Push and Knock

Some time in the eighth century, during the Tang dynasty in China, a poet named Jia Dao was riding a donkey rather absent-mindedly as he pondered his poem. The unattended donkey wandered straight into the parade of the great general and philosopher (not to mention governor of the capitol city Xi’an) Han Yu. Jia Dao was promptly arrested and brought before the general. Disrupting the general’s parade was punishable by death. When asked why he did such a thing, Jia Dao explained that he was composing a poem and could not decide if the verse should end in the word 推 (push) or the word 敲 (knock) and was not watching where he was going. He even recited his half-finished poem in both versions. Clearly, this was not a malicious criminal nor did he pose a threat to the procession and it was left to general Han Yu to decide what to do with the offender. The great governor closed his eyes in deep thought and did not speak. The parade had stopped in the middle of the city and was disrupting the traffic. It would take but a moment to chop off the poet’s head if the decision was made. One of his guards, in the end, became impatient and asked the general what his decision was. The general opened his eyes and answered “‘Knock’ is better”. And the parade finally marched off.

Ever since, the combination of the two words “push” and “knock” – 推敲 – has come to mean “to edit” or “to refine one’s writing”.

I encourage all writers to push and knock their manuscripts around. If you have just finished your first draft, it is generally a bad time to ask for opinions on your work from strangers. You are most likely not to get much validation or encouragement. Your work probably still has some elementary issues like shifting tense and POV. It will have enough grammatical, spelling, and word usage issues to take the reader out of the story. There would be obvious plot holes and the story structure probably needs work. If you are lucky, your readers will give you some constructive criticism. But they will be insufficient and may focus on the less important shortcomings and not the really important issues. Finish your second draft, and your third. Then maybe someone will be able to tell you that the sidekick character is unnecessary or that the subplot is an annoying detour. Then, slash at your darlings, cut away the deadwood, and start over. 

The internet is full of people posting bits and pieces of their unfinished draft seeking “feedback” (though what they really want is encouragement). But half-baked manuscripts only get half-baked feedback. At the most tragic, you will garner half-baked praise.

Whether you are writing a teen romance or aiming for a literary masterpiece, getting your writing right is not easy.

Consider the following example:

A) Happy families are all alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways.

B) Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

One of the above is the opening to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Without cheating, can you tell me which is Tolstoy’s original and why?

Here is another one:

A) It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

B) It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

This is the opening to George Orwell’s 1984. You can see that the placement of a single comma alters the impression of the line, but which one is better for the book? The author has surely racked his brain over this.

Now consider the opening line of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins:

A) I stare down at my shoes, as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather.

B) I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather.

Just because it is a young adult sci-fi adventure does not mean that sentences are crafted thoughtlessly.

Of course some books are better written than others. Ian McEwan’s Attonement is written in such a way that every paragraph is intricately pieced together with the kind of microscopic attention paid to the construction of a multi-functional calendar watch. But that is a digression for another day.

The best time to ask for an opinion is when you have distilled your question to “A or B”. The worst question you can ask about your manuscript is “What do you think?” (a more obnoxious way to phrase it is “Feedback welcome”). Yet that is what we see all the time. People post dismembered segments of their work and ask “What do you think?” or equivalent. I am guilty of this myself from time to time. It is rarely productive, especially when the manuscript is wanting.

Work on your manuscript until the questions are clear. Should I delete the sidekick? Does this backstory help the narrative? Should I keep the subplot or delete it? Should it be “push” or “knock”, “A” or “B”? And even then, it is difficult to answer, as the above examples of Tolstoy, Orwell, and Collins should attest.  That is when input is most helpful.

So distill your manuscript. Push and knock your manuscript for all its worth until you know what questions to ask. In the end, it may save your life.

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