Thursday, November 19, 2009

Strange Words

On Facebook the other day, I saw a conversation the made me think. You may have seen it too, but an author who is in the process of revising a book based on an editor's suggestions asked the question of whether it would be better to say "came barreling out of nowhere" or "barreled out of nowhere." The author had originally written "came barreling out of nowhere," but the editor had flagged it and suggested that he write "barreled out of nowhere" on the grounds that barreled is a stronger verb. I think the author finally decided to go along with the editor, but I’m going to make the argument that the author should have suggested the editor go take a hike.

The first reason we should favor came barreling over barreled in this case is that we would never say “barreled out of nowhere” in everyday speech. I’ll get to why we wouldn’t say that in a moment, but for now, if normal people wouldn’t say something then our characters probably wouldn’t say it and our narrator wouldn’t say it. Strong verbs aside, it is our responsibility as authors to understand what our characters would and would not say. If the editor tries to make them say something something they would never say, then it’s time to put our foot down and say no.

So why don’t we say, “barreled out of nowhere” in everyday speech? When we talk, telling our friends stories, we tell it from our point of view. Imagine you’re standing in your front yard, next to the road. You’re tending the flowerbeds or something. You look up and a black car is coming straight at you. It came barreling out of nowhere. A lot of importance rests on that word came. From your point of view, it is coming, so when you tell your friends about it later, you imagine the scene in your head and that car is still coming toward you. It is natural for us. But if we were to say that something barreled out, the point of view is on the object doing the barreling. As we imagine the scene, we are watching a car traveling along the road at a high rate of speed. We are no longer the observe by the side of the road, but we are flying along with the car. It would not make sense for us to say that it “barreled out of nowhere.” Since our point of view has been flying along with the car as it barreled along the road, we know were it has been. Wherever that may have been, from our point of view, it wasn’t nowhere.

Things like this are part of the reason why some of us dread the thought of working with an editor. We want to work with an editor because we make mistakes, but as authors we spend time observing people and the words they use. So maybe they don’t use as strong of a verb as they could, but there are reasons why people use one phrase and not another. When an editor tells us that we should put strange words in the mouths of our characters, we have every right to tell the editor to go take a hike and yes, I mean to tell the editor to go take a hike and I don’t mean to tell the editor to hike.