New Blog Theme – No Longer Contains Subliminal Messages

No, I’m not turning over a new leaf with this new blog theme, nor launching a series of books that knocks James Patterson off the bestseller list. I get bored with themes fairly quickly. When products come out with new packaging, they write something like “NEW LOOK” on the packaging often followed by “SAME GREAT STUFF.”

Makes me wonder why the new look. Perhaps the manufacturer removed something bad from the product. If so, they can’t really say, “No longer with traces of mercury.” Or, “No longer infringes on patents of three competing products.” Maybe they just wanted to attract the younger generation.

Years ago, we worried about subliminal messages, primarily at movie theaters when we learned that some theaters were flashing messages on the screen so quickly that the eye couldn’t register them, stuff like “BUY POPCORN.” I can’t remember how effective those messages were. People took a dim view of them because behind the fairly harmless urge to rush out to the concession stand, there lurked darker possibilities.

Those were the days of the BIG RED SCARE. Or, as the McCarthy hearings thought: “There’s a communist in every pot.” Or maybe it was a chicken. Whatever McCarthy thought was in the pot–and I don’t mean marijuana cut with oregano–it all led back to Stalin, Lenin, Marx, spying, and other nefarious stuff that might be hidden in those subliminal messages.

Even today, hidden code lurks amongst the pixels of the graphics in the PR and ADS we get via e-mail. They mainly tell the sender whether you opened the e-mail or not. That seems a bit intrusive to me, but I’m not worrying about it unless the code in the graphics is telling me to buy popcorn, join the communist party, or cheat in Angry Birds games.

If I stooped that low, I’d say “BUY MY BOOKS” and you would have a sudden urge to buy hardcover editions of all of my novels. Or, possibly, “SEND MALCOLM $1000000 TO LEARN THE SECRET OF LIFE.” There are endless options here.

I do suspect the major political parties of using subliminal messages, and they sure as hell aren’t “BUY POPCORN.” There’s a lot of weird stuff happening these days that can’t possibly be attributed to fate, rogue conjure women, or haints. But that’s a subject for another post, and possibly somebody else’s blog.

I just wanted to set your mind at ease that there’s no hidden agenda behind this blog’s new look. Of course, if there were, I’d say there wasn’t.


Potpourri, lightly scented

Some folks prefer their potpourri to carry a factory-fresh scent out of a lab rather than the actual smell of dried weeds. This post is for you.

  • Last night, all hell broke loose in Georgia as we got hit for the second time in the last week or so by a night of noisy thunderstorms, flash floods, and random tornados. So far, the Atlanta suburb of Newnan appears to have been the hardest-hit populated area outside of Alabama. We had enough lightning and thunder to tick off the cats, but nothing worse other than flooding in low-lying areas. Our house is on a hill.
  • After fighting some writer’s block, I am finally back at work on my Montana novel Weeping Wall. So, today I can feel somewhat virtuous at making some progress.
  • A good friend of mine watched the promo trailer for the upcoming audiobook edition of Fate’s Arrows and was so hypnotized by the narrator that she’s thinking of buying her first audiobook. And she’s already read the novel in paperback. You can see the promo here: (It might take a few weeks for Audible to publish it.)
  • Today’s quote: “We’re not at all like the rest of Georgia. We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon, they ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In Augusta, they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah, the first question people ask you is ‘What would you like to drink?” – John Berendt, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
  • In my in-basket: “We’re happy to announce that we’re back for another year of the Cow Creek Chapbook Prize. The contest is sponsored by Emerald City and Pittsburg State University. ” Looks like an interesting competition for fiction and non-fiction. I’m tempted.

I hope last night’s bad weather missed your neighborhood.


Beware of Chapter-by-Chapter Book Critiques | Jane Friedman

As an editor and coach, I’m frequently asked by writers when they should level up from free and low-cost feedback (critique groups, webinars, and classes) to more expensive forms of feedback (workshops, private editors, even MFA programs). Some are newbies who don’t understand the feedback landscape. Other writers have been burned by overly critical MFA programs, bad editing experiences, or critique group dramas—and they’ve learned that while some mistakes hit your pocketbook, the costliest ones can damage your manuscript.

Often these problems have one common cause: You’ve asked the right question of the wrong person.

Source: Beware of Chapter-by-Chapter Book Critiques | Jane Friedman

I tend to distrust critique groups, beta readers, and the more formal and often expensive bevy of “experts” who read and often influence the work of novelists. I want to ask: “Who’s writing this book anyway?” Or “Why do you need a staff to get this book completed?” Or, “Do you really need the pacifier of writing by committee.”

Having said that, if you think critiques are a positive thing, this article does a good job of separating the wheat from the chaff and exploring your best options.


Can’t win them all

Writers are advised to enter writing contests, even if there are entry fees because it’s not only good practice but it helps one’s online presence when s/he wins, places, shows, or even receives an honorable mention.

My name wasn’t on any of these lists for a fiction contest’s winners’ announcement yesterday. Invariably, the winners are people who regularly appear on the lists of visiting faculty of numerous MFA programs, have received $1000000000 in grants, have won numerous other competitions, and probably wrote Gutenberg’s first Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew novels.

On one hand, there’s the thought that if you can’t win them all, it’s better to lose to people with writing credits it’s hard to match. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a wake-up call if–with all the honorable mentions and notables lists–one’s work is considered outside the top 20 entries. I used to fret about this more than I do now.

If you fret too much, you’ll just give up writing, especially when the contest is small and doesn’t have a prize large enough to attract the attention of the BIG TIME WRITERS. It’s easy to worry if you can’t even compete with people who are still in elementary school.

You have to be careful when you enter these competitions because they often have long lists of obscure formatting rules that aren’t natural for most people, as in, must have a 1/8″ margins and 12-point Bodoni type. (Nobody uses Bondoni anymore.) And then, too, it’s easy to get excited about contests which look like sure things as in, For authors who grew up in Tallahassee, Florida and later lived in Waukegan, Illinois where they once saw Jack Benny in concert. 

Lose one of those and it’s like sports commentators say when somebody takes a bad fall in a basketball game, Oh, that’s gotta hurt.

Sure, you lose one of those made-for-me competitions, it’s natural to be gunshy about entering anything else for a while. But the temptation is always there. If you don’t enter, you might just shout, “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.”


Potpourri for March 14

Potpourri is a mixture of dried, naturally fragrant plant materials, used to provide a gentle natural scent, commonly in residential settings. It is often placed in a decorative bowl. – Wikipedia

Actually, potpourri makes me sneeze, so I never saw the attraction. However, as always, my potpourri posts are unscented. So, if you sneeze while reading this, it means you haven’t dusted your house for a while.

  • My publisher tells me that production of the Fate’s Arrows audiobook is on schedule and sounds great. As I slowly work my way through Weeping Wall, my novel in progress, it’s nice to see something new en route to Amazon.
  • The male, short hair, black-and-white kitty who has adopted us after being dropped off on our country road by some nefarious person is slowly working his way into our hearts.  Were refuse to name him until we have a chance to take him to the vet to be checked out. Right now, he is simply OC, for outside kitty. Our inside kitties are curious but aren’t above hissing at him when we open the front door.
  • Other than sore shoulders, no apparent side effects from our first Moderna COVID shot. Nice to have that out of the way. Maybe we’ll be able to visit the granddaughters in Maryland this year since COVID cancelled last year’s planned trip.
  • I’m finally getting around to reading Kristin Hannah’s Firefly Lane. My nightstand is always overflowing and my wish list on Amazon is infinite. It’s a nice change of pace from John Hart’s The Unwilling. Being an old-fashioned sort of person, I’ve always preferred the term “firefly” to “lightning bug.” 
  • My GP has kept my prescriptions in place even though I haven’t seen him for a while. I said I thought doctors’ offices were dangerous for people my age until I had my COVID vaccinations. Fortunately, he agreed.
  • On a bit of a political note, I’m really getting tired of turning on the news and seeing that there’s more unrest in Portland and elsewhere. We have much to do to fix everything that’s broken, but it will take time. The violence from those riding the protestors’ coattails isn’t helping.
  • It’s time to change my Facebook cover photo. So, in hopes of seeing some springtime weather soon, here’s the new picture compliments of NPS Glacier National Park:


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of paranormal, magical realism, and contemporary fantasy short stories and novels.

To kill a culture, destroy its language

Anyone who has read U.S. history, especially the relationship between both the church and the government and the indigenous tribes, knows that the powers that be did everything they could to destroy native American languages. It was thought, with much arrogance, that Indian Nations needed to become more white. That included speaking English, becoming Christians, and giving up everything else that contributed to the identity of the people in the territory that eventually became the United States.

I am happy to see that work continues to restore Blackfoot, Hawai’ian, and other indigenous languages before the last native speakers die. While the youth in such cultures may not yet understand this, the dying languages define  who they are, their cultures, and their world view.

This is a sensitive subject for me since my Scots ancestors faced the suppression of Gàidhlig which now faces an uncertain future in spite of attempts to maintain it.  In general, the subject of reparations bothers me because it breaks an age-old axiom that sons and daughters cannot be held responsible for the crimes of the fathers and mothers, and grandparents.

Yet, I think we can find ways to become more aware of endangered languages and, potentially, donate time, money, and other resources to schools and other organizations trying to save native languages from oblivion. I am partial to the Piegan Institute in Browning Montana that is working to restore the Blackfoot language. For an English speaker, I find Backfoot very difficult in part because it’s built on a world view so different from mine.

One of the founders of the Institute asked me why I cared. I said that my ancestors’ language (Gàidhlig) was banned for the same reasons Blackfoot was banned. Banning a language steals a culture’s soul and keeps it under our thumb


When you were in high school, did you have a career plan?

Lots of people do. They take the courses they need to take to prepare for the college degree(s) they want. A fair number plan to do what one or both of their parents did–law school, med school, sales, science, the military. And, I’m not counting the jobs people want when they’re kids; in my era, it was often a doctor, a policeman officer, or a firefighter.

From time to time, people on Facebook ask questions like, “How close is your career to the one you wanted as a high school student.” My answer is a rare one because I say, “It’s the same.” What about you? Did you always know what you wanted to do? If so, did you end up doing it?

I ran one of these at a rail museum though my wife was better at it than I was.

There have been times when I wanted to be a clinical psychologist (college degrees Radio/TV and Journalism didn’t prepare me for that) National Park Ranger (NPS was looking for people with biology or law enforcement backgrounds when I inquired), passenger railroad engineer (AMTRAK killed that dream even though I have run a locomotive).

At the times when I was looking, magazines were always in the middle of cutting back on their staff and newspapers were paying poverty wages for beginning reporters even though I had a lot of newspaper credits from news releases written while in the Navy.

Oddly enough, I earned most of my income over the years from technical writing and corporate communications articles. Like my wife, I learned how to write code as well as the manuals that accompanied the applications that grew out of that code. Several computer companies on my resume wondered why, as a technical writer, I caught more programming bugs than those hired to test the programs. My answer was simple: as a writer, I loved the “what if?” game. When going through a new program, I always thought, “What will  happen if I do this?” Of course, “this” was something neither the programmers nor testers anticipated, so they didn’t find the weak areas in the code. Hahaha–a good old liberal arts education was actually good for something.

However, by the time those Facebook career questions came along, the corporate jobs were long gone, and–finally–I was doing full time what I wanted to end up doing when I was in school. Most of us who write,  follow a twisted route of blind alleys and dead-end streets to get there.

Did you follow that kind of route, first one thing and then another, and then suddenly a side street you never knew about turned into an avocation and then a career? A lot of us have been there and done that and wondered just where our careers were going, if anywhere.


‘The Unwilling’ by John Hart

This is probably the most powerful crime novel I’ve read in years, but I’ll tell you now, it’s not for the squeamish. Many of the characters in this novel have no souls or are flawed in some fundamental way the is broken beyond mending. Gibson French, the son of a police detective and an overprotective mother lost his older brothers to the Vietnam war, one to death, the other–Jason–to horrors that changed him into an unknowable man.

Jason comes home after serving time in prison and wants to get to know Gibson (Gibby). They drink beer, they meet women, they talk. Innocent, enough, right, until a young woman dies in a horrific fashion and Jason is the presumed killer. Detective French doesn’t want Gibby to be influenced by Jason, much less drawn into probable crimes and the wrong crowd.

All of Hart’s novels are memorable. No doubt, the family dynamics made The Unwilling difficult to write. This novel is, perhaps, his best, though I think it was more gritty than it needed to be. But, given the characters, perhaps not. I am happy with the ending, though the characters and the novel’s readers go through hell to get there.

Around the edges of the plot, we have Vietnam’s My Lai massacre and the prospect that it wasn’t the only war crime that happened during the war. Jason knows but hasn’t been willing to speak of it.

Gibby comes of age–in spades, one might say–and, the wonder of this novel is that he survives the process. In fact, perhaps his parents also survive the process. These are strong characters, a twisted plot, and issues that will stick with the reader long after the last page of the novel is reached. That’s what makes good fiction.


Oh no: Somebody kicks open a classroom door and shoots the teacher

In these messed-up times of school shooters, one might believe an active crime scene is in progress if somebody kicks open a classroom door and shoots the teacher. It’s hard to imagine now that people kicking open the doors of an English or journalism class were doing it on the teacher’s behalf to prove how unreliable eyewitness testimony is.

I’d heard about the practice from my father who was a college journalism dean. So I was surprised when my college English teacher did it. I knew the minute the door flew open that the entire argument and shooting were a staged event, so I took notes while it happened rather than doing the natural thing by just trying to stay out of the way.

Eyewitness testimony seems like it should be flawless. English teachers don’t care about the science behind the reason why such testimony is usually terrible even though it puts a lot of people in jail.

After the “bad guy” left the classroom and the professor stood up and said, “No, I really didn’t get shot,” he asked us to spend the next 20 minutes (without consulting any other student) writing down what happened. Of course, the professor knew what happened: he had a script. The video camera in the back of the room “knew” what happened because it had a tape of the event.

Each of us was asked to stand up and read our account of the event. Suffice it to say, what we think we saw was wildly different. Then the professor played the videotape, proving–with a smirk–that most of the students didn’t have a flue what happened.

In “real life,” my professor didn’t have a globe.

My account was spot on. The professor was ticked off and asked how I perfectly recorded the sequence of events correctly. I told him that his little skit was as old as the hills so the minute it started I knew it wasn’t real. I took notes rather than reacting.

He wanted to give me an F for “cheating,” but he just couldn’t quite do it, and–in fact–he seemed relieved that I wasn’t calm and cool under fire because I was a macho cop but because I knew I was basically watching a play.

The other students were not astonished when I turned out to be the “perfect” eyewitness; they were not only embarrassed because they had not only been fooled by a skit but couldn’t even remember what really happened.

Naturally, no teacher would create such a skit today unless s/he left out the guns and the threats. So maybe some guy just kicks open the classroom door and says, “I ain’t got no bananas” and then gets into an argument with somebody who supposedly ordered them on his/her cell phone. Lacks punch, doesn’t it?

What the teacher proved, and what many defense attorneys would like to prove, is what effective authors already know: seeing is not believing. Knowing this, we can stage our short story and novel scenes accordingly. We can use to our advantage the characters’ probably faulty memory–as well as the readers’.


The tag line on Campbell’s website is “In Magic is the Preservation of the World.” That tells you all you need to know about his novels.

Are professional chefs nasty?

If you watch “Hell’s Kitchen” with Gordon Ramsay or “Chopped” hosted by Ted Allen, perhaps you’ve noticed that a fair number of the contestants on both shows present themselves as badass competitors who will wipe the floor with the scum they’re competing against.

Ramsay, of course, is well known for his volatile, profanity-filled approach to the show while the “Chopped” host and judges are unfailingly polite.

What my wife and I wonder is this: in “real life” away from the TV shows, are the chefs who appear nasty, or are they simply posturing like school-yard bullies on TV? For all I know, maybe the shows’ producers force them to act like people raised in a bad-neighborhood gang.

I know one thing for sure: If I go to a fine restaurant, I don’t want any of these chefs getting close to my food. As best I can tell, Gordon Ramsay and the judges on chopped really know how to cook, though they do like meat that’s too rare for me. Many of the contestants, who hold chefs’ jobs around the country, seem to know how to cook as well.

But the language, the arrogant posturing, and the excessive number of tattoos are a turnoff. Yes, I know, at my age I’m out of sync with everyone who’s 40 years younger.  But I do know how to cook without making what happens in the kitchen sound like a gangland activity.


Pat Conroy knew how to cook, and you can find evidence of that in his novels. I can’t cook at Conroy’s level, though I still hope you enjoy my books.