Noh Drama is a form of Japanese stage play. (If you’ve never seen one, I highly recommend it.) Unlike a lot of western theater, where the scene changes and prop changes happen off stage or after the curtain falls, Noh drama uses koken (stage hands) to update the sets and props. They are dressed in black head to toe and are so skilled at their jobs that you stop noticing they’re on stage, almost as if they were prop ninja (ninjas is not a word – one ninja, two ninja). And yet, without them, the performance would not happen. There is a wonderful entry “Reflections of a Koken” in the Theater Nohgaku blog that describes what it’s like to be a koken (check it out at http://theatrenohgaku.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/reflections-of-a-koken/)
As an author, I am the koken. I’m not the main character. Believe me, if I ever tried to do even a quarter of the things my characters get up to, with the exception of singing, I’d be in a hospital in five seconds flat. No falling off rooftops, dodging explosions, or making nice-nice with wolves for me, thank you very much. The one time I did roll down a steep hill, flip over the drop at the end of it, and slam flat on my back, I was fifteen and a heck of a lot more sturdy (and a heck of a lot more stupid…If I’d been using my brain at all, I wouldn’t have been standing that close to the edge…). It’s not my job to go and do these things. It’s my job to work together unobtrusively with the characters and the scenery so that all the reader sees is what I need them to see (or sometimes what I want them to see if I need to misdirect their attention for a bit).
So how do I do that? The first and foremost thing is to never ever ever make your reader say “Huh?”
The instant my reader drops out of the story because of a mistake I make, I’ve failed. Spelling errors. Grammar errors. Continuity errors. Language errors. Any of these is the equivalent of the koken bringing up a prop, tripping, and doing a face plant on the way to the front of the stage. All of a sudden everybody knows I’m there, and the spell of the drama is broken.
For example, I’m reading a book right now in which I’ve found, not only an error every five pages or so, but three errors in a single paragraph. The scariest part is that it’s not self-published. It says something about the story that I’ve continued reading at all…but at the price of even e-books these days, even one or two errors is inexcusable from a professional publishing house…a single human read-through without depending on spell-check would have caught the errors and fixed them.
Most readers in that situation will not keep reading unless the story is really grab-you-by-the-whatever-body-part-you-choose-to-be-grabbed-by awesome. At best they will put your book down and give it to the library. At worst they will tell everybody how awful your book is…and with social media, that’s a lot of people thinking your book stinks without even picking it up.
But even though an editor is paid to edit, the quality starts with me, with the author. My baby, my responsibility. This is another time that reading aloud comes in handy. If you’re embarrassed, read it aloud while nobody’s home. Because your mouth will instinctively say something naturally, the way it sounds right, you’ll see the difference on the page between what you said and what you wrote so that you can fix it. My work should be the best I can possibly make it before I send it to an editor. That doesn’t mean I’ll catch everything…I’m only human…but I need to do everything possible.
Another way to Noh your audience is to know your audience. Who are you writing for? Is it a work of fiction? Non-Fiction? An essay on particle physics? Will experts on the subject be reading it? You need to know who you’re writing for and to a certain extent what their expectations of your work are before you set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
I write for many audiences. At work, I write recommendations for managers and executives, but also procedures for staff, memos to contractors and legal professionals, along with requests for system upgrades. At home, I have my blog for writers and authors and people interested in learning how to write, and my book for science fiction, fantasy and steampunk readers. In every single one of those situations, I need to be hyper-aware of the expectations of my audience.
As a work example, let’s suppose something in the computer system could be improved to make it more efficient. Writing the recommendation paper for managers who have limited time at their disposal to get approval for the change is 180 degrees away from writing up the requested change for programing staff. Writing for the wrong audience in this situation could hinder you from getting what you need.
If I were to put all the techno-speak and detail into the recommendation paper, I would immediately make the managers say “huh?” This could jeopardize winning approval. That’s not to say that the managers don’t understand how the system works. It’s a matter of my paper being one tiny request in the 800 they get every single day, not including emails and meetings. They don’t have time to dig into the weeds. They want me to lay the important points out and give them enough detail to make an informed decision.
In contrast, if I don’t put that techno-speak into the requested change for the programmers, I will make them say “huh?” I might even get a bit of push back because, by writing in simplistic terms, they might think that I haven’t done my research, and that I don’t understand how the system works or why the change is necessary to make things work more efficiently.
For a non-work example, let’s look at language. Some words sound and look exactly the same to people who speak different languages. For example the word Gift in English is something good…a present you might get on your birthday. In German, it means poison. And even if that German is reading in English, there will be a split second between when the person reads it mentally and when the person remembers the English definition. This is also true of letters. In Cyrillic, what our eyes tell us are E’s and N’s are entirely different parts of the alphabet.
But it’s not just foreign languages… There are several countries where English is our native tongue. But what the words mean may be different on either side of the Pond (or the Pacific in the case of Australia and New Zealand). The words and grammar appear to be the same, but without knowledge of the cultural differences, it becomes a game of “what you think you heard isn’t what I thought I said…”
For example, Oliver, a Londoner, says to his friend, Tex, from Dallas, “Best hide your bees in the boot while we play football, mate.” Tex is now wondering if Oliver has lost his marbles. Why put bees in your boots to tackle somebody on the gridiron? Not only is it painful, it really messes up your socks. Of course, what Oliver actually said was “You should hide your money (from the Cockney Rhyming Slang ‘bees and honey’) in the trunk of your car while we play soccer (presumably so it won’t get stolen).
This kind of thing can even happen with your genre as you write. A science fiction author can write “the door dilated” and a science fiction fan will immediately see a round door, perhaps on a space station, irising open like a camera lens. But if you’re writing a murder mystery, and you write “the door dilated” your reader may not get that mental picture…and if the fan is an obstetrician or an ophthalmologist, he might really be confused as to why you used that verb.
The purpose of the koken, and also of the author is to sit silently at the back of the stage until necessary, and then to stealthily glide up, deliver what’s needed, and disappear back into the shadows with none the wiser. Before every Noh performance, everyone in the production says “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu.” (I humbly ask you to take care of me). My responsibility as a wordsmith and an author is to quietly and stealthily take care of my audience and of my characters. Each one of us a critical piece of the trinity, and is of equal importance in the creation of a fulfilling reading experience. Because, as a wordsmith and an author, unless I Noh my audience, truly know my audience, soon I will have no audience.