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Dealing with Dialogue Tags

Glancing back at some of my earlier work, I cringe at my use of “said bookisms” such as roared, admonished, exclaimed, queried, and hissed. I was trying to avoid overusing the word “said” and searched for suitable alternatives. I realize now that substituting those words made it sound like I enjoyed using my thesaurus. Instead, I was annoying the reader and drawing attention away from the dialogue.

From different workshop facilitators, I’ve learned that I don’t have to interpret the dialogue, or worse, tell the reader how the words are said. If the dialogue is strong enough, “he said” and “she said” will do. Like other parts of speech—the, is, and, but—that are used several times on each page, “said” is invisible and allows the reader to concentrate on the action and dialogue.

To add variety, I insert action tags and internal dialogue within blocks of dialogue.

Here’s an example from my upcoming novel, Too Many Women in the Room:

Carlo’s hand caressed my thigh. More sex. The man could be insatiable. And it had been almost two weeks since our last romp. We started to kiss and then his cell phone vibrated.

Carlo groaned as he leaned over and picked up the phone. He sat up, his back to me. “What’s happened?” he barked. Carlo’s shoulders tensed. A long sigh and then his terse words. “Clear the perimeter, stat.”

Clear the perimeter. My heart beat faster as I recalled the last time I had heard those dreaded words. It could mean only one thing. Another murder. Two murders in less than twenty-hours. What were the chances of that happening in Sudbury? At the Christmas party, the police chief had bragged about one of the lowest murder rates in Canada during the past twelve months.

I swallowed hard. “What’s wrong?”

Carlo turned and gave me a long glance. “Andrew Frattini was found dead in the alleyway behind the ReCareering office.”

The nightmare couldn’t be starting again. This time with different players but still with the same intent. To pin the murder on me. But that strategy wouldn’t work. I had an iron-clad alibi no one could refute.

Carlo dressed quickly. He picked up his phone and then turned toward me. “Stay clear of this, Gilda.”

“How can I ignore it?” I said as I felt myself tearing up. “Someone’s trying to frame me again.”

He leaned over and kissed me. “Well, they didn’t succeed, did they?”

Blurb

When Gilda Greco invites her closest friends to a VIP dinner, she plans to share David Korba’s signature dishes and launch their joint venture— Xenia, an innovative Greek restaurant near Sudbury, Ontario.

Unknown to Gilda, David has also invited Michael Taylor, a lecherous photographer who has throughout the past three decades managed to annoy all the women in the room. One woman follows Michael to a deserted field for his midnight run and stabs him in the jugular.

Gilda’s life is awash with complications as she wrestles with a certain detective’s commitment issues and growing doubts about her risky investment in Xenia. Frustrated, Gilda launches her own investigation and uncovers decades-old secrets and resentments that have festered until they explode into untimely death. Can Gilda outwit a killer bent on killing again?

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Email Power!

Can you compose efficient and effective emails?

When I heard this question, my first impulse was to say, “Yes, of course.” But glancing through my in-box, I realized I wasn’t that efficient or effective. While I don’t ramble or use ambiguous language, I could improve the tone of my emails.

In her book, Playing Big, Tara Mohr devotes an entire chapter to “Communicating with Power.” She stresses the importance of identifying those “little things” that “walk the fine line of saying something without coming on too strong, but in fact they convey tentativeness, self-doubt, or worse, self-deprecation.”

executivethoughts

Definitely two extremes…I’m aiming for a middle ground.

My primary goal is to construct emails that will be read and understood and not take up too much time on the receiver’s end.

Here are some tips from Playing Big:

  1. Delete all “shrinkers”. We often use words such as “just”, “actually”, and “almost” to smooth over awkwardness but succeed only in diminishing the importance of the message.
  1. Don’t apologize.  When we start our emails with “Sorry to bother you” or “Sorry if this is a silly question,” we are putting ourselves on the defensive. In fact, we are apologizing for no good reason.
  1. Watch out for qualifiers. Using phrases such as “a little bit” or “If you have a few minutes” suggests that our requests are not worthy of immediate consideration. Beginning the conversation with “I’m not an expert, but…” undermines our credibility and gives too much of our power away.
  1. Avoid tentative questions. Inserting “Am I making sense?” or “Do you know what I mean?” at the end of an email conveys a lack of confidence. Instead, use statements such as “I look forward to hearing your thoughts” or “Let me know if you have any questions.”
  1. Weave in warmth. Personalize emails with relevant remarks about the receiver’s site, product, or work and end with a friendly comment.

Other Tips:

  1. Write like you talk. Using formal language or technical lingo creates more distance and makes us less approachable.
  1. Use easy-to-read fonts such as Arial and a standard size. Stay away from bright colors that may not work on all monitors and be hard to read.
  1. Keep paragraphs short and use bullet points and numbered lists. Highlight keywords (bold or italics) for emphasis, without overdoing it.
  1. If action is needed, make it clear. If no action or reply is expected, end with “No reply necessary.”
  1. Include appropriate and functional URLs in your signature.

Any other tips to share?

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Life Lessons from Hidden Figures

While several weeks have passed, I can still vividly recall scenes from Hidden Figures. The movie has left an impression, one that will linger in my consciousness. And I’m not only thinking of the Oscar-worthy performances delivered by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe.

Instead, my thoughts gravitate toward Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three brilliant African-American women who helped launch John Glenn into orbit. In the 1960s, this visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines, and in 2017, they continue to inspire generations of women to dream bigger dreams.

Here are five life lessons imparted by the movie:

Show Don’t Tell

My favorite scenes are those where math prodigy Katherine Johnson walks up  (or climbs) to the blackboard and confidently shares her solutions to mathematical problems that have stumped older students and white professional males. As she writes, everyone else stops to watch, awestruck. Even astronaut John Glenn was impressed by her expertise and later asked for final confirmation from Katherine before setting foot in the rocket: “Get the girl, check the numbers. If she says they’re good, I’m ready to go.”

At first dismissive, supervisor Al Harrison soon recognizes Katherine’s competence and her ability to “look beyond the numbers, through the math that doesn’t yet exist.”

Persist! Persist! Persist!

Dorothy Vaughan is competent in her role as office supervisor for the African-American “computers” but lacks the rank and salary attached to the position. Throughout the film, she reminds her supervisor of the situation and receives a variation of the following comments: “They’ve never had a colored in here before” and “Just the way things are.” Undaunted, Dorothy persists while continuing to update her skills and maintain her professionalism.

Feisty Mary Jackson encounters discrimination at all levels when she applies for the engineer training program at the University of Virginia. Doggedly determined, Mary completes all the paperwork and takes her case to court where she delivers an impassioned plea to a skeptical judge.

I felt immense pride when Dorothy was introduced as “Mrs.Vaughan, Supervisor” and Mary entered an all-white, all-male classroom and sat near the front.

Speak Up

Of the three, Katherine was the most reserved, preferring to let her competence speak. But after suffering several indignities, among them racing half a mile to a “colored” bathroom in another building, adhering to an unrealistic (and expensive) dress code, and pouring coffee from a “colored” coffee pot, Katherine finally speaks up. Upon learning of these difficulties, Director Al Harrison resolved Katherine’s problems in one of the most satisfying scenes of the movie.

Get “technical

 An early scene finds Dorothy under her car, attempting to fix the starter. She succeeds. Later, she visits the room housing the mammoth IBM mainframe and figures out how to start and program the machine; a task several “expert” men couldn’t accomplish. At one point in the film, she explains how she watched and listened when her father explained and demonstrated how machines work. An excellent lesson for those of us who claim to be non-techies, preferring to wait for someone else to repair or figure out how to use the technology.

Look and Plan Ahead

 Dorothy didn’t stop at just activating the IBM mainframe. She picked up a book on Fortran and taught herself the programming language. She then taught the thirty women in the “Colored” room, guaranteeing that no one would be laid off once the mainframe was in full operation. Thinking back to my teaching years, I recall many groans and complaints whenever new software was introduced.

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Fifty years ago, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson realized the importance of behaving professionally, continually updating their skill sets, and making themselves indispensable in their respective workplaces.

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Celebrating La Befana

Growing up, we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany with a special meal and treats. While my brothers and I attached more significance to Christmas Day, my mother considered January 6th to be the Italian Christmas. She would regale us with tales of la Befana, the friendly witch who delivered gifts to good children and lumps of coal to the bad ones.

While I’ve heard many variations of this tale, I prefer my mother’s version.

The Magi stopped at la Befana’s house on their way to visit Baby Jesus. The gracious hostess treated them to a meal and offered them shelter for the night. She also gave them directions. Touched by her hospitality, the three kings invited her to accompany them on their journey, but she declined. She had too much housework. After they left, she changed her mind and decided to join them. She packed up some toys for the newborn child and set off on the journey. She never caught up to them. Disappointed but practical, she decided to share her bounty of toys. To this day, she delivers her gifts to Italian children on the night before the Epiphany.

Does anyone else celebrate the Epiphany?


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Takeaways from #NaNoWriMo 2016

When I started my NaNoWriMo project, I had mixed feelings. While I listened and nodded when the other GuelphWriMos spoke of 5K-word spurts and pulling all-nighters to achieve the ultimate goal of 50K words, I decided to be more realistic.

A linear pantser, I preferred to write sporadically, at most 1K words a day. My highest monthly count was 20K words.

Could I possibly make the leap from 20K words to 50K words and produce a “reasonable” first draft of A Different Kind of Reunion? And would I be able to write without stopping to edit the “hot mess” that would inevitably appear before me each day?

Just in case..I set my own private “hair” goals, a habit I had acquired after reading an inspirational column in The Globe and Mail.

Pixie Cut Goal — 30K words

Pageboy Goal — 40K words

Big Hairy Audacious Goal – 50K Words

bighairyTo my delight and astonishment, I wrote each day and achieved a final goal of 50,940 words, an average of 1,698 words per day.

Here are my takeaways from NaNoWriMo 2016…

  • I can stretch and write more than 1K words each day. In fact, on several days I wrote well over 2K words. Writing at specific times each day definitely helped. So did writing in split shifts. If I had limited time in the morning, I wouldn’t fret. Instead, I would write anywhere from 200 to 500 words and complete the rest in the evening before the midnight hour.
  • Planning ahead kept me on track throughout the month. In October, I created a chapter-by-chapter outline and character descriptions for A Different Kind of Reunion. Whenever I wavered, I would refer to my notes and return to the manuscript.
  • Rewards motivate me. And they don’t necessarily have to be tangible items. While I did purchase a journal at the 10K benchmark, I rewarded myself with experiences—Craft Shows—at the 20K and 30K benchmarks. At the 40K benchmark, I took advantage of Black Friday sales and purchased clothes. When I passed the 50K mark, I ordered my NaNoWriMo Winner t-shirt, and the universe rewarded me with a free psychic reading.
  • My well-honed left brain (I’m a math major) loves graphs and statistics. Each day, I looked forward to seeing my linear graph rise even higher on the my NaNoWriMo dashboard. And I appreciated the badges (4 Participation, 10 Writing, 7 Personal Achievement) I received throughout the month.
  • Sharing each step made me accountable. Friends—online and IRL—complimented and encouraged me along the way. Special thanks to my NaNo buddies, especially Peggy Jaeger and Cindy Carroll, and good friend Magda V, who honored my final achievement with a lovely card and assortment of David’s Teas.
  • I fell in love with the “hot mess” of 50,940 words and resisted any urges to edit along the way. In fact, I’ll have to wait until I fall out of love before starting the first round of edits.
  • Ideas are percolating for NaNoWriMo 2017—The Missing Gigolo, Book 4 of the Gilda Greco Mystery Series.

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Starting #NaNoWriMo

Never say never.

For years, I’ve been shaking my head whenever the topic of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) came up. I couldn’t fathom the idea of writing 50,000 words in one month.

Madness…undue stress…why on earth would I subject myself to that kind of torture?

In a podcast with Stephen Campbell, I listed several reasons for not participating and assured him I would take my time writing any future novels. All that changed when I started imagining the plot for A Different Kind of Reunion, Book 3 in the Gilda Greco Mystery Series. Determined to release the book within a year of Book 2, I knew I had to change my m.o. If I continued to work at my present speed, it would take at least two years to write, edit, and release the novel.

nanowrimocrestAnd so I decided to participate in the boot camp that has inspired and motivated hundreds of thousands of participants since the event began in 1999.

Here are some statistics from 2015:

  • 431,626 participants started and completed the challenge.
  • 926 volunteer Municipal Liaisons (leaders) guided 633 regions on six continents.
  • 1,012 libraries, bookstores, and community centers opened their doors to novelists through the Come Write In program.
  • 87% of survey respondents said that NaNoWriMo helped them learn what they can accomplish when determined.

Having made the decision to participate in September of this year, I spent October in prep mode. I signed up for romance author Catherine Chant’s two-week course at the beginning of October: “Prep for NaNoWriMo the Bare Bones Way.” In mid-month, I attended a presentation by award-winning Canadian author, Terry Fallis at the Kitchener Public Library. Terry discussed his chapter-by-chapter outlines and shared other tips that have enabled him to write and release five best-selling novels since 2005.

By the end of October, I had a plot, a rough outline of 28 chapters, and brief descriptions of the twenty-three characters that populate the novel. Find out more here.

I also visited the NaNoWriMo website and read several articles about the process. Knowing myself and my energy levels, I concluded that some of the suggestions wouldn’t work. To keep myself sane and healthy, I have decided to focus on the following practical and doable tips:

  1. Announce your plans. At first, I wanted to keep my involvement secret, but after reading about the positive reinforcement that a support group can provide, I decided to share the news with everyone in my circle. In addition to other writers—online and offline—I also told the non-writers.  I’m looking for encouragement, not advice. Simply asking: “How’s that novel coming along?” will help keep me on track.
  1. Write at peak times. To find a routine that works consistently, I need to write when the muse strikes. Since starting my writing practice in 2008, I have discovered that the following times yield the most creative results: 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
  1. Work ahead. Sneaking in an extra 300 words (or more) early in the month can build up word counts and compensate for missed days when illness and other commitments affect the quality and quantity of the writing.
  1. Turn off the television and all electronic gadgets during peak creative times  to ensure there are no distractions.
  1. Embrace both linear and non-linear paths. While I prefer to write linearly—one chapter at a time—skipping over to a more interesting scene will help stimulate right-brain thinking.
  1. Relax and TELL. For years, I’ve heard editors and workshop facilitators repeat the mantra: SHOW DON’T TELL. What a relief to focus on getting the scene on paper in any form and then prettying it up later.
  1. Leave notes in the text. Plot and dialogue are my strengths while descriptive detail is one of my weaknesses. Instead of belaboring the setting and other details, leave notes about what’s missing. i.e. Description of waterfront or restaurant. Don’t stop to check the internet for anything.
  1. Journal when stuck. Throughout her course, Catherine Chant recommended journaling about our character’s feelings to elicit more details and move the storyline along. The character could write her response stream-of-conscious style or write a letter describing a problem. Even if the journal entry is edited out of the story, the words still count.
  1. Stop before the ideas run out. At the end of each day’s stint, write a sentence or two about what happens next. This will provide a starting point  for the following day.
  1. Turn off the internal editor. I need to keep in mind Anne Lamott’s advice and “write a crappy first draft.” Forget about spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Don’t delete anything. In short, give myself permission to write badly.

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When Less is More

I reread the blurb for the flash fiction writing contest several times. It was the perfect antidote for the lingering writer’s block that was preventing me from moving forward with the next book. The entry fee was a bargain— three flash fiction stories for only $15—and the $500 prize added to the contest’s appeal.

I resurrected two unpublished stories from my files. Only one problem—both were close to 1500 words and the rules for the contest specifically called for flash fiction of less than 500 words. While some writers may balk at the idea of trimming almost 1000 words from a short story, I welcomed the challenge of revamping both manuscripts. But before starting the whittling down process, I decided to research this style of fictional literature.

There is no widely accepted name or length for flash fiction. In North America such terms as short short story, postcard fiction, micro-story, and sudden fiction are bandied about. In France, these shorts are called nouvelles, while the Chinese like to use an assortment of terms: little short story, pocket-size story, minute-long story, palm-sized story, and smoke-long story.

cigarette-smokingI was intrigued by the notion that a reader should be able to finish reading the story in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Fortunately, there aren’t too many smokers in my circle, so I decided to informally survey staff taking breaks at a nearby nursing home. I discovered that smokers could take anywhere from four to fifteen minutes to smoke a cigarette. When I timed my  493-word story, I found that it took several seconds less than five minutes to read.

Some writing markets and contests impose caps as low as 25 words while others consider stories as long as 1000 words to be flash fiction. Regardless of the definition or length, one fact remains: Writers must be able to capture the essence of a complete story—not an idea for a story or a slice-of-life vignette— with a minimum of well-chosen words and let readers fill in their own descriptions and back story.

Some tips…

  • Look for smaller ideas. Instead of dissecting an entire relationship, focus on the first date, the break-up, or the decision to live together. Other options could include basing the story on a fairy tale, using prompts from workshops, or adding more details to a joke with a good punch line.
  • Introduce one conflict and resolve it. Too many story lines will distract the reader and leave her hanging at the end. While it is not necessary to have a “happily ever after” ending, there must be some form of resolution.
  • Avoid lengthy preambles and start at the point of conflict. Keep in mind that the story’s tension does not necessarily have to involve a hero and villain. It could be verbal, physical, or mental.
  • Include at least one powerful image. A deserted street. A weapon. A discarded engagement ring. A spectacular sunset.
  • Limit the number of characters. There isn’t room for more than two characters, three at most. Do not waste too much time on names for your characters. Unless the name contributes to the plot or conveys additional information, omit it entirely.
  • Use dialogue to describe the characters and create conflict. With two well-defined characters, it is not necessary to use dialogue tags. To maximize the effect, let the dialogue describe the characters and create conflict:
  • Grab the reader’s attention with phrases, one-word sentences, and punctuation. Recall Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Using only a handful of words, he evoked the image of a grieving parent writing that classified ad for a newspaper.babyshoes
  • Use active verbs and limit the number of adjectives and adverbs. Consider using a red marker to slash every adjective and adverb in the story. When you read the piece aloud, you will be amazed at how much emotion can be conveyed without all those descriptive words.
  • End the story with a twist that is unexpected and offers emotional impact, but be careful not to overwhelm the reader with miracles or extraordinary events. At the end of the story, the reader should be smiling and thinking “Ah, yes!” If she is frowning or scratching her head, the resolution is not an effective one.
  • Write the first draft as quickly as possible. Don’t worry about grammar or the word count. Imagining a fifty-word or five-hundred-word cap will limit your thinking and creativity. Instead, write long and then go short.
  • Ensure that you have a clear beginning, a strong center, and a definitive ending. If you cannot easily identify these parts, then you have not written a complete story.story3parts2
  • Avoid a crowded effect. If the trimming succeeds only in squishing the original conflict, reconsider the story line. The reader should not feel rushed when reading flash fiction. Instead, there should be enough space for the original idea to resonate and expand in the reader’s mind.
  • Work your title. In many contests, the title is not considered part of the word count. Why not use the title to release additional information about the plot or characters.

The following piece from Harvey Stanbrough is an excellent example of flash fiction (55 words).

At Confession

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

“How long since your last confession?”

“Two years.”

“What’s the trouble?”

“I have wished death on a man.”

“You haven’t acted on your wish?”

“Not yet.”

“Who is the man?”

“He is cheating with my wife.”

The priest paled. “I forgive you.”

I shot him through the screen.


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Three Steps, No Failure

When asked about her extraordinary success, recording artist and motivational performer Jana Stanfield said, “I believe in the power of small steps to create great changes.”

Jana left a lucrative career as a broadcast journalist and moved to Nashville to pursue her dream of securing a recording contract. While waiting for her breakthrough, she signed up for voice lessons and took classes in song-writing, stand-up comedy and dance. She took advantage of Open-Mic nights and sang for free in the evenings. With the help of a small producer, she made a few recordings.

None of the record companies were interested.

As her funds depleted, Jana started to doubt her talent and decision to switch careers. She even had what she calls a “lying on the bed, crying phase.”

Her uncle, Rev. Clyde Stanfield, stepped in and guided her through the Three Steps, No Failure technique. He met with her with over weekly lunches and monitored her progress.

With renewed determination, Jana started writing and recording again. She achieved her first milestone with the release of her first record, consisting of her ten most-rejected songs.

A major breakthrough came when Reba McEntire asked to record her song, If I Had Only Known. It sold 5 million copies.

what is the Three Steps, No Failure technique?

Very simply, it is a no-fail method that can be adopted by anyone who wishes to achieve a major goal such as securing a recording contract or writing a best-selling novel.

Start by acknowledging that these goals are challenging and cannot be achieved with one quantum leap. For example, a novice writer cannot expect to see her book appear on the New York Times Bestseller list within the next six months.

Decide on the first three steps that you must take. These could be as simple as purchasing supplies, joining a writing group, finding a critique partner, or registering for a workshop. There is only one guideline: each step has to be something you can’t possibly fail to complete in a week’s time.

Do not plan out the entire journey. Like crossing a bridge, it is not necessary to see the other side. Instead, select three different steps at the beginning of each week and focus on your progress.

Be patient. This process will not take you directly to your goal, but it will get you there indirectly. In the meantime, enjoy the journey.

What three steps could you take this week?


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Small Doses of Inspiration

While I enjoy attending workshops and lectures, sometimes I need inspiration in smaller doses.

During my teaching years, I would pop my head in a neighboring classroom and chat briefly between periods. Those three to five minutes of conversation would be all that I needed to receive (give) encouragement and support.

As a writer, I have to think outside the box if I want that small dose of inspiration. I could call a friend or family member, but the conversation could easily extend beyond five minutes and derail my daily writing practice.

I found the solution in the most unlikely of places—YouTube. The following short clips keep me on track whenever…

I face a daunting task

Receive less-than-stellar reviews or rejections

Or simply need the kind of inspiration that only David Bowie can provide.

Any other small doses to share?

 

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