On Navigating the Murky Middle

By Joanne Guidoccio

I love beginnings—in life and on the page. Anything and everything is possible whenever a blank slate appears before me. That momentum can last for days, weeks, months, and sometimes even longer.

At least, that’s what I like to think whenever I begin a new writing project.

A linear pantser, I write brief character sketches, plot the first three chapters and the last, and then let the words flow. At some point, usually around Page 80, I encounter the murky middle, that nebulous place where I find it difficult to continue or sustain the tension of the novel. In short, I’m lost with no clear trail or direction in sight.

In the early days of my writing career, I struggled to regain my motivation, wondering if I should abandon the novel. Thankfully, I have discovered three strategies that have lifted me out of the abyss.

Professional Development

During my teaching years, I would sign up for summer in-service at different universities throughout the province of Ontario. These courses would last anywhere from three days to four weeks. Afterward, I would feel refreshed and ready to tackle a new semester in the fall.

While experiencing my second prolonged drought, I searched for the right course/workshop that could propel me over the writing hump. Online courses offered through Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, Savvy Authors, Women on Writing (WOW), and Ed2Go have worked best for me. Lasting anywhere from one to four weeks, these courses succeed in inspiring and motivating me to return to the page. The key is to complete all the recommended exercises and actively participate in discussions.

Cross-Reading

In Think, legal analyst and author Lisa Bloom urges us to select books that challenge our points of view. Her argument: Our brains need a varied diet of books to stay sharp.

An avid reader of mysteries and women’s fiction, I decided to explore historical fiction written by a male author. During a cold, blustery winter, I spent the entire month of February reading the Century Trilogy by Ken Follett.

The three tomes—Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, Edge of Eternity—follow dramatic events in the lives of five interrelated families (American, Russian, German, English, and Welsh) and sprawl over nearly 3,000 pages. After that month-long reading marathon, I was ready to return to the calmer, less complicated world of my WIP.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)

This is the Red Bull solution that has helped me avoid three murky middles. In 2016, 2017, and 2018,  I joined millions of authors worldwide and made the commitment to write 50K words during November.

Inspired and motivated by the online community and local meet-ups, I wrote at least 1,667 words each day and completed very rough first drafts of A Different Kind of Reunion, No More Secrets, and When It Comes Out of Nowhere. Whenever I encountered a roadblock, I typed INSERT CHAPTER and continued writing.

Any other tips to share?

Where to find Joanne Guidoccio…

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The Right Character Names

By Joanne Guidoccio

“How attached are you to the name Anna May?”

Sandy Isaac’s question took me and six other members of the critique group by surprise. While I appreciated most of the suggestions I had received, I wondered about Sandy’s question. Anna May Godfrey is one of the villains in A Season for Killing Blondes. Having spent several years in Anna May’s company, I wasn’t prepared to change her name.

Sandy noticed my hesitation and explained her resistance to the name. Said quickly, Anna May becomes “anime,” a style of animation often featuring themes intended for an adult audience. Two of the other members nodded while five of us merely shrugged. But Sandy’s concern raised several questions in my mind.

How would my readers respond?

Would they make the same connection as Sandy?

Would Anna May’s name suit or hinder her villain status?

A well-chosen name sets the right tone for the character and, in some cases, may even suggest certain physical, emotional, or psychological characteristics. James Bond flows well and suggests excitement and wealth while Scarlett O’Hara conjures up images of plantations and Southern belles. Short one-syllable names like Jane Eyre suggest direct and well-grounded personalities while longer, multi-syllabic names like Anna Karenina and Armand Gamache are often associated with more complex personalities.

I have a preference for certain names, in particular, the apostle names, Luke and Paul. Patricia Anderson, one of my beta readers, pointed out that I had used Paolo, Paula and Pauline for three different characters in the novel. Definitely overkill. I had no problems changing the names of these secondary characters: Paula → Belinda and Pauline → Karen.

While researching, I discovered the following tips:

  • Avoid names that end in “s.” If you give a character a name like Gladys or James, you will have an awkward time when you write the possessive form.
  • Use names to fit the period or ethnic group. I had no problems coming up with Italian names. For the older characters, I borrowed from my mother’s circle of friends. And for the younger crowd, I flipped through my yearbooks.
  • Limit the use of weird or exotic names. Many science fiction and historical romance writers spend considerable time finding unusual names that jump off the pages of their novels. When they indulge their creative freedom and create names, they run the risk of introducing names that are awkward and unpronounceable.
  • Watch the flow with first names and surnames. The first name should not end with the same sound as the last name. For example: Nelson Neufeld. But combining common first names with unusual surnames (or vice versa) can be very effective. Examples: Victor Frankenstein and Sirius Black.
  • Don’t worry too much about the meanings behind names, especially if you have become overly attached to your characters. Lesson learned: Research the names before investing too much time and energy in the manuscript.

BTW…I decided to stick with Anna May.

Hours before the opening of her career counseling practice, Gilda Greco discovers the dead body of golden girl Carrie Ann Godfrey, neatly arranged in the dumpster outside her office. Gilda’s life and budding career are stalled as Detective Carlo Fantin, her former high school crush, conducts the investigation.

When three more dead blondes turn up all brutally strangled and deposited near Gilda’s favorite haunts, she is pegged as a prime suspect for the murders. Frustrated by Carlo’s chilly detective persona and the mean girl antics of Carrie Ann’s meddling relatives, Gilda decides to launch her own investigation. She discovers a gaggle of suspects, among them a yoga instructor in need of anger management training, a lecherous photographer, and fourteen ex-boyfriends.

As the puzzle pieces fall into place, shocking revelations emerge, forcing Gilda to confront the envy and deceit she has long overlooked.

On sale for 99 cents … September 13 – September 27

From Rejection to Spectacular Success

By Joanne Guidoccio

While querying the Gilda Greco Mystery Series, I kept myself motivated by reading the success stories that started with stacks of rejection slips.

Here is one of my favorite success stories:

In 1992, teacher and motivational speaker Jack Canfield decided to compile all the stories he had shared on the self-help circuit. Intrigued, promoter and salesman Mark Victor Hansen joined this venture.

While culling his stories, Jack searched for narratives that were “inspiring, healing, motivational, and transformational.” Jack wanted to include 70 stories but was persuaded to increase the number to 101. During his years as a student ambassador in India, Mark had learned that 101 is the number of completion.

The title “Chicken Soup” appeared to Jack in a dream: The hand of God scrawled these words across a chalkboard.

Once the first volume was completed, Jack and Mark found an agent and flew to New York to meet with publishers.

They struck out.

None of the publishers could relate to these “positive yarns.”

Their agent suggested they obtain guarantees that at least 20,000 copies of the book would sell. A daunting task but one that the two men were able to accomplish within months. They placed “Commitment to Buy” forms on the chairs of every motivational conference they attended.

These inked promises from audience members persuaded Peter Vegso at HCI (a publishing house in Florida) to release the first anthology in the summer of 1993.

Since that time, more than 250 books have been published and over 500 million copies sold. In 1999, the series made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most books on the New York Times Best-Sellers List at one time.This past Tuesday, Chicken Soup for the Soul released Angels All Around: 101 Inspirational Stories of Miracles, Divine Intervention, and Answered Prayers. My essay, “Prayers and Positive Thoughts,” was selected as one of the 101 stories for this anthology.

Blurb

In this book of 101 inspirational stories, contributors share their personal angel experiences of faith, miracles, and answered prayers, which will amaze and inspire you.

More than what we experience, it’s often the memory of who we experience that lasts. And sometimes, we experience an angel. You will be awed and inspired by these true personal stories from people who are certain that there are angels right here on earth. They know this, because they’ve met them, and if you open your eyes, and your heart, you may find that angels don’t live too far away after all.

Excerpt from Prayers and Positive Thoughts

“Are you praying?”

In many circumstances, this question would be deemed intrusive and inappropriate. But considering the source—my mother—I didn’t take offense. If anything, I was embarrassed to admit that prayer was the furthest thing from my mind.

Over a month had passed since the specialist oncologist had delivered the diagnosis: Inflammatory Breast Cancer, Stage IIIB. While I had shared the stage, I had kept those first three words to myself. I didn’t want family and friends Googling IBC and discovering the seriousness of the diagnosis. In 2004, the five-year survival rate for IBC was 30 percent. As for the ten- and fifteen-year survival rates, the percentages were in the single digits and not even worth considering

Buy Links

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To Prologue or Not to Prologue

Whenever I’ve asked a writing instructor or workshop facilitator about prologues, I’ve encountered a variety of negative facial expressions—everything from a wince to a frown to a quick shake of the head. And the following responses:

Agents hate prologues.

Readers will skip to the first chapter.

Prologues = Information Dumps.

One instructor offered a ray of hope: Use only if the prologue adds an interesting and integral layer to the narrative.

Interesting and Integral…Definitely a challenge and one I decided to tackle in Too Many Women in the Room, Book 2 of the Gilda Greco Mystery Series.

But first, I needed to get more information about the Uses and Misuses of Prologues. Here’s what I discovered:

Use a Prologue to…

• Provide information that is crucial to understanding the rest of the story. In Too Many Women in the Room, I needed to introduce the victim’s voice. Having written the rest of the novel in the first-person POV, I wanted the reader to be privy to the thoughts and feelings of the victim in his final hour.

• Provide clues. Red herrings are an important component of cozy mysteries. In Too Many Women in the Room, the initial crime scene contains vital details that form the basis for these red herrings.

• Hook the reader. If the actual crime doesn’t occur for several chapters, it is a good idea to whet the reader’s appetite with a prologue. But—and a big but—the interim chapters also need hooks to keep the reader engaged.

Don’t Use a Prologue to…

• Introduce a voice or tone that is not as engaging as the rest of the novel.

• Dispose of the entire back story. Much better to incorporate bits and pieces throughout the novel.

• Introduce an overly-dramatic voice and then switch to a much quieter voice.

From Too Many Women in the Room…

He couldn’t believe he was following his wife’s advice. After twelve years of paying lip service to deep yoga breaths, mindfulness, and all the other New Age crap she espoused, he had finally found a use for it. His midnight run usually sorted out all the stress, but tonight was different. He still couldn’t shake the venom that had been directed his way.

To make matters worse, it had come from eight women, eight very different and very annoying women. He had bedded four, but right now he couldn’t imagine having sex with any of them. As for the untouched four, well, only one interested him, and it had nothing to do with her feminine wiles and everything to do with her healthy bank account.

He would have to take something to get through the night, something a lot stronger than his wife’s herbal teas. The remnants of an old Percocet prescription came to mind. Two capsules might do the trick. The thought of a panacea, albeit a chemical one, calmed his racing thoughts.

A good night’s sleep would make a world of difference. And tomorrow, he would sort it out.

The light patter of feet distracted him. Definitely a woman’s gait. Her breath was even, neither shallow nor panting. Younger, maybe in her thirties. His pulse quickened, and a smile spread over his features. A welcome distraction. Just what he needed to erase the built-up stress. To hell with deep breathing, affirmations, and Percocet.

Any other thoughts on prologues?

 

Where to find Joanne Guidoccio…

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On Planting Red Herrings

When I shared an early draft of A Season for Killing Blondes, a beta reader complimented me on my use of red herrings and suggested the title could also be considered a red herring.

Puzzled, I asked for clarification.

She explained, “A red herring is a literary device that leads readers toward a false conclusion. Glancing at the title, I expected to read a thriller about a serial killer who had designated a specific time period for the Rampage.” She winked. “That’s definitely not the case here.”

A bit worried, I wondered if I was misleading my readers. Would they expect a thriller and be disappointed when my novel turned out to be a cozy?

She assured me that the title was well-suited to a cozy mystery that featured a brunette lottery winner as the primary suspect and four dead blondes killed during a two-week period. And she doubted that anyone would be disappointed at the end.

After our conversation, I decided to do more research into red herrings.

Several theories exist regarding the origin of the expression. Some believe that it refers to the use of a kipper (strong-smelling smoked fish) to train hounds to follow a scent. Another theory points to escaping convicts who used red herrings to throw off hounds in pursuit.

Many of the plots in Agatha Christie’s novels contain red herrings. In And Then There Were None, we assume a character who goes missing is the killer. Later, when his body is washed up onshore, we realize that his absence was a red herring that misled the other characters and the readers.

In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown expertly uses the character of Bishop Aringarosa as a red herring throughout the novel. While reading, we can easily imagine him as the mastermind of the church conspiracy and are surprised when the real culprit is revealed. Intrigued by the bishop’s unusual surname, I probed further and learned that “Aringarosa” translates into English as “red herring.”

Another famous red herring example appears in The Final Problem by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While walking through the Swiss mountains with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson receives a message that an Englishwoman at their hotel is in urgent need of health care. He rushes back to the hotel and discovers there is no Englishwoman. The message was a red herring sent by the villain Professor James Moriarty as a ruse to isolate Sherlock Holmes at the edge of a cliff.

To keep my readers guessing while reading A Season for Killing Blondes, I introduced a gaggle of suspects, among them a yoga teacher with anger management issues, a lecherous photographer, two “50something” mean girls, and fourteen ex-boyfriends.

From the reviews, I gathered that I had succeeded in maintaining the readers’ interest until the final chapters. My favorite comes from The Romance Reviews: “A well-written, character-driven murder mystery that genuinely had me scratching my head until the very end wondering who dun’ it!?”

Do you have a favorite red herring to share?

 

Where to find Joanne Guidoccio…

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A perfect fit for Baci Perugina!

When a book blogger asked me to compare the Gilda Greco Mystery Series to chocolate, I had no problems coming up with the perfect answer: Baci Perguina, the most famous chocolate brand in Italy and popular with Italians worldwide.

Perugina’s signature recipe includes whipped milk chocolate, gianduia filling, and chopped hazelnuts all in bittersweet chocolate. Each bacio (kiss) comes individually wrapped in silver and blue packaging and hugged by a poetic love note.

The three books in the series—A Season for Killing Blondes, Too Many Women in the Room, A Different Kind of Reunion—contain romantic elements, humor, and bittersweet moments. A perfect fit for Baci Perugina!

While researching the history of this famous chocolate, I discovered an intriguing back-story.

In 1922, a young chocolatier named Luisa Spagnoli fell in love with Giovanni Buitoni, one of the founders of the Perugina Chocolate Company. He felt the same way but couldn’t pursue the relationship. Luisa’s husband was the other founder!

Luisa decided to create a special bonbon to honor her beloved. She came up with a rounded shape, an entire hazelnut in the center, covered by a dark chocolate exterior. She named it a cazzotto (punch) but Giovanni changed the name to bacio (kiss).

Each chocolate was wrapped in a billet-doux—a love note—that Luisa would send to Giovanni.

That simple gesture between the star-crossed lovers spread throughout Italy (and the world), continuing for decades afterward. In the 1960s, English and French translations were added to the original text in Italian. Today, more than 390 inspiring messages can be read in six languages: Italian, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Chinese.

Here are some examples:

In dreams as in love all is possible. (J. Arany)

I loved you at first sight. And you smile because you know it. (A. Boto)

Love is like luck: it doesn’t like to be chased. (T. Gautier)

Loves can live on kisses and water. (English proverb)

Till I loved I did not live enough. (Emily Dickinson)

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind. (William Shakespeare)

readers…What is your favorite chocolate?

 

About the Gilda Greco Mystery Series

A cross between Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher, and Cher (Moonstruck), protagonist Gilda Greco brings a unique perspective to the amateur female sleuth.

The teacher-turned-lottery winner returns to her hometown, only to find herself embroiled in a series of murder investigations. Before you start imaging thrillers with high stakes and police chases, pause and take a yoga breath. The three novels in the series—A Season for Killing Blondes, Too Many Women in the Room,  A Different Kind of Reunion—are cozy mysteries, written in the Agatha Christie tradition. All the crimes take place “off stage” with very few graphic details provided.

While the pace may be more relaxed than that of thrillers and police procedurals, there are no steaming cups of herbal teas, overstuffed chairs, or purring cats in these contemporary cozies. Prepare yourself for interfering relatives who don’t always respect boundaries, adult mean girls, deserving and undeserving men, multiple suspects, and lots of Italian food.

Where to find Joanne Guidoccio…

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In Praise of Affirmations

During my cancer journey, I read Louise Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life, and developed an interest in affirmations.

What is an affirmation?

An affirmation states an outcome or truth you wish to impress upon your mind. While the affirmation doesn’t actually make things happen, it can raise your vibration so that you are more receptive to the desired outcome.

At first wary, I slowly warmed up to the topic and adopted several of Louise’s suggestions:

Every cell of my body radiates health.

I relax and let my body heal itself.

I lovingly do everything I can to assist my body in maintaining physical health.

I also liked using the following mantra-like affirmation from French psychologist Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie:

Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.

Having experienced success with these health-based affirmations, I decided to use this technique to help achieve my writing goals. And I wanted to create my own personal affirmations rather than piggy-backing on someone else’s success.

Here are the affirmations I’ve used during the past eleven years of my writing journey:

My words flow easily.

Each day, I write with confidence and enthusiasm.

I submit a manuscript that is well received by a publishing house.

Joyful and creative, I delight in inspiring and motivating others with my written work.

Tips for Writing and Using Affirmations

1. Use the first person and the present tense.

2. Keep the affirmations brief and limited. Focus on one or two until you’ve incorporated them into your psyche.

3. Don’t sabotage yourself with an unrealistic goal. For example, “My book achieves best-seller status” is too much of a jump for an unpublished writer who is struggling with the first draft of her book.

4. Practice your affirmations each day. You can say them first thing in the morning, while looking in the mirror, or while exercising.

5. Write down your affirmations. You can stick them on your mirror or bulletin board, post them on your computer, or carry them in your purse or wallet.

Any affirmations out there? Please share.

 

Where to find Joanne Guidoccio…

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Listen to Your Inner Critic

By Joanne Guidoccio

I realize this is contrary to all the advice that’s out there. But there is something to be gained by analyzing the selected thoughts of our inner critic and taking action.

How can you distinguish those selected thoughts?

Very simply, take note of all sentences that start with “Someone should…”

Here are some examples:

“Someone should write a letter to the editor about that issue. It’s bugging me.”

“Someone should organize an arts festival that showcases the talents of artists, artisans, musicians, and writers in our county.”

“Someone should put her name forward for an executive position on that board. We need new blood.”

“Someone should design and create clothes that fit and flatter women over fifty.”

“Someone should offer decorating services for seniors, who are moving into assisted living, retirement and nursing homes, or downsizing to a condo.”

“Someone should write a cookbook filled with nutritious, easy-to-prepare recipes for singles and couples on budgets.”

“Someone should run for mayor.”

Once you have identified your favorite “Someone should,” it’s time to…

Take action!

Entering the political arena, assuming an executive role in a non-profit organization, organizing an arts festival, writing a novel…these are all goals that can be accomplished but probably not within the immediate future.

Instead, set move-the-needle steps for the season in which you are in. These small steps will lead to larger ones, and subsequent steps will always be within your grasp

You could start by attending an information meeting, offering to help with an established arts festival, signing up for an online or offline course, joining a local writing group, or listening to a webinar. Don’t worry if certain steps don’t work out. Keep moving forward and course-correct along the way.

Good luck!

 

Where to find Joanne Guidoccio…

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How to Clearly See…

In A Different Kind of Reunion, Private Investigator Jim Nelson doesn’t mince words when he learns about the psychic’s involvement in the murder investigation:

“Let’s face some facts here. Most psychics need to make a living. I don’t doubt this lady has some intuitive ability—as many women do—but I don’t think it’s enough to catch a murderer.”

Jim is in good company.

According to a recent survey by YouGov.com, 24% of respondents believe there are actually individuals who possess the ability to see the future. There is a gender split here as well; 28% of women think this power exists, while only 19% of men think the same.

While I’m of two minds here, I do believe it is possible for each of us to have an intuitive awakening. In fact, some of us already possess signs of clairvoyance.

Not sure? Take this quick survey:

  1. Do mental images randomly flash before your eyes?
  2. Can you easily visualize people and places?
  3. Do you frequently have vivid dreams?
  4. Can you quickly complete mazes, puzzles, and other visual-spatial tasks?
  5. Can you see auras (glowing lights) around the people in your life?

Regardless of your score, you can access your inner compass and develop the skill to “clearly see” what is going on in your life. Here are some suggestions:

  • Meditate for a few minutes each day. When you get still and clear your mind, you allow the right (creative) brain to take over and the left (logical) brain to take a back seat.
  • Take note of goose bumps, shivers down your spine, and racing hearts. Your body is letting you know when things are right or off. The key is to trust those feelings and act upon them.
  • Be on the lookout for any God/Goddess nudges that suddenly appear in your life. These could take the form of notices on bulletin boards, titles of books that resonate, or opportunities that present themselves.
  • Release negative feelings. If you are angry or depressed, you cannot make sound decisions.
  • Pay attention to how you feel after talking and meeting with the people in your life. Keep those who empower you and take distance from those who drain you. If you cannot walk away from the latter group, limit your involvement with them.
  • Dream with purpose. Before you fall asleep, focus on any unresolved issues or problems. Imagine possible solutions as you fall asleep. Then, let your brain do the rest. Keep a journal on your nightstand and record those dreams as soon as you awaken.

Any other suggestions to share?

 

 

Where to find Joanne Guidoccio…

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Ending on the Right Note

By Joanne Guidoccio

Last summer,  I read several books with unsatisfying endings. In one case, I wondered if the novel had been worth my time and attention. The author had started with a compelling opening, the characters were well-developed, and each chapter ended on a suspenseful note.

Where did she go wrong?

Two-thirds of the way through the book, she introduced a character who had no connection to any of the other characters. In fact, I would suggest she literally pulled him out of thin air so she could pin the murder on him.

Afterward, I started to wonder about the conclusions to my own books. Had I made an impact on the reader and encouraged her to buy the next book in the series? Or had I disappointed her with a contrived or unsatisfactory ending?

I reread my editor’s comments and checked with several beta readers who reassured me that I had ended on the right note. I also reread notes from workshops and seminars. Here are five tips to consider when writing that final chapter:

1. Decide on an ending that is appropriate for your genre. If you are writing a thriller or murder mystery, a strong build-up with plausible suspects and fast-paced action should lead to the resolution of major plot points. Romance readers expect an HEA (Happily ever after) or HFN (Happily for now) ending. If you are not comfortable with that expectation, write the novel as women’s fiction. With fantasy and science fiction, endings that leave room for the imagination can be very satisfying. Literary fiction tends to have endings featuring all degrees of resolution.

2. Refrain from moralizing or delivering a hard-hitting lesson to make a point or teach a lesson. Instead, let your characters reveal what they have learned through their actions and situations.

3. Avoid improbable endings. Some authors get tangled up in plot lines and introduce a fantastical or outlandish event such as the sudden appearance of a ghost with homicidal tendencies or a dream sequence that negates the entire storyline. These endings work only if groundwork has appropriately been established throughout the book. For example, missing items and unexplained events could justify the introduction of a ghost or other supernatural being.

4. Structure books in series such that your reader will want to continue reading. Decide which subplots you intend to wrap up and which you will leave dangling to create anticipation for the next book in the series. You may also wish to introduce a complication (appearance of an old flame, job offer or firing, marriage proposal) that needs to be further developed.

5. Pay particular attention to the final sentence, image, or line of dialogue. A vague closing line can cast a shadow over the entire novel while a powerful one will linger in memory.

Here are my favorite closing lines:

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

“He loved Big Brother.” 1984 by George Orwell

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“We sat there for a long time, till the crowd around us thinned, till the sun shifted and the light changed. Till we felt our eyes could meet again, without the tears.” Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

“Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at seas as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.” Life of Pi by Yann Martel

What is your most memorable closing line?

 

 

Where to find Joanne Guidoccio…

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