Critiques of Oasis
© 1997 by Paul Carlson
These are the eight written critiques for Paul Carlson's short story "Oasis." They were emailed to the author (and the entire group) during the week preceeding the live chat session. The Log of that session is also posted on this site: chatlog. You can also read the rewritten version of the story: Oasis2.
This is my critique of your short story, "Oasis ."
You've captured very accurately, the "feel" of the desert, and road experience of Ted and James. There's a number of details included, that made me feel as if I were in the car with them.
I felt that the initial scenes especially set the mood, for the story.
Just a couple of suggestions:
How about enlarging the descriptions of Ted, and also James? Both men are doing what they feel is a worthy activity - collecting donations for their church. Most men don't get involved in that type of activity - unless they feel strongly about their religion.
I realize that this is a short story, and you're attempting to capture the contrast between their "humanitarian" actions, and a bizarre occurrence that happens to them.
Let me explain why:
The neighborhood where I live attracts a number of people, who do church (missionary-type) soliciting. It's almost on a regular basis, that I have to turn someone away from the door. There are different denominations being represented... and I see a variety of different types of people.
Some are very sincere in their efforts, wanting to share their religion, in an attempt to help the community. What I also see very often, are people who are human - and subject to their own problems, biases, etc.
One young man that I talked with, was soliciting money for the Unitarian Church. When I realized whom he represented, I asked for the couple of dollars I gave him. (Reverend Moon's church). The manner in which he had solicited the money, was not what I would consider a positive way to represent his religion. (And yes, I know that this particular church already has a reputation for an overzealous, cult-like approach).
Another encounter I had - was with two young women, who wanted to talk about sharing Bible passages. One of the women, recognized me, from a very bad situation that I'm in right now, and laughed. I asked her what she was laughing about - but she shrugged. The other woman listened to my brief explanation of what has been transpiring in the situation - and wanted to come back and talk with me. The irony of it - was that her friend knew about the situation - and yet
did nothing about it, even though I asked her about it.
I felt almost sad, for the woman that wanted to talk with me - since she was unaware that her friend knew about it.
It made me realize that religion and humanity have an interrelationship, only when people actually live according to what they're proselytizing.
So, getting back to my original suggestion - if you show the reader more about each man - it creates a stronger contrast, when both men suddenly find themselves being questioned by the police, about their soliciting activities.
You've included an interesting detail - selling candy, in an effort to solicit money for the church. This was a nice addition.
There were also a couple of passages that were very effective:
"Get a good look, now, James told himself. You may not see daylight again for a very long time."
" There was a different guard at the Test Range's lonely guard shack this time...
(and on through the next paragraph), "James was no longer curious about where any of the base's mysterious weaponry might be stored"....(and ending with) "But it always felt like home when he was with his spiritual brothers and sisters, however far he went, even overseas."
James' curiosity about the base's weaponry is now replaced by the somber appreciation of fellowship that he derives from his church relationships. The situation puts things in perspective for him.
The other suggestion that I have - is to enlarge the explanation for the mix-up that the police have with the two men. A few more sentences added would be sufficient.
Lastly, there are a couple of typos, that can be easily fixed.
Thanks for sharing this with us...
See you all on Monday!
Thank you for your submission, Paul. Sorry, I missed your online session.
I have a couple of suggestions.
1. The sky was pale blue, and everything below it seemed to be one shade of brown or another.
Everything below the pale blue sky seemed to be some shade of brown.
2. Last year I was in this place in Utah, way out on a dead end highway.....
Dead end highway? Eight lanes to nowhere?
I suggest either replacing >dead end< with *remote*, or >highway< with *road*....unless that you meant that the highway ended at a canyon, which is okay because they did that in the Thelma and Louise movie :)
3. Swatting the intruding edge of map - amusing.
4. If you're only humming a hymn, how can you change/parody the words? Okay, he was thinking them.
5. The station was composed of the same cinder blocks as the houses.
I suggest *constructed*, rather than >composed<.
6. I don't know what Mason jars are. Am I missing anything?
I like the message of this story. You should never leave home without your driver's licence, especially if you're driving. Is that it?
Paul, thanks for the submission.
Of all your submissions, this one I found the most difficult to critique. I don't seem to have much to say about it because I don't understand your intent in authoring it. The writing seems unremarkable: neither disagreeable nor praiseworthy. It evoked no sentiments light or dark; neither depressed nor uplifted me; neither refuted nor reaffirmed my beliefs; neither bored nor interested me; neither soothed nor outraged me; explored no themes; developed no characters; ground no axes; painted no pictures; proffered neither solace nor despair...
The story seems to be a quiet scene in some larger setting. Perhaps I'm missing something?
There were a couple of mechanical errors, but it seems almost gratuitous even to point them out.
Thanks to you and the others who've put in crits. I really appreciate it. As always you've caught "angles" which are very important, yet had escaped my attention entirely.
In a message dated 1/20/97 3:10:06 AM, Strebe wrote:
<< It evoked no sentiments light or dark; neither depressed nor uplifted me; neither refuted nor reaffirmed my beliefs; neither bored nor interested me; neither soothed nor outraged me; explored no themes; developed no characters; ground no axes; painted no pictures; proffered neither solace nor despair...>>
Daan, you sound dissapointed! Never fear--when we get back to "Sandy's Story," everyone can get back to being "all riled up." :-)
Roger and all, yes I need more descriptives, as well as more about the character's previous experiences, which bear on their reactions during "the incident."
Many good points taken. This will need much rewriting--as I fully expected. I'm not very good at "shorts," but intend to be!
See you all tommorrow. -Paul C.
I like this a lot better than Sandy's story. I find the characters believable, the dialog well paced and usually realistic, and your descriptions believable, accurate and precise. You are creating a stage in my minds eye in which your characters play well.
The whole idea of simply moseying onto a restricted military base is not feasible however. This passage:
"Is there a gas station?" he asked the lone MP.
"Sure," the MP said, as he waved them through. "It's up ahead, five miles."
Ted drove on. "Here we are, a black guy and a white guy, both with short haircuts," he mused aloud. "That guard must have thought we were military."
Is not realistic. I was in the Navy, and couldn't get civilian vehicles on an "open" base without my Military ID, DriverÕs license, registration, and proof of insurance. ItÕs actually as much a liability issue as a security issue. In any case, the guard would have been more likely to get a duty MP to go get a can of gas than to let a civilian vehicle pass with no questions asked. Besides, military bases donÕt have gas stations where you can just "buy" gasÑYou either fill up at the duty vehicle gas depot, which is free but only services government vehicles, or you fill up at the PX/Exchange, where you have to show your ID card to put a quarter in a gum machine. You should also note that there are no small towns inside military reservations, especially on a restricted military base.
And, try as I might, I couldnÕt find a theme here anywhere. I suppose the simple list of things that happened might qualify as a plot, but to what end? Who learned something here? Which character progressed? What injustice was vanquished? Who failed? Who do we like? Who do we dislike? Why did we read this story? This story seems like it might be a chapter in the great american Ted and James road trip novel, but even at that, it would be a pretty pointless chapter, because nothing was ventured, and nothing was gained.
Other than that, I thought it was great!
P.S. Mormons make their own Peanut brittle.
The story is tautly written and moves along very nicely. Your style is a pleasure to read. I know the desert well and was immediately in familiar surroundings. A suggestion: perhaps you might give us more of the physical feel of the town as Ted and James are first approaching it, rather than after they've bought the gas. Maybe a cryptic comment or look from the gas station attendant to flesh out how wildly out of place the two are, and how determined. Also, when they eat at the bowling alley...I felt hungry for a bit more detail; what sorts of people were in there, and how did the waiter/waitress react to their presence? I felt the story's tension build from the moment they realized they were low on gas and headed for the mysterious military base, and when the MP's nabbed them I was really worried. The build-up was dynamic, and then, suddenly, everything seemed to turn up roses. Off the hook, they're given preserves, get a ride and wind up with a five dollar tip. I am a little confused as to the thrust of the story at the end. Am I missing the point? Ted's past promises a bit of intrigue...I'd like to see/hear him revert a bit to his prior street-savvy self when confronted by the lawdogs. And James' personal convictions are mentioned, but somehow I didn't get an active sense of how this strong character trait helped get them out of the mess they fell into. My advice: re-work the ending so that Ted and James themselves are directly responsible for getting out of their predicament. Make them heroic/tragic or in some other way key to the resolution of the entire ordeal, and I think you may have a marketable piece. It's very nicely written. Lawrence
Thanks for the story. I love reading self contained, well constructed ideas. You have done what I think needs to be done in a short story: create a mood, introduce the main characters and give us a slice of their life. And now, about those lives....
1) While the story moved along, I never got the sense that Ted and James were in much trouble, especially the POV character, James. You wrote it so that they were innocent, so I felt being let go was just a matter of time. The only danger I saw was the possibility that maybe they had been set up by Director Smithey. That they unknowingly were selling candy for a scam artist who chose that time to blow town, leaving his minions holding the bag.
2) For a short story, the conflict should have been set up sooner. In fact, nothing really happens until the MPs show up, almost halfway into the story. Maybe you could start there, with the story being told in flashbacks.
3) I've never been in the military (draft lottery random sequence number 321), but like Debbie, I found it a little strange that they could just drive into a restricted area like that. Perhaps you should inquire with the proper authorities.
4) <<James and Ted knew from experience that the Military Police were far more efficient than their civilian counterparts. Once called, they reacted much faster, and they were damnednably harder to avoid. >>
How would they know that? Previous experience from selling candy? So far, the only selling experiences you've related are that city people slam the door in their faces and that Mormons buy a lot of candy.
5) I don't know police procedure, but what were they arrested for? You don't mention any charges at the time of their arrest. I assume the charge is trespassing, which would make handcuffing a bit extreme.
6) First you have Jim humming, then he's singing to himself. Is he humming out loud and saying the words to himself? Also, the addition of "...he sung to himself." on the end of that sentence is awkward. A little rewrite, please.
7) There are several areas where a word or few could be eliminated (please forgive me, I just got nailed on my first submission and I've been relatively hypersensitive since).
<<It was a cool November day. Cooler than people who'd never spent a lot of time in the Nevada desert could even imagine it being. >>
Combine these and get rid of the end; <<It was a cool November day, cooler than most people could imagine the Nevada desert being.>>
<<At first there was no sign of a gas station, or of anything else manmade, for that matter.>> I believe you should say "nor" instead of "or", and you don't need "for that matter."
<<<I killed somebody, hed said, matter-of-factly.>> "Matter of factly"; awkward phrase.
<<Sorry about the trouble, guys, he said. These are some preserves and relish that my wife made. He set the box atop the other two.
James fancied himself a pickle gourmet. He took a took at the brim-full Mason jars, thanked the man sincerely. >> How about <<James loved pickles. He looked (not took a took) at the full mason jars (and) thanked the man.
8) Why would the police have to impound the car? What contract?
9) I didnt get quote marts and apostrophes with your submission. Hope you weren't missing any.
10) Someone (I believe it was daan) admonished me for using "gramma" while describing a POV character's thoughts in the third person. Because you are describing James's thoughts without saying that these are his actual thoughts, you should use "father".
11) While the ending seems to explain why they were detained (paranoia about the chemical weapons controversy) and the follow up apology, it doesn't really further James's and Ted's story. Perhaps you could weave in this explanation earlier. It's a public controversy; the military police could certainly ask them questions in this regard.
12) There are a few areas you could avoid using the negative form. As William Safire said in his book "Fumble-Rules", "Do not put statements in the negative form." Tell us what they ARE thinking. Its less ambiguous and gives us more information (I've been reading some writing books; does it show?).
<<The effect was not cheerful. >> So what is the effect?
<< It seemed strange, even to himself, that he didnt feel as afraid as he ought to be.>> State how he did feel.
<<James was no longer curious about where any of the bases mysterious weaponry might be stored.>> If he's not curious, what is he feeling?
Using the negative form does work sometimes; "The effect was not cheerful" works as sarcasm. Actually, you did a pretty good job overall avoiding negative sentences. The above are just a few that I noticed.
13) <<Gigantic cottonwood trees grew everywhere.>> Everywhere? In the desert? Could be, I've never been to the Nevada desert. Just curious.
14) << Though to his experienced eyes, the view was a rich one. >> You don't need "Though...", the rest of the sentence says it (although you shouldn't start the sentence with "To.."). Whatever. Lol!
15) Some cool phrases: <<the wind kept snapping it like a paper flag.>>; <<Then a patch of green appeared ahead, and widened into a small town. >>. Give us some more of those!!
16) Cliche alert: <<so far the candy had been selling like hotcakes.>>
17) There's only a few sentences beginning with a conjunction, or another word you used as a link, such as "then" and "even". But I didn't notice until the second read, so I'm sure they were appropriate.
Well, thats enough for now! I hope you find this useful. See you tommorrow night.
Paul, your discription of the Nevada desert is perfect. I read that and immediately pictured the desert around Las Vegas, where I grew up. It even made me a little nostalgic; but only a little. :)
I have a few question/comments before the meat of the crit, so here goes.
Does Nevada have State Troopers, now? It's been 20 years since I moved form Vegas but we had Highway Patrol back then.
The guards actions at the Test Range don't ring true for me and here is why:
Military personnel are supposed to have a sitcker in their windshield that the MP on guard duty would notice. Either this is an open base, I don't know if the military has these, or the guard is very relaxed in his duties.
In the section where James had to use the bathroom you state that, "It was difficult to pee with cuffs on." I should think it would be even more difficult to pee with someone watching.
The "Head MP" is writing in his notebook, "Note: Have Sharon run their fingerprints thru NCIC as soon as they are booked." Is Sharon a civilian? If not maybe give her a rank and a last name, like Private Smith or something.
1st page, 10th paragraph -
I would change *and battled* to battling and *had* I would delete altogether.
2nd page, last paragraph - James was guided, gently but firmly, to *the patrol car*, where Ted was already standing. The tow MPs spoke little as the bundled *their* captives into their car.
Maybe delete *the patrol car* and change *their* to the.
3rd page, 1st paragraph - "She *much* have called 'em."
I think you want to say *must* instead.
3rd page, 2nd paragraph - The word *damnednably* has an extra *n* and I think it is the second one. Though I tried I could not find this word in my dictionary.
4th page, 2nd paragraph - He *dialled* it himself...Okay, I'll give you this one since my dictionary says it can be spelled your way or *dialed*. But in the 4th paragraph you have *diilled*. See aforementioned spelling. :)
That's it for me. The story was very readable but I found myself asking, "Who are these people?"
See you Monday.
Dear Debbie & all,
Thanks for the early crit. Good points, every one.
Ach! The curse of haste--a last rewrite and then forgot to use the spell checker. Get ready, and : : : slap! : : : myself. That's one for absent-minded me.
I think you're right--I used to live in Vegas myself, seven years ago. (Jeez, I doubt either of us would recognize it now.) I think Nevada does have a Highway Patrol. Seems like I met them at the wrong end of a ticket book, once . . .
I have a feeling some of the former military types amongst us could potentially help me with the "authentic" ranks, procedures and such.
See 'ya Monday. -Paul C.
Thanks for sending Oasis to me. I enjoyed it. How long have you been writing? Me, four years. Have had some published articles in mags and such, but no short stories or novels yet. (Someday).
Would like to send you a written critique but not sure how. When I critique, I write directly on the manuscript. How does the group do it? If everything is done through E-mail, I guess my method would be impossible. I would love to put my red marks on your story and mail it to you. What do you think?
If you'd prefer I write to Rhyssa2 for more detailed instructions, I'll be glad to do that too.
I'll be waiting to hear from you.
Top of Page