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When to Reject Criticism?

September 3, 2011

All honest constructive criticism is worth listening to, but that doesn’t mean that everything someone says about your work is right. Case in point, one person whose opinion I generally respect complained that in my novel I spend too much time talking about the weapons that my characters take with them. They found those parts boring.

Specifically I believe this person was talking about this passage in my manuscript:

“Extra weapons were taken as well. Romar sharpened and oiled his favorite sword, a blade similar in design to the cavalier sword held by Dassara, but with a more solid hilt. A yew shortbow and arrows were brought along for hunting, along with a musket, and wheel lock pistol favored by Lily. Romar also found a blade for Krem amongst his collection- a lightweight curved sword that was more suited to combat than the hunting sword, he told him. He promised to give Krem a lesson or two along the way on their journey. Dassara was concerned that armed commoners would draw too much attention along the road, but she was assured that in the country they would be traveling through, unarmed persons were far more suspicious.”

There are a few other places where I mention things that a character takes with them or preparations that they make, but I think these five sentences are the best example.

Now, I can understand why someone might think of that as unneccessary detail- unless of course those weapons mentioned are actually going to used by the characters. In that case, what’s wrong with letting the reader know what sort of preparations your characters are making for their defense? Should their weapons just appear later on out of thin air? Why, when your characters are preparing for a dangerous journey, wouldn’t you mention something about their preparations for that journey? It’s possible that what I wrote was written poorly, but that doesn’t mean the subject isn’t worth a few sentences somewhere in the story.

I think I’m in pretty damn fine company in my opinon here. Just take a look at this brief snippet from Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne:

Forty-eight hours were left before our departure; to my great regret I had to employ them in preparations; for all our ingenuity was required to pack every article to the best advantage; instruments here, arms there, tools in this package, provisions in that: four sets of packages in all.
The instruments were:
1. An Eigel’s centigrade thermometer, graduated up to 150 degrees (302 degrees Fahr.), which seemed to me too much or too little. Too much if the internal heat was to rise so high, for in this case we should be baked, not enough to measure the temperature of springs or any matter in a state of fusion.
2. An aneroid barometer, to indicate extreme pressures of the atmosphere. An ordinary barometer would not have answered the purpose, as the pressure would increase during our descent to a point which the mercurial barometer would not register.
3. A chronometer, made by Boissonnas, jun., of Geneva, accurately set to the meridian of Hamburg.
4. Two compasses, viz., a common compass and a dipping needle.
5. A night glass.
6. Two of Ruhmkorff’s apparatus, which, by means of an electric current, supplied a safe and handy portable light.
The arms consisted of two of Purdy’s rifles and two brace of pistols. But what did we want arms for? We had neither savages nor wild beasts to fear, I supposed. But my uncle seemed to believe in his arsenal as in his instruments, and more especially in a considerable quantity of gun cotton, which is unaffected by moisture, and the explosive force of which exceeds that of gunpowder.
The tools comprised two pickaxes, two spades, a silk ropeladder, three iron-tipped sticks, a hatchet, a hammer, a dozen wedges and iron spikes, and a long knotted rope. Now this was a large load, for the ladder was 300 feet long.
And there were provisions too: this was not a large parcel, but it was comforting to know that of essence of beef and biscuits there were six months’ consumption. Spirits were the only liquid, and of water we took none; but we had flasks, and my uncle depended on springs from which to fill them. Whatever objections I hazarded as to their quality, temperature, and even absence, remained ineffectual.
To complete the exact inventory of all our travelling accompaniments, I must not forget a pocket medicine chest, containing blunt scissors, splints for broken limbs, a piece of tape of unbleached linen, bandages and compresses, lint, a lancet for bleeding, all dreadful articles to take with one. Then there was a row of phials containing dextrine, alcoholic ether, liquid acetate of lead, vinegar, and ammonia drugs which afforded me no comfort. Finally, all the articles needful to supply Ruhmkorff’s apparatus.

(The Bantam Classic version of the book that I have sitting next to the keyboard as I write this has a slightly different translation than the Wikisource version I cut and pasted above. It also has a very long footnote explaining how a Ruhmkorff’s device works.)

Why does Jules Verne spend words on this? Because, 1) it helps frame the journey or task to be undertaken in the minds of the readers, and 2) it all figures into the story later on.

Off the top of my head, I can think of more than a few well-known works that spend a hell of a lot more time discussing how the main characters’ prepare for a journey or dangerous task than I have. Among them are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Lord of the Rings, The Three Musketeers, and Treasure Island. (I shouldn’t have to cite samples from text here. Shame on anyone who hasn’t read at least three of these titles.)

My point here: sometimes the criticism you receive, even from someone you normally listen to, can be wrong or downright silly. If you can find good literary examples to prove them wrong, you may want to go with those.

***

Although I suppose it’s possible for the opposite to be true. Just because someone compliments your work and you want to agree with them doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right either.

***

Edit: The same person who made that comment about my novel also thought the above passage from Jules Verne was too boring to read all of it. Take that to mean whatever you want.

***

Edit: Short addendum to this post here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Donnette Guardarrama permalink
    September 22, 2011 1:34 pm

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