The Terrible, Necessary, Unavoidable Triumvirate

by Janis Patterson

In last month’s blog I talked about musery, and how the concept of a mythological goddess whispering ideas and words into a writer’s shell-like ear was a catch-all used to combine the rock-bottom basics of inspiration, imagination and skill. You see, to be a writer – a writer of any worth, a writer with any hopes of publishing – you need all three.

Inspiration is the beginning; this is the start of creating something from nothing. A ghost of an idea. An isolated incident that could be pampered and grown into something more. A starting place.

Imagination is what takes the ephemeral, insubstantial bud of an idea and feeds it, molds it, multiplies it into an acceptable storyline. Like a cook creating a recipe from the beginning idea of two ingredients, a writer will spin a complete storyline, adding in heroes and villains, buffoons and sages, problems and victories, and eventually bring it to a desired and logical conclusion.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it will come to nothing if the writer does not possess the final part of the triad – skill.

In this context the simple word ‘skill’ has a labyrinth of meanings. The most basic form is what we used to call fifth-grade English – mastery of spelling, grammar, sentence structure and punctuation. In other words, the solid skeleton of language on which you can hang the gossamer flesh of your story.

Unfortunately, these days it seems that correct and standard usage of English is if not a dying at the very least a fading art. Typos and plain mistakes that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago are now not only tolerated, but hardly noticed. Where once a single typo in a published book was a point of shame, now it is regarded as a triumph.

But this post is not to rant about the relaxing of standards, it is to point out the need for plain old skill to use the language to create your world and your story. Everyone knows the example of ‘eats – shoots – and – leaves’ and its two very different meanings. ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ is a very different sentence from ‘Eats shoots and leaves.’ A single comma changes the sentence from the reporting of a violent action to a descriptor of an herbivore’s diet.

It’s the same thing with ‘she took a peek’ (i.e., she snuck a quick look) to ‘she took a peak’ (she conquered a mountain top). Such mistakes can pull a reader out of the story in an instant, to say nothing of confusing the action. Doesn’t make the author look very good, either.

Our imaginations might be our stock in trade, but our command of language – and our skill in using it – are what makes it possible for us to communicate our stories to others. Inspiration, imagination and skill – the essential tools a writer must have.