger-than-life world.”
But what truly sets Susan Elizabeth Phillips apart and makes her a best-selling author is that, after perfecting her format, she then makes it her own. In other words, she creates and improvises within the basic principles of the storyline. I can’t put her books down because the meat of the story is unique in each. Her characters say and do things that are off-the-wall. Despite the fact that I know what’s going to happen, that I know I’m going to be asked to suspend disbelief in order to buy the happily-ever-after outcome for not just the hero and heroine but for many other characters as well, despite all of that, her stories are believable. Her characters are funny, honest and memorable. The relationships feel so human, so normal, in spite of the extraordinary circumstances the characters find themselves in, that I feel as if I know them.
The truth is, I enjoy her writing so much that I stay up until three in the morning reading it. Then, after I set the book down, I find myself comparing my writing to hers. I mean, she’s got the formula that works, doesn’t she? Perhaps if I just copied her style, why maybe I could become the next Susan Elizabeth Phillips, publishing more Susan Elizabeth Phillips books than even Susan Elizabeth Phillips ever published.
Does that make me a writer?
I received some advice not too long ago from a seasoned author and I think it relates to this story. It went something like this, ‘be careful of too much feedback. You have to make your writing your own and no one else knows it like you do.’ I pondered this advice for a while, and after comparing it to ALL the advice I’ve received over the past year (and there has been oodles!), I think this is by far the best. I think what she was trying to tell me was, ‘be yourself’. If I want to make it in this industry the only way I’m going to do that is by discovering my own voice and my own style. Certainly the key elements need to be there, but the story must be told in a way that is unique to me.
Now, I can take all the on-line courses I want, I can belong to as many clubs and writers groups as I feel necessary, I can enter contests and belong to email loops and subscribe to blogs. All of these things serve a purpose, but none of them are going to teach me how to write like me. The only way to find my voice is to write and then write some more.
So, I’ve decided I don’t want to be Susan Elizabeth Phillips, producing someone else’s work like those Chinese artists. I want to be D.L. Snow. I want to write the kind of stories that make others say, “Gee, I wish I could write just like her”.