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Understanding Criticism

Recently, I got a bad review of my book, the lowest rating possible. The reader outlined her reasons, saying the book was boring, citing repetitiveness, lack of continuity, a loose timeline, excessive details, and disorganized writing. She also mentioned redundancy, but that goes with repetitiveness. I appreciate her finishing the book, otherwise the review would have lacked validity. But she persevered, read the entire book, and wrote an honest review.

I am grateful for readers and glad to receive comments, especially formal reviews. To be ignored is the worst outcome, therefore, I welcome critical as well as favorable opinions. A negative review can be instructive and illuminating, revealing facets of a book unremarked in a favorable assessment. In fact, the review under discussion unintentionally shows some of the book’s strengths. To understand, we must go to what inspired me to write the book.

This is well covered in the introduction. Primarily, I wanted to write a memorial to Southern soldiers. Too many men and women had given everything, even their lives, for their homeland, and feeling they deserved recognition, throughout the book I included every name found in my research as an aid to future genealogists. Recently I heard from a reader, pleased to see a mountain bridge mentioned in a Union report described in my book, the bridge named after an ancestral uncle living there. Nothing gives me greater delight than hearing from readers recognizing a family connection somewhere in the book. This happens because I purposely included what could be called “excessive” details.

Another impetuous for my work was to publish the first book on the Macbeth Light Artillery, but after four years, with a wealth of information, I was convinced it should not be limited solely to an obscure artillery unit. Seeing greater possibilities, I expanded the work, leaving myself open to valid criticism that the Macbeth Artillery is only a small part of the book. But I put every shred of information I could find about the unit in the work. Recounting the artillery company requisitions for horse fodder and shoeing nails is admittedly “boring”, but it is there.

As already explained, one reason for providing excess details was to aid future research. Another reason was to fill a gaping void in history books. Comparatively little has been written about this region and I wanted the work to be a panorama of the mountain war, covering in detail the battles, raids, skirmishes, patrols, and incursions carried out by both sides.

Once the purpose of the book was settled, it was quite apparent with countless numbers of characters and scores of actions, that trying to put the mass of information in a chronological narrative would have made the book unreadable. There was too much information and too many details. Editing these out of the book would have defeated the very purpose for writing it.

I was left with the necessity of using repetition, a valid method when used properly (as I believe it was), and essential in framing the narrative in a non-chronological way.

Bruce F. Kawin, in his book “Telling It Again and Again” distinguishes the merely repetitious from repetition, saying “it is essential in the creation of rhythm and refrain”, and, more importantly, serves as a “manipulator of our sense of time and of the timeless.”

To be comprehensive and show all sides of battles, repetition is required as opposing leaders describe the action from their point of view. And to make a more seamless narrative, repetition was necessary to connect ideas, create transitions, sometimes in the form of memories, and flashbacks. In the introduction, I said I relied on limited use of fictional techniques to move the story along, avoiding a dry recitation of facts. These methods, I believe, enhanced the narrative, and kept the book from being unbearably boring.

I did my best to write the book in a way that would appeal to readers of popular books, striving to follow the shopworn advice, “show, don’t tell”. But the work is likely best received by military history fans, researchers, and genealogists.

I am grateful for the critical review and how it has illuminated the process of writing the book.

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