Getting the sequel right

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I’m working on a sequel to Conjure Woman’s Cat. It’s been more difficult to write than CWC. Likewise, Sarabande–the sequel to The Sun Singer–was harder to write than TSS. I don’t think my difficulties with sequels are unique to me.

On the other hand, some writers produce multi-book series with the same characters and similar plot lines, so whatever drags me down while working on a sequel must not bother them or they’d go nuts by the time they get to the third or fourth book in a series.

The books grew more complex as the characters aged and advanced through their years at Hogwarts. A large cast of characters with conflicting motivations and loyalties also kept the books fresh.

The books grew more complex as the characters aged and advanced through their years at Hogwarts. A large cast of characters with conflicting motivations and loyalties also kept the books fresh.

With a sequel, what can possibly go wrong?

  • When everything is said and done, it might lack the unique freshness the author achieved in the original book.
  • The characters don’t seem to be the same. I’m not talking about character growth, which is good; more like their being apples and oranges different than they were in the first book, ending up as different people.
  • The events, descriptions, voice, and mannerisms had to be consistent within the first book. With the sequel, there’s always a danger that the author will inadvertently change something or contradict something from the original without even noticing it.
  • Some of an author’s favorite phrases and descriptions might get into the second book to such a great extent that readers feel they’re reading the same book twice, or a hastily written sequel in which the author plagiarizes himself.

If you’re a writer, perhaps writing sequels bothers you for other reasons. If you’re a reader, you’ve probably found yourself disappointed with some of the sequels you read because they didn’t live up to the wonders of the original.

Frankly, I don’t have an easy solution for solving my concerns about sequels. But here are a few ideas.

  • The sequel can focus on a different character than the original. On the plus side, if you take a secondary character from the original and make him or her the protagonist in the sequel, you’re dealing with a lot of new ground. You’re adding information, events and experiences that weren’t mentioned or even hinted at in the original. On the minus side, try to imagine the Harry Potter books focusing on a different protagonist with each follow-up book in the series. This can anger fans, even if you’re not a major bestselling author, because they return to your work wanting to hear more about the character they grew to love (or hate) in the first book. I feel that the dangers here might outweigh the advantages  even though I used this approach when I wrote Sarabande.
  • Knowing your characters in the same way you know real people makes them more likely to seem just as believable and consistent in the sequel as they did the first time out. I have always thought there was something false about making a grid for each character in which I listed his or her traits, motivations, personality, brief history, etc. Sure, this will keep you from changing a character’s hair color by accident in the middle of a book, but I see such grids as somewhat artificial. We know and keep track of our real life friends without needing a chart showing everything about them. If you really know your protagonist, and other primary characters, then I think you can take them into new situations without having to fret about what they would do or say. When you have a real-life problem, you know (usually) in advance which of your friends to turn to for a shoulder to cry on or for practical advice. Knowing our characters in this way helps keep them from changing into totally different people in the sequel, much less doing something that’s (so to speak) out of character.
  • Jane Smiley's "Last Hundred Years Trilogy" takes a family through a century of real and fictional events as the characters age, marry, have children and pass away. New real-life events played off against the characters and helped keep the books interesting.

    Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years Trilogy” takes a family through a century of real and fictional events as the characters age, marry, have children and pass away. New real-life events played off against the characters helped keep the books interesting.

    Keep your notes from the first book. I don’t plot or outline any of my books: if you do, don’t throw those away. I do take a lot of notes as I do research. The flora and fauna living around a protagonist’s piney woods cabin probably won’t change from book one to book two. Keeping the notes reminds you what you said so that the sequel is consistent. When I have multiple characters, I sometimes make a timeline that shows when they were born, when they married, when they had children, etc. If you do this, too, then that timeline will serve you well when you write the sequel.

  • While you may have had certain in jokes and events that were mentioned more than once during the course of the original, the sequel will be fresher if you don’t use the same ones over again. Referring to a few of them in the sequel is so similar to people in real life often telling the same stories many times, that it not only makes the characters real, but it also ties the sequel to the original in a positive way. However, the sequel needs to add new in jokes, set pieces and personalities for the characters to talk about rather than rehashing everything from the original. In some ways, oblique references in the sequel to often-mentioned events and attitudes in the original also adds realism because we don’t always tell the same yarns or remember-whens the same way each time we think of them.
  • While keeping the characters consistent from the first book to the second book is important, I believe it’s equally important for the protagonist to have different challenges in the sequel. Sure, some TV series pit the protagonist hero against similar kinds of bad guys in every episode. This works for a while, but then it gets stale. So, if your protagonist in the first book is, say, coping with the aftermath of a natural disaster, the second book probably shouldn’t show them coping with a new natural disaster. As authors, we need to avoid having our books sound like they all have the same plot, such as a hurricane in book one, a flood in book two, and an forest fire in book three. For every series that works that way, I think there are probably ten that fail.
  • Sequels are also helped (though this isn’t mandatory) if they take place with events, hobbies, avocations, locations, and issues the author knows well. In my case, I have focused on times and places where I lived or worked, giving me a feel for the places and what was likely to happen there.

As writers, we play “what if” with characters and situations. The thing that makes this fun for us is that after we play one kind of what if with a character, it’s boring to do that again whether it’s personal relationships, disasters, bad guys, injustice, or vacation hi-jinks. Knowing one’s characters and keeping a few notes helps us write sequels that are both consistent and fresh when compared to the original books.

Malcolm

 

Webinars and Courses that Rip off Writers

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The other day, I saw a promotion for an online course that claimed to be filled with secrets for increasing Kindle sales of your books to high, money-making sales numbers. The plan was advertised as being easy to implement and took so little time to keep going that it would free up a lot of the writer’s time for writing and researching future books.

I have no idea what the plan is because in order to find out, one had to sign up for a course costing almost $200.  Quite possibly, that could be the best $200 I ever spent. But I’m not willing to risk the money without more details about the plan. Apparently the course is a one-time deal before the webinars are released at a cost of $900 or more.

These prices are exorbitant.

money2If somebody has a marketing plan that’s really working for them by bringing in money like they’ve never seen before, why must it be sold sight-unseen to the rest of us rather than offering the details in a magazine article or in an appropriately priced Kindle or paperback book?

While this not be the case with the plan I’m thinking of, many no-fail plans require writers to do what they may not want to do: change genres, write shorter books, write faster, be more commercial, have a monetized website, sign-up for third party services that also cost money, attend conventions and participate in panels and book fairs, or other tasks which may not fit some writers’ lifestyles, abilities, and budgets.

My personal opinion is that a webinar is a horrible way for dispensing detailed information because it’s linear. If the information were in a PDF, a Kindle book, or a paperback, one could see large blocks of information, headings and graphics at a glance rather than waiting for the webinar/podcast to get to them. Adding insult to injury, many of these video presentations include guests and that means time is wasted introducing them and chatting with them and adding happy talk throughout the presentation. Even if you love webinars, if they’re not free, then they are more costly than reading a e-book with the same information in it. You may not agree, and that’s fine. I primarily resent the prices.

I subscribe to “Poets & Writers Magazine” and AWP’s “The Writer’s Chronicle” because I want professional advice and tips. “Writers Market” is another alternative as well as local and state writing organizations. Writers are, as many will tell you, not really competing with each other, so sharing techniques at a reasonable price (book/speech/article) rather than doling them out for a giant profits seems to me too be the professional thing to do.

A lot of promotional experts offer free PDF and Kindle files filled with tips in hopes that after reading those, the writer will subscribe for more expensive services. The tips vary in quality and application. They’re great idea generators even if you can’t use all of them. The more expensive services are described in detail so that the author knows what s/he is getting.

I might have just missed out on a money-making secret by turning down the $200 course. On the other hand, I’ve been around long enough to worry about buying a pig in a poke.

Malcolm

 

Pardon the language, but are “sh_t” or “go blind” valid alternatives?

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Obviously, when somebody says a group of people or farm animals don’t know whether to shit or go blind, we’re supposed to know that the phrase is figurative and means the people or animals are confused.

As a writer, I can’t help but smile at the phrase because it’s tempting to take it literally and wonder if the first person who ever said it was–in fact–so gobsmacked, they didn’t know whether to shit or go blind because these alternatives really don’t belong together,

I mean, who would choose “go blind”?

outhouse2Maybe there are actually more options but they don’t see them because the last time they were confused, they chose “go blind” instead of heading for the outhouse.

I’ve never seen a national poll on this question, so I don’t know how many people favor one option over the other. Perhaps many of them would write in “none of the above” or add another option called “use my brain.”

As an often-cynical writer, I see the comments on news sites written beneath new stories and think a lot of people aren’t aware that there are additional operations. Somewhere–childhood, perhaps–they were brainwashed into an either/or mentality.

Then there are those who, when hearing the phrase, think, “I’ve already used the bathroom, so I guess that means I have to go blind.” I see a lot of people on Facebook post status updates that indicate this solution happens more often than we think.

In case you’re wondering, I try to use the bathroom on a schedule my doctors approve of even though some of them have said, “hell, you don’t want to go blind, do you?” I can see how some people might think if they forget to go to the bathroom, they might lose their sight and then they wouldn’t be able to find the bathroom, thus ending up picking both options.

How sad is that?

I’ll admit that when it comes to some things, I am (figuratively speaking) blind. By that I mean, I have my hot buttons and biases and hope you understand that when you read things on this blog, they represent my experiences and may not be true for you.

In this case, that could mean that the shit or go blind choice really works for you. In a way, that’s good, because it doesn’t clutter up the mind with the thousand actual options that exist.

The major news media are facilitate this limited view of the world. CNN believes in going blind and FOX believes in shit. Now, if you see that the opposite way, that’s fine because I may be too blind (figuratively speaking) to see that you’re right. I don’t think you are right, but then I haven’t hired any private detectives to hide in the shrubbery at your house to see whether you go to the bathroom regularly and/or walk around with a blindfold, stumble over chairs, and scream, “Oh shit!”

For those I’ve offended, I want to point out that (a) my header says “pardon” the language and (b) I don’t usually use the word “shit” in polite company (whatever that means).

I thought of all this because I see so many people out on the Internet who believe news stories and posts that coincide with what they want to hear and shout “lies” or “bias” when they find news stories they don’t like, seemingly blind to the idea there are multiple points of view. So far, haven’t asked if they stopped having regular bowel movements.

I don’t have any solutions for the shit or go blind brainwashing because many people don’t see how blind they are to the things they don’t want to hear, much less believe. This means they made their choice so many years ago, they don’t remember making it. Can you imagine how scary that is to folks who want to discuss all the options and alternatives to most problems and issues?

“Either/or” is usual a false alternative that we must force ourselves to question even though we’re not yet able to see past the illusion.

–Malcolm

Used eagle eyes available for cataract surgery

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Rome, Ga, August 22, 2016, Star-Gazer News Service–When author Malcolm R. Campbell scheduled cataract surgery this week for his left eye, he learned that he will be the first man in his town to receive a used golden eagle eye instead of an artificial lens (called an intraocular lens, or IOL).

Wikipedia photo

Wikipedia photo

Ophthalmologists report that eagles have five times the number of light receptor cells in their eyes as humans, so it was “just a matter of time” before humans were offered a chance to upgrade.

“So far, the service is only available for those undergoing cataract surgery,” said Waterfall Jones, head of the Eagle Eye Research Center of the Department of the Interior. “In time, all humans will be given the option of receiving eagle eyes at birth if not sooner.”

Campbell, who is a long-time member of such groups as the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation expressed reservations about the used golden eagle eyes due to the fuzzy nature of the “used” concept.

“It’s not like golden eagles upgrade their own eyes and offer their older eyes at a used eye lot for resale,” Campbell said. “However, I learned that the eyes come only from golden eagles with organ donor cards.”

“Eagle whisperers working in the national parks have had a continuous dialogue with the birds for fifty years, finally winning their trust along with signed consent forms for the donation of eyes,” said Jones.

According to spokesmen who have elected to remain anonymous to avoid bad publicity claim that Campbell will not only be able to see a reader turning the pages of a book from a mile away, he will also be able to fine tune his books into best sellers, especially in areas frequented by golden eagles.

“Within a few years, we’ll be able to create golden eagle eyes in the laboratory,” Jones said. “This will create an unlimited supply even though the eyes will be hideously expensive and will not be covered by Medicare or private insurance. People will have to ask themselves just how much it’s worth to be able to say ‘On a clear day I can see forever.'”

“I won’t have the night vision of an owl,” said Campbell, “but then I can buy lamps and flashlights at Home Depot and owls can’t.”

Story by Jock Stewart, Special Investigative Reporter

 

Public Invited to Celebrate the Centennial Of The National Park Service At Glacier National Park

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from NPS Glacier National Park

Park Entrance Fees Waived for August 25 –August 28

Entrance fees to the Park, as well as all other units of the National Park Service, will be waived for four days.

NPScentennialWEST GLACIER, MONT –On August 25th celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service. The celebration is as much a reflection on the importance the national park system has played in our nation’s heritage as it is an opportunity to look forward to the next 100 years. As we take that look,we must do everything we can to foster the next generation in becoming outstanding stewards and advocates for Glacier National Park and prepare them for the future challenges of protecting its natural resources, celebrating its cultural legacy, and providing for outstanding visitor experiences.

At Glacier, we are in the forever business, always taking that long look forward to where we are headed. The next generation will be challenged by managing the parks in the face of climate change. For this park it could mean the loss of its remaining glaciers with significant impacts on the ecosystems and the waterways which originate from here. The next generation will also face an ongoing change in park demographics.This could mean a demand for new recreational experiences, adapting to increases in visitation, and adjusting to rapidly evolving technology.

Our cultural heritage at Glacier National Park goes back far beyond the establishment of the park. It goes to the deep connectivity that the Kootenai, Blackfeet, Salish, and Pend D’Oreille have to this landscape. Thosenative traditions and practices are an important part of the deep rich texture of Glacier National Park. As the park and tribes move forward together in the next 100 years, the next generation has the opportunity to strengthen important programs, such as Native America Speaks, tourism development, and the Iinnii project, and develop new initiatives with our tribal partners.

As we enter our second century, I invite you to celebrate with us the sense of wonder that these historic and wild landscapes have instilled in us all.

The National Park Service Centennial Week Events

 

  1. Commemorative coings

    Commemorative coins

    National Park Centennial Instameet: Glacier National Park, partnering with the Glacier National Park Conservancy, the Department of the Interior, and Visit Montana as well as special guest photographers are hosting an Instameet on August 25from 6 p.m. to sunset in the Apgar Village Green near the Apgar Village Inn. Visitors are encouraged to come together to connect, explore, and celebrate creativity with a camera, make new friends, exchange ideas, and celebrate the 100thbirthday of the National Park Service (NPS). All ages, levels of experience and types of cameras are welcome. Around 6:15 p.m. the host of the Instameet will say a few words in regards to the National Park Service centennial. The official Glacier National Park Service centennial visitor photograph will be taken around 7:00 p.m. Visitors will have a chance to sign the photo matte and be a part of NPS history. The photograph will be posted on our social media sites, printed and hung in the park, as well as copy presented to the director of the National Park Service. It is anticipated that attendance will be high;visitors are encouraged to park at the Apgar Visitor Center and take the bike path to the event.

  2. NPS Photo

    NPS Photo

    Happy Birthday NPS 100 Ranger Program: Say “Happy Birthday NPS” and join a national park ranger for a special program at the St. Mary Visitor Center Auditorium, Thursday, August 25, 8:00 p.m. Admission is by ticket only, with only 209 tickets available. Attendees can pick up a free ticket at the St. Mary Visitor Center beginning on the morning of August 24.The program will explore the history of the National Park Service, reflect on the last 100 years, and the role Glacier will play as we prepare for the next 100.

  3. Logan Pass Star Party: Explore the dark skies of Glacier National Park and attend the Logan Pass Star Party. Admission is by ticket only. Attendees can pick up their free ticket (one per vehicle) at the Apgar or St. Mary Visitor Centers beginning Thursday August 25. The Logan Pass Star Party will be held at Logan Pass Parking Lot from 9:30 p.m. to midnight on Friday, August 26. Attendees will have opportunities to meet with rangers and members of the Big Sky Astronomy Club while taking in the unusually dark skies. There will also be telescopes available to look into the depths of the universe.
  4. Give Back To Glacier Week: The Glacier National Park Conservancy (GNPC) is hosting a “Give Back To Glacier Week,” from August 19 –28.GNPC volunteers will be at entrance locations throughout the park asking for involvement in the program. The GNPC is the official fundraising partner of Glacier National Park providing funding for vital projects and programs that preserve and protect the park.

Wish I could be there.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s contemporary fantasy novels “The Sun Singer” and “Sarabande” are set in Glacier National Park. He was a bellman at Many Glacier Hotel while in college.

Jesus, a Sun Deck, a Kimono and Magical Realism

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“You can imagine then how distinctly I remember the day Jesus of Nazareth, in person, climbed the hill in our back yard to our house, then up the outside stairs to the sun deck where I was sitting. And how He stayed with me for awhile. You can surely understand how clear those details rest in my memory. ” – Gloria Sawai, “The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts” in ‘A Song for Nettie Johnson’ (2002)

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that this short story, first published in 1976 or 1980 (depending on which source you use), has been anthologized and discussed a great deal due to its unusual title.  I find magical realism flowing through the story while others think the author merely came up with a clever title and couldn’t do it justice. (You can read the short story in PDF form here.)

nettiejohnsonI like Morny Joy’s take on the short story in Voices and Echoes: Canadian Women’s Spirituality: “No ecstasies, stigmata, fasts undo death or masochistic indulgences for this visionary. No cloistered convent or perpetual vows of chastity in the name of a temperamental divine lover. No proclamations of salvation or indictments of this perfidious, lascivious world. Instead, a woman has a neighborly chat with Jesus on the deck of a house on the outskirts of Moose Jaw.” (You can read the rest of her commentary here.)

As Joy notes, this story “illustrates the extraordinary in the ordinary,” and that is what we expect when reading magical realism.

Within A Song for Nettie Johnson, the story is unique, for it is the only one where magic is overtly mixed with the days of the characters’ lives. Some reviewers think the story doesn’t fit and should have been left out. I see their point, but I don’t agree. This story presents another viewpoint in a collection that Cocteau Books says “examines the heartbreaking lives of people on the margins.”

Consider the book’s descriptionA group of young school students prepares a memorial for the town’s deceased doctor, at the inadvertent risk of deeply offending his widow. A young girl learns important things about herself – some of them extremely unpleasant – on a storm-ravaged Mother’s Day weekend. A woman on a road trip in search of her erstwhile husband finds instead the one thing she never expected to see again in her lifetime. A woman sitting on the deck outside her Moose Jaw home receives an unusual and unexpected gentleman caller. And, in the title story, an outcast and misunderstood woman and her disgraced lover struggle toward what may be their last chance at redemption.

canadacouncilThe short story collection won the Governor-General’s-Award in 2002. The winner’s news release said, “Gloria Sawai brilliantly creates a world in which love and light redeem human failings. With clarity, deftness and generosity, she celebrates a universe in which even the least of her characters can achieve a vision of the infinite.” The finalist news release said, “A Song for Nettie Johnson is a profoundly light-filled collection of short stories set on the Prairies and peopled with holy sinners, visionaries, children and so-called ordinary folk. The power of grace illuminates her world.”

I read this collection years ago and I think I wrote a post about it–because she is among the writers who have influenced my own writing–but that must have been in another blog because I can’t find it in the archive.  I find myself thinking of her from time to time along with her stories which, as the Canadian Encyclopedia describes them, are “filled with gentle humour. Her stories often focus on characters in pious communities, set amid the majestic extremes of weather and landscape on the prairies. They emphasize the power of grace to bring forth hope, wonder, and goodness out of circumscribed lives and straitened circumstances.” (Sawai, of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, died in 2011 at 78 years of age.)

Here’s a brief excerpt from the story: “First He was a little bump on the far, far off prairie. Then He was a mole, way beyond the quarry. Then a larger animal, a dog perhaps, moving out there through the grass. Nearing the quarry, He became a person. No doubt about that. A woman perhaps, still in her bathrobe. But edging out from the rocks, through the weeds, toward the hill, He was clear to me. I knew then who He was. I knew it just as I knew the knew the sun was shining…And there He was. Coming. Climbing the hill in our back yard, His body bent against the climb, His robes ruffling in the wind. He was coming. And I was not ready. All those mouldy clothes scattered about the living room. And me in this faded old thing made in Japan, and drinking—in the middle of the morning.”

Perhaps some of you will enjoy this collection, the art and craft of all the selections, and the lighthearted but powerful “The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sun Deck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.”

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the magical realism novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

 

do you know why you read what you read or does it just kind of happen

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“A reader’s tastes are peculiar. Choosing books to read is like making your way down a remote and winding path. Your stops on that path are always idiosyncratic. One book leads to another and another the way one thought leads to another and another. My type of reader is the sort who burrows through the stacks in the bookstore or the library (or the Web site — stacks are stacks), yielding to impulse and instinct.” ― Jane Smiley

I’m a creature of habit and my strongest habit is inconsistency.

During the Vietnam War, bar girls in navy liberty ports used the phrase “butterfly man” to describe sailors who weren’t “loyal” to the same woman every time they came to port.

Assuming I can forget where that phrase came from, it aptly describes the apparent inconsistency of a writer’s reading habits as well as his/her seemingly slapdash approach to the art and craft of writing itself.

As Smiley says, our paths are winding and are choices along them are idiosyncratic and ruled by impulse and instinct. I grab books off the shelves because they seem like they’re going to be good. I am seldom fooled by this approach, though I have gotten stuck with a few books I wished I hadn’t grabbed off the shelves.

When I try to outline or, so to speak, plot out my reading choices (such as reading only one genre or reading all the books that receive certain prizes), I end up with a mess. Inconsistency makes perfect sense to me because I trust instinct and impulse more than I trust to-do lists and step-by-step plans.

I spent a lot of time out doors when I was growing up, and while certain things were good to do based on experience, one had to be ready for anything, to watch for signs, changes of weather, become attuned to sounds and scents and wrap that all together into moving up a mountain or along a trail with a fair amount of intuition. Sure, a lot of it was knowledge that had become internalized and then followed without having to think about it. But instinct kept one aware of dangers and wonders that plans never uncovered.

The worst thing people can for me is to recommend books. Then, suddenly, I start feeling an obligation to read those books, and get back to them the moment I’m done as though I’m doing a school book report. Funny, how there are people I like and agree with about a lot of things except the books they want me to read. “They want me to read book ABC because it’s by the same author and/or similar to book XYZ which they know I liked.”

I know NPR and other media outlets mean well with their lists of a year's best books, but I don't take those ideas a gospel.

I know NPR and other media outlets mean well with their lists of a year’s best books, but I don’t take those ideas a gospel.

I dislike most of the books suggested to me based on that kind of reasoning.

This will sound superstitious and insanely inconsistent, but I’m a “force is with me” kind of reader and writer. That is to say, if I’m “supposed to read” a certain book, I’ll find if by myself one way or another. If it’s a book I probably won’t like, I either don’t hear of it or stay away from it for unknown reasons.

My wife and I often finish each other’s sentences, but we seldom finish books one of us reads and recommends to the other. If you’re not my wife (and the odds are 100% that you’re not) you have a snowball’s chance in hell of handing me a book to read that I’ll be happy with.

Over the years, family members have given up on picking books for me as gifts. When Christmas and my birthday approach, they want to see a wish list from which to choose. (I just need to remember not too buy anything off the list before December 25th and August 12th have come and gone.)

So, how have you fared? Do family members and friends tend to know what you want to read and suggest or send books to you that you actually like. Or do they strike out?

I feel bad when people send me books I don’t like because having to tell them I don’t like the book they selected is about as difficult to do without injury as answering such questions as “how do you like my new dress,” “isn’t my hairdo just perfect,” and “would you like some more of my green bean casserole?” So many hurt feelings, busted noses and broken marriages come from answering those questions incorrectly.

Seriously, if we like each other, please don’t say, “Malcolm, you really need to read Lust in a Broken Birdbath (or whatever).”

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s Vietnam novel “At Sea” is free on Kindle August 15-17.