Monday, January 29, 2018

Getting the last words right

HALLIE EPHRON: There's plenty of knock-down-dead opening lines in crime novels. Here's one of my personal favorites:
"They both wore thin rubber masks."  Dick Francis, Bonecrack 
But great final lines are harder to come by. Of course, there's Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep
On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn't do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.
I know writers are universally ecstatic to GET to writing that final line, because the hardest work (first draft) is over. I like to end with something of a bookend, echoing and resolving some question that got the story going. Something which clears the decks and enables the main character to move on.

Here's the ending from YOU'LL NEVER KNOW, DEAR:
Flooding back came the dream Vanessa had had before she left Providence. She could still see the towering wave, Grandma Sorrel emerging from a wall of water and offering Vanessa a blanket-wrapped bundle. 
It hadn’t been a baby or a doll. It had been both.
How do you think about the final lines of your novel?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The closing line is as important as the opening line, in my opinion. I always wind up writing my endings three times: the first in a huge rush to finally finish the $%^&$% book - I have in the past written eight to ten thousand words on the last push. (No, I can't seem to replicate this at other times, alas.) 

Needless to say, that draft is a hot mess. The second time, I revise to my agent's and editor's notes, fixing plot threads, pacing, etc. 

The third time, I whet the words. I like to leave the reader with either a sting or a cliffhanger. #sorrynotsorry

Here's the ending of TO DARKNESS AND TO DEATH:
She chimed in, her alto humming above his baritone, the sleeves of his dinner jacket falling over her hands, and they danced beneath the November moon, to sad, sweet music they made themselves.
RHYS BOWEN: Oh Julia, I'm not sure I am happy with a last line that's a cliff-hanger! I find it frustrating to know that the story was not complete and I'll now have to read the next book to find out what happened next. If I know it's going to be book one of a trilogy that's fine. If I really adored the book, I guess it's fine too because I would read the next one anyway. I did leave some doors open at the end of In Farleigh Field, sort of hinting where my characters might be going next--just in case I chose to write a sequel.

But I think my favorite last line was from my first mystery (and my 40th comes out next month!). It was EVANS ABOVE, and the story was about murders that take place on Mount Snowdon. I made the mountain into a character, an observer with brief interjections like "High above came a cry that nobody heard."

And the last line was: 
high above the mountain rested.
LUCY BURDETTE: I have to agree with Rhys--I don't like cliffhangers in the series I love. I like to know the characters are tucked away somewhere safely, at least until the next book.

This has been an interesting exercise because I realize that though I spend a lot of time on first lines, which are supposed to serve as hooks for potential readers, and also on last lines in first chapters (ditto about the hook,) I don't spend as much time constructing one sentence for the last bit. None of my Key West endings are snappy one liners, but here's the ending of FATAL RESERVATIONS, that I like a lot because it foreshadows, shows character, and wraps things up:
Lieutenant Torrence glared at Bransford and then pull his sunglasses down to cover his eyes. "It's possible–no, it's likely–that I'll kill you if you screw things up," he said to Bransford, tipping his chin at me. And then he rolled his window up and drove away.
JENN McKINLAY: Oh, boy, you had to go here, didn't you, Hallie? By the way, you're all brilliant with last lines. I am wowed by you all. 

I do disagree with Lucy and Rhys about cliff hangers. I love, love, love, hate them. See? Mostly, love with a little hate. If it's a stand alone, that's tough because I need resolution, but if it's a series, I'll take a cliffhanger, even if it's excruciating because it will fuel my desire for that next book like crazy. As for my own personal last lines, I agonize over them because I want closure on the mystery, but curiosity about the protagonists' lives and what's next for them. 

My last library lover's mystery, DEATH IN THE STACKS, ended with this texted conversation:
"Just wait until you hear what happened at the library today."His reply was immediate. "No dead bodies?"Lindsey smiled. "None, I promise. But I have to say the library is never dull. Never."
When I started writing romantic-comedy, I was hoping I could end every book with "And they lived happily ever after," but, of course, that's a no-no, so here is the very  last line of EVERY DOG HAS HIS DAY
"Orgasms multiple." 
Which, if you think about it, is a happy ever after, isn't it? LOL.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I work so hard on last lines. And here's how I know when they work:  I write my first full draft, and see how I feel as I type the last line. Often I say: oh, okay, that works, hurray, I'm done.  But I know that's not true! As I continue to work on the manuscript, the last line changes, sometimes tremendously, sometimes just  tweaking. But I ONLY know I really finished when it makes me well up with tears. Then, and  only then, am I satisfied.

My rules for endings? The plot of the story must be totally wrapped up, way before the final sentence, so it's got to be something that mirrors or reflects or underscores not only the whole book, but, if I am lucky, the first line of the book--maybe it's the opposite of the first line? Or the realization of the first line? And  it's also got to be something that's..how shall I put it....desired by the main character, thematically. And it's got to be--sweetly unexpected, but absolutely foreshadowed. So it's been set up throughout, you know? And then it  brings the book together emotionally. And is full of promise of forward motion. 

Like in PRIME TIME. Jane meets Jake. On their first "date," they see a shooting star. And have a bantery discussion about what you are supposed to do when you see a shooting star. (make a wish, right? but it's more than that) At the beginning of the last chapter, after the crime is solved and when they are getting ready to go to the Emmys (:-)) Jake gives her a present--and it's a diamond star necklace. Which she puts on. Aww.  And then Jane realizes stuff about the danger she's escaped, and what she's learned, and how she treasures her friends, and her emerging journalism career, and her love for Jake, and what life is all about.  

And the last line is:  
I touch the little diamond star around my neck. And I make a wish.
INGRID THOFT:  Some of my last lines are cliffhangers, and some aren’t, but I think cliffhangers are fantastic in a series.  The whole point of a series is that you engage readers in the long arc of the story, so I think it’s fair game to leave them hanging a bit and pique their interest in the next installment.


In the most recent Fina Ludlow book, DUPLICITY, Fina discovers a shocking family secret in the last chapter, a secret that her father, Carl, has been keeping her whole life:  
Fina grabbed her coat and threw open the front door.“Fina, wait!” her father called after her.She broke into a slow jog, her head pounding with each step, putting as much distance as possible between the.A million miles wouldn’t be enough.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I work harder at last lines than first lines, and often write the entire last scene when I'm only part way through the book. It gives me an end point, something to work towards. And there have been quite a few times, when I actually get there, that I don't have to change a word.

I've written some cliffhangers that have made readers want to kill ME, but here's one of my favorites, from WHERE MEMORIES LIE, on a much more romantic note: 

He stared at her, the tulips tilting dangerously in his grasp, forgotten. In his eyes she saw a flare of delight, and herself reflected, infinitely, like an image in a hall of mirrors.

"A wedding. If you wanted...That is..."

"I think," he said slowly, setting the flowers on the table, "that something of the sort could be arranged."

  
HALLIE: So let's hear it... What do you like in an ending? Cliffhanger? Echo? Tie things up? Multiple orgasms? What are you druthers??

61 comments:

  1. It’s not that cliffhanger endings are bad endings, it’s just that you know you’re going to have to wait for the next book to be published and you’re already dying to know what will happen next . . . .

    Occasionally, I read a book that has such an unexpected ending that I’m actually stunned. That said, I like things kind of tied up, and if it relates back to the beginning, it’s like tying a bow on it . . . .

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    1. Nce analogy - yes, like tying a bow on it.

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    2. I want all to be well, at least for now . . . satisfying resolution . . . and if there can be a tie back to the beginning or an aha about the title -- bonus points!

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    3. When the series is so well written, it’s easy for readers to become invested in the ongoing story . . . .

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  2. I don't mind a cliffhanger, though they are obviously frustrating in the moment - unless you have the next book right at hand. I do like a good shocking ending, but like Joan, I also like things tied up. Maybe what I really like is to think that for the most part 'good wins' or 'justice is served'. I don't like books that end 'and everyone was miserable and remained that way forever'. Even if that happens in real life. I don't read fiction for it to imitate real life completely.

    There is something that I have started doing - making a note of the first sentence and the last sentence in a book. I've kept a book journal of all my reading since 1993, 25 years now. I decided it would be fun (and frankly a way to jump-start my memory at times) to note the first and last. Then looking back I can think, 'ah, yes...'.

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    1. Really?!? For 25 years! How many books, Kay? Can you share a favorite??

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    2. Between 50 and 150 a year - depending. More in these past years. So many favorites. However, in these last few years - Louise Penny's books - and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I also like to reread books, so some appear more than once. LOL

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    3. Such a clever idea to keep those two lines from favorite books. I'm not disciplined enough, I'm afraid...

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    4. Kay, what an amazing book journal. And what a valuable resource it could be to writing students!

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    5. Being Mortal was wonderful. My wife and I read it together.

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    6. What a fabulous idea - so much better than just the title of the book.

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  3. I’m going with the obvious.
    Multiple orgasms

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    1. I'm sure you're not the only one.

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    2. Maybe we should all add multiple orgasms to our next books. Could be a big sales booster.

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  4. I'm not a fan of cliffhangers, especially if the fate of a major character (human or animal) in a series is left in limbo until the next book. What annoys me most, though, is when a writer has already written the perfect ending for that book and goes on past it to add what is clearly nothing more than a hook to make readers buy the next in the series. Do it once and I'll probably give in to curiosity. Do it again and I'm done with that series and possibly that author.

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    1. So perfect, your description of this. I could get off on a whole rant about books that have too many acts,... there's a perfect ending at around page 250 and then another 50-100 pages, often an extended chase. It makes me wonder if there was a word-count in the contract that the author had to meet.

      The same thing happens with scenes. It's easy to write past what should be a crisp, forward-thrusting scene ending. I do it all the time. It's why my manuscript keeps getting SHORTER as I revise it.

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  5. As a reader, I like the main story all tied up with a satisfying sense of resolution. And if a tiny door opens to what happens next, that is great. For a perfect example, even though from a completely different genre (history), and medium (movie)- but perfect - the end of the current film The Post. My own most recent, Brooklyn Wars ended with, "I thought about all that would be waiting for me tomorrow. Tonight? I drank the last of my wine and led Joe onto the dance floor."

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    1. Lovely ending, Triss. And I agree - Youngest and I watched ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN over the Christmas holiday, and then went to see THE POST. The ending, unfolding as the actual Nixon tapes played, was delicious.

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    2. Yeah, but but but... THE POST isn't fiction! Real life, as a general rule, goes on after "the end"...

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  6. The Outlander series comes to mind when discussing cliffhangers. Poor Jamie and Claire have been left in peril so many times, haven't they? Or at least apart in what would seem to be impossible ways for reconciliation. It doesn't seem to have hurt that series, although it can be so frustrating, to wait what seems like endless years for the next book.

    On the whole, though, I prefer at least a temporary reprieve from the tension. As Joan says, a neat bow to finish off the story. It might be loosely tied, with the ends dangling precipitously, but stable, for now.

    I recently read a book that had a surprise twist in the last two pages, ending with a completely different direction than the story had taken up until then. I'd enjoyed the book, up until that point, and felt a little bit as though the contract between me and the author was, if not broken, at least not very complete.

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    1. Well, you know we're still FINAL-editing a book while we're well into the next. It could have been craven PR for the next book... And I agree, so annoying because then you feel the author (and the publisher) peeking from behind the curtain.

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  7. I don't want to be told 'and they lived happily ever after.' But make me think it's possible. And I don't mind cliffhangers in a series, because if it's skillfully done--it will keep me thinking about those characters until the next book comes out. A classic example--Gamache watching the helicopter fly away with his nemesis and Jean-Guy at the end of Louise Penny's The Beautiful Music.

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  8. Now for a serious answer. I refer things get wrapped up at the end. I don't mind a small hook, like finding out the protagonist is pregnant, gives me something to mull over for a bit. I absolutely adore chapter endings that are cliffhangers tho. I remember one, in The 13th Tale, that said something like "the doorknob turned." I was so scairt I could barely turn the page to see what was on the other side of that door.

    I must admit I don't remember last lines except for one, and it was a situational thing. Decades ago I was around the table with my then husband's family, most of whom were arguing, and my dear sister in law reading as usual. She smiled and read the last line of her book:

    "Peace perfect peace, with loved ones far away."

    That one stuck with me. Just looked it up, and it's from a hymn.

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    1. Did anyone (or you?) have to stifle a giggle given the perfect line for the argumentative family table? I think I would have! Or, at the very least, it would have been written all over my face. Poker player, I am not.

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  9. On a similar note, I just finished reading THE PERFECT NANNY by Leila Slimani, which won the 2017 Goncourt Prize for best novel. This is comparable in my mind to winning a Pulitzer or the Man Booker award, a big deal. There was quite a kerfuffle on Facebook yesterday about the ending. People hated it, and I wasn't all that thrilled. However, since these prizes don't get awarded willy nilly, I'm wondering if part of the issue wasn't the translation.

    For those of you who have your work published in several different languages, do you find this happens? Are your reviews markedly different in another country? I can't imagine that something isn't "lost in translation." I'm thinking of poetry in particular and idioms.

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    1. The trouble with translations is that I've no idea how good or bad they are unless I speak the language. My books do quite well in Poland and Japan but I couldn't tell you if the translation was accurate. In Farleigh Field has just been translated into French and German and the French translator was meticulous in asking me to explain nuances. I e never read the reviews from other countries, except English speaking ones where England is more critical ( seeing me as an American writer daring to write about UK and Australua etc love me!

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    2. Same. I have had several German readers tell me they thought the German translation was well done, something for which I can take no credit.

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    3. Can't read my French and German reviews... but I wish there were more of them.

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    4. I don't usually see the reviews in any of the other languages, but my German translators have always been great about checking with me to make sure they get the nuances right. And since the books do well, I have to assume they do a good job!

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  10. Each Red offered us a beautiful closing line today! WOW! Although Hank's list of what a last line should be sets a high bar, you all aced it!! Why I love you guys . . .

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  11. I'll be the outlier here, I don't need a nice bow on a story - especially a series. The characters from my favorite series live on in my mind and I visit with them often between books. (I know it sounds crazy.)

    I can see why people prefer a tidy ending, life is so rarely like that. Which is the exactly the same reason I prefer a bit more of a realistic ending. Even in the most high profile of crime cases, things never get wrapped up in a finite way. (Yes, I know it's fiction and we read to escape reality...)

    A cliff-hanger is a way for the author to acknowledge to the reader: "We'll be back."

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    1. It's not crazy, Kristopher; it shows that you have a vivid imagination (the best kind), and the writer did his or her job!

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    2. Agreed! I think that's why i like them and if the author comes back and surprises me by not writing what I'm expecting - all the better!

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  12. Well, define "cliffhanger." =)

    I don't mind characters left in mortal peril if it's a defined trilogy or something of that kind. But in general, I like the main story of the book to be resolved. Finis. Then, if there is something outside the main story - a relationship status, or like the family situation with Fina - I don't mind if that rolls over into the next book. Or like Harry Potter: the main problem with each book was wrapped, but the overall question of Voldemort carried over.

    That's what I try for in my books. We'll see if I'm successful in August.

    Mary/Liz

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    1. August! Looking forward to it, Mary!!

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    2. Mary/Liz, that's a good point. In crime fiction, leaving a cliffhanger about the murder is entirely unfair - it breaks the unwritten contract between reader and author. On the other hand, cliffhangers in the characters' personal lives are, as Kristopher says above, a way to signal "We'll be back."

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    3. This is a good point Mary and Julia. The main mystery needs to be wrapped up - although I can think of books like Tana French's In the Woods where even that didn't happen (and that book was universally celebrated), so I suppose like any rule, they can be broken.

      I'm thinking more of cliffhangers as something that affects the core relationships within the book or something that foretells the focus of the next book.

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    4. Hurray for August! Very exciting, Mary!

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    5. I didn't read In the Woods because I knew that it wasn't resolved and I didn't want to devote the time to the book and then feel cheated.

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    6. Hallie and Jenn - thanks! I'm trying not to focus too much on the date. There's a lot of work that has to be done before then (as you almost certainly know).

      Julia - exactly how I feel.

      Kristopher - I think this is a rule that can be broken in the hands of a skilled author; Tana French is certainly not at her first rodeo. This rank amateur would not try it!

      Debs - I did exactly the same.

      Mary/Liz

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    7. I completely agree that the main mystery needs to be resolved, but I think the other story arcs in a series don't need to be tied up with a bow. Thank goodness there are so many different books to read so every reader can find what works for them!

      And August is still a ways off, Mary. Don't fret. ;)

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  13. I like an ending that somehow echoes a major theme of the book, or a key image from earlier in the book, without beating you over the head. One example that comes to mind is from one of my very favorite authors, whom I'm still mourning after she died this week. At the beginning of The Left Hand of Darkness, an ambassador watches as the king of the country he is visiting dedicates a new building, daubing it with blood to signify a treaty. At the end, a key character is killed, his blood staining the snow and hinting at the agreement that the ambassador sought. It would take longer to explain just why I find that so satisfying, not to mention to explain the genders of the characters ;-)

    In a series, I also like to see suggestions of new things that are coming for the ongoing characters. Another example: in Ellen Crosby's Vineyard Victims, we see hints that Lucie might have to reconsider her hatred for the man who caused her infirmity, and possibly even the infirmity itself. And then there's always the unexpected pregnancy...

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  14. I agree with Rhys about cliffhangers. If I am reading a book that I love, then it's jarring when there is no closure at the end of the novel. I think twice before I decide whether or not to buy the next novel. A mystery needs to be solved at the end. I love this new author and she has several series. One series, which just ended, was not a favorite mainly because the mystery was not solved at the end. In the last book, the mystery was finally solved. In another series, she always solves the mystery at the end.

    Regarding last lines, I was reminded of my writing workshop at Book Passage several years ago. One of our writing teachers asked us to write the last line or the last paragraph of our WIP novel.

    Diana

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  15. If the main mystery isn't cleared up by the end of the book, I do feel cheated (Kristopher mentioned In the Woods -- that one really bothered me). And I don't have much patience for protagonists left in immediate danger at the end of a book. I remember listening to a book in which the main character of a long-running series was left shot and alone on a dock at the end. I was driving home from work and still remember exactly where I was the narrator said "thank you for listening" and I yelled at the recording. I had no idea if that was going to be the end of the series or not. Not a happy camper.

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  16. I like at least some sense of closure at the end of a book. I don't want to be wondering WTF! I have read some books where it seems as if a page or 2 are missing and the author just gave up and stopped writing. Needless to say I wouldn't look for more of their work. When the ending echoes the beginning that is the best!

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    1. Coming full circle - I love that. I don't know if anyone watches Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm (I love it in all its awkward charm) but his comedy is written like that - it always comes full circle beginning to end.

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  17. I love full circle, too. And, like most everyone here, I like the main story to be resolved. But I don't mind cliffhangers that are an ongoing part of a series!

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  18. I can't read Deborah's submission, because I'm about to reread the book.
    Love, love, love this group.
    God bless

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  19. @Jenn - the library is never dull... in fiction and real life!

    I have to say one of the most frustrating endings (but I still gave it 5 stars because it was so damn good) was Her by Harriet Lane.

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  20. I hate cliffhangers in books. I know there is at least a year until I will find out what happens next to the characters, and by then I will have forgotten the details and I don't have time to reread a book before reading the new installment.

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  21. I want all to be well, at least for now . . . satisfying resolution . . . and if there can be a tie back to the beginning or an aha about the title -- bonus points!

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  22. Such a wonderful conversation! Grabbing spotty internet to say hi!

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  23. I hate, hate, hate cliffhangers! Also, as I get older, I wonder if I'll be around to read the next book in the series! I read for entertainment, and dramatic cliffhangers that leave my stomach in knots are NOT entertaining. I've given up on authors who do that, which leaves me with time to explore authors who are new to me.

    DebRo

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  24. Cliffhangers have their place, but in today's insane world of publishing, we cant'be sure that the next book will ever see the light of day!
    Libby Dodd

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