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Renowned in Bulgary

When I was interviewed by Bulgarian Cosmopolitan in May, I asked if they could send me one of the magazines with the free copy of Smart Casual. When I had no response, I presumed my request had drowned in the editor’s slushpile.

Then, about a month ago, I received a bulky parcel from Headline Publishing. This was extremely exciting, since I rarely get anything in the mail except second hand books from Trademe or letters from the Vinegrowers Association of Marlborough, (the snailmail version of remedies to enlarge my penis).

The parcel contained two virgin, cellophaned magazine/book packs, along with five copies of what I presume is Smart Casual. Because the cover of the book was different; and both the magazines and books were in Bulgarian. That’s one of those acrylic languages.

Bulgarian Cosmopolitan

I flicked through the magazine and couldn’t understand anything, although the article on ten ways to pleasure your man in bed was fairly clear even in acrylic. I’d sent the editor of Bulgarian Cosmo a photo of myself, but I couldn’t find it or anything that resembled my interview; she must have decided to go with Eva Longoria Parker. Hey – I’m sure I could look twice that good with some extreme photoshop.

I wasn’t even sure whether the book IS Smart Casual, but it has 63 chapters, which is consistent. Also, there were the same number of sentences per paragraph on the first page.

This is what Smart Casual looks like in Bulgarian. That might be a generic cover, but I love it; I would give a lesser limb for a set of pins like that, and I covet those shoes.

Now, when I talk about Smart Casual, I can say:

SMART CASUAL!
THE INTERNATIONAL BOOK!
TRANSLATED INTO ONE LANGUAGE!

Although that really deserves to be exclaimed.

Two weeks later, I got another parcel from Headline . . . with more packs and copies of the magazine/book.

I’d noticed there is a section in Marlborough Library which contains foreign language books. Since I don’t have many Bulgarian friends, and was now in possession of about fifteen more copies of the book than I knew what to do with, I decided to give some to the library.

I thought any more than three copies was a touch over-fervid. There was mass confusion amongst the librarians when I presented the books at the counter. It took significant time and gesticulative overhead to establish that I wasn’t either a) checking out or b) returning the books.

Then the librarian was suspicious about my handing over new books, and tried to torture me into confessing that I expected renumeration. Once she established that I was donating the books to the library’s collection – and determined the translation was Bulgarian – she became positively frisky.

“Aw, wow,” she said, “I’ll have to set up a whole new section! We don’t have a Bulgarian section,” she confided.

I successfully mastered the urge to correct ‘Bulgarian’ to ‘Bulgary’ – yes, yes, I know my geography is pure shocking.

The librarian looked as if she wanted to high-five me, but honestly, I just couldn’t get that enthused about a whole new section.

The PR juggernaut rumbles into town

I was recently asked to do an interview for Bulgarian Cosmopolitan. I KNOW! When I was little, I thought my only chance of featuring in Cosmopolitan Magazine would be because my husband ran away with my mother, or for owning the world’s largest chihuahua. I’ve come a long way from The Limerick Leader.

And here it is pre-edit, in case anyone’s interested:-

I loved “Smart Casual”. What made you decide to write that book?
Why, thank you!

Look, to be honest, I had no idea what I was doing when I started Smart/Casual. How difficult could it be? – I could spell!

I had always been told ‘write what you know’, which is why I decided to set the story in a large corporation. I’ve always been intrigued by the workplace: every one is its own little microcosm with a unique set of politics, intrigue, villains and heroes. Office relationships are so tricky: even if you loathe them, you have to get along with your colleagues – a bit like your family, or the police.

Originally I conceived Smart/Casual as a satire of the Mills & Boon ‘she gasped as he pressed her to his glistening chest’ genre, but about five chapters in I feared that was a bit cheeky. Also, I was concerned the market for romance spoofs might be somewhat limited.

The book segued into a standard romance, until I got bored about halfway through and it turned into a kind of thriller romance supernatural murder-mystery, without the ghosts or corpses. Chick-lit if you prefer.

Don’t worry: it was edited a lot.

Has writing always been a passion of yours?
Not at all, I’d much prefer to be having sex.

I always liken writing to going to the gym: I put it off and put it off – I will vacuum rather than write. Then, when I get there, I am pleasantly surprised: hey! This isn’t so bad! And afterwards I feel all noble and worthy. In short: it’s a love/hate relationship.

However, I am passionate about making people laugh. I don’t have many talents (unless I count being able to play ‘chopsticks’ with my toes, which is difficult to work into a resume), but being able to write humour is one of them. I love having an outlet for that.

In the scheme of it, my grand passion – what makes my world go round – the one great love of my life – would have to be: coffee.

If it weren’t for caffeine, I would not be able to write and would probably have maimed and/or divorced my husband.

Do you find writing comedy difficult?
I think difficulty is relative to the type of writing you enjoy. For me, writing comedy is easier than ‘the moon rose like a silvery planet’ style of litter-chewer.

Jokes sometimes visit me at unexpected moments: driving, weeding, washing my hair. I always think I’ll remember them later, but never do. I’m convinced The World’s Best Joke Ever is one of those I thought of and forgot over the years.

I try to carry a notebook around to jot down creative brain burps. In desperate circumstances, I have pressed my hand into service, but then you have to find a pen . . . I find it easiest to record ideas on my phone, despite feeling like an arse talking to myself.

Otherwise, I write pretty much as I speak, although slightly more articulately (unbelievable as that may be). My friends who read Smart/Casual said they could hear my voice in their heads, complete with Irish pronunciation.

I can only imagine what a terrifying experience that must have been.

What is your writing process like? Do you have any special rituals or anything?
First I like to slaughter a chicken . . . oh wait, did you say special rituals for writing?

Apart from stapling myself to my desk, I don’t have a process as such. I wish I did, because it sounds much more effective than my random scattergun approach wherein I am often distracted by dolphins.

I can’t even open my laptop without a cup of coffee on emergency standby.

I like to write with my headphones on channelling Bruce Springsteen.

I prefer writing in the mornings, or just whenever I can pin myself down.

I beat myself with the guilty stick if I don’t write at least five hours a day.

I don’t believe in writers’ block. The most important thing is writing, preferably words. If stuck, I like the words ‘ficus’, ‘shinsplints’ and pretty much any swear word.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Thank you so much for taking time to read Smart/Casual and I hope you enjoy it. My second book, About Time, was published at the end of April this year. I would be delighted if you bought it, so that no more chickens must die.

Overachiever

I admit it: I have an automatic Google search that informs me when Smart/Casual or About Time is mentioned on a website.

Mostly the alerts are about second-hand copies of my books for sale, but occasionally it is something else: The Ampersand Agency’s blog, the debut album from Kids in Glass Houses, or the Smart Casual Raiding Co. of Earthen Ring (“Someone talked to Tirion and decided we don’t need the strength of Wrynn buff – and we do not!” Don’t ask. Here. See for yourself and let me know if you have any idea what brand of mushroom they’re smoking.)

A couple of weeks ago, Google Alerts emailed me the link to this review of Smart/Casual, by Read in a Single Sitting. My critic was kind enough to award it 4 stars out of 5. That’s an A-, right? Well, it is in The University of Western Ontario, which doesn’t sound like the type of college where you can buy your degree at all.

So that would be the highest score I ever got for English Composition and, you know, I can only consider it a failing on my former English teacher’s part that she never likened my writing to:

a Jack Russell: small and with a lot of character, but once you get past the fact that it jumps all over you and tries to do the dirty with your leg, you can’t help but love it

Long melancholy tragi-horror

When Little Black Dress offered me a two book deal, the contract specified only that the second book should be a ‘short, funny romance’.

At the time, I had already started another novel. However, since Revenge of the Cow is a long, melancholy tragi-horror, I postponed it and started a book that featured more boners.

That covered the romance.

‘About Time’ is a sequence of snapshots over an extended period, narrated by both the male and female protagonists.

“Oh my goodness,” said my agent, when I told him I was writing half the book from a male perspective. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. Maybe you could write his sections in omniscient pluperfect. Or . . . something..”

Indeed, for a long time I wondered whether I could pull it off. I’ve always considered my humour fundamentally female, deriving as it does from exaggeration and dramatic over-statement; and Conn’s personality was the precise opposite. Although I had a clear idea of Conn’s character (highly intelligent but pathologically incapable of normal social interaction), getting his ‘voice’ right – the clipped sentences and formal structure – was an arduous process that felt entirely unnatural at the outset.

At least my sense of humour was ideally suited to Lara’s free-spirited character with an uncanny ability to pick emotional wankers.

The story is about the concept of fate or destiny as opposed to free will/choice.

Also, of course, boners.

I’m not going to get a chance to post over the next couple of days, but in the meantime here’s an excerpt from About Time. I hope you enjoy it.

x

Nuttier than a bucket of walnuts

Crazy times here in Casa del Deadlyjelly.

By ‘crazy’, everything is relative. Husband didn’t go on the rampage with a chainsaw – although that may be just a matter of time. I have not resorted to licking the walls – most likely a matter of time too; or a natural response to Andrew coming at me with a live chainsaw. Jed is madder than a barrel of frogs, but relatively speaking? No change there.

The copyeditor came back to me with her feedback on About Time, so I’ve spent the last few days clenched onto my laptop trying not to smear it in blood, sweat and tears. Mostly tears, which are at least more sanitary than the other two.

Apart from the time pressure (not all self-inflicted – I spoke to my editor the other day and she sounded mildly panicked about getting About Time into production) I’ve actually enjoyed revising the book. Which is a first for me: reading through my own work and not thinking it sucks lemons genetically modified for extra acidity. I actually felt quite smug. Not sure I’m over it yet.

Now we’re about to embark on a little road trip to the Coromandel. Normal service will resume on Sunday.

Not posting: the excuses

1. A walrus ate my laptop.

2. I have been frenziedly editing my second book, the aptly titled ‘About Time‘ (unlike the excuse above, this one happens to be true). Editing is a 5-stage process: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. This time around, it took only five weeks to reach Acceptance – which either means: a/ I’m getting better; or b/ my wonderful, long-suffering editor has finally attained Stage 5.

3. My parents arrived on an extended holiday from Ireland. I tell you, looking after them is a Full Time Job: the sleepless nights, the endless questions, the demands, the tidying up after them, the theft of my Auckland map and the scribbling on it. And you have to keep an eye on them all the time, or they get into everything.I never knew childhood would be so HARD.

4. For the last month, I’ve felt like I’ve been run over by a truck and dragged along behind it, then dipped in lightly whisked eggs and rolled down a hill strewn with glass before shooting off the top of a sheer cliff and plunging into a raging sea, then forced to sit and listen to Tom Cruise for four hours. (Note: this is largely speculative, since I’ve never met Tom Cruise so am not entirely sure what it’s like having to listen to him for four hours. However, I did watch Vanilla Sky i.e. I have a fair idea).

Some of the exhaustion is no doubt due to editing, parent-sitting and waging war on walruses. However, a large part is due to reasons I am not at liberty to divulge. I’m sorry; I hate being so coy. Wait, wait. I’ve just thought about that, and it turns out I don’t hate being coy at all. Au contraire, I LOVE being coy and regrettably I don’t have opportunity to exercise half enough despite having a unique talent for it.

The problem is that I hate other people being coy – especially on the Internet. While not in the same sort of league as avarice or sloth, it’s still an unattractive quality. You know like when you read someone’s blog, and they’re all: “So, I know something you don’t and – hey, guess what? I’m not going to tell you,” and you’re all, “Well, yanno, why bother saying anything at all? Why not just SHUT UP about it, you LOSER? I mean, who do you think GIVES A FRYING DUCK? I’LL TELL YOU WHO: NOBODY! YEAH, THAT’S RIGHT! AND I’LL TELL YOU SOMETHING ELSE – BECAUSE – UNLIKE SOME – I FOR ONE AM A DECENT, STRAIGHTFORWARD, CANDID TYPE OF PERSON: THAT’S THE LAST TIME I READ THIS CRAPFEST OF A BLOG.”

“COCK.”

Assuming that’s not just me, I truly hope you forgive me. Would it help if I called it ‘dramatic tension’?

No?

I will say: I’m not pregnant, no, nor suffering from some deadly or even medically recognised disease. Oh, here’s more: I haven’t been battling withdrawal symptoms from kicking my lifelong addiction to coffee – although you’d be getting closer.

Sorry, the coy crept in again there.

Still kicking ass in Kuala Lumpur

Smart/Casual has shot up to #9 on the best-seller list for the week ending September 2009. Ok, I’m still not sure to WHERE this best seller list applies. The whole of Malaysia? Kuala Lumpur? Seri Kembangan? The bookshop on the corner of Jelan Besar and Jelan Utama?

Oh, whatever, I don’t care. Any list in which I compete with Stephanie Myer, John Grisham and Tony Parsons has to be good (Dan Brown doesn’t count).  Never mind that I’ve beaten Sophie Kinsella into the #10 slot.

At this rate, Smart/Casual should hit #1 by 2017 (assuming optimal weather conditions and a natural decline in the popularity of vampire literature)

Smart/Casual hits the medium time

This post is brought to you by a bestselling author. BECAUSE guess whose was the number 1 bestselling book in Malaysia for the week ending 2 August 2009?

If you guessed me, you would be wrong – but only slightly – certainly not so wrong as to be perverted.

According to – well, some obscure PR company – Smart/Casual was number 10 on the bestseller list, in like a bullet behind Stephanie Myer, Sophie Kinsella, Jodie Picoult and Dan Brown.

I’m not sure that the #10 slot qualifies me as a bestselling author, but I like to think that somewhere – Azerbaijan or Eritrea, say – Smart/Casual topped the bestselling charts even if only for a few fleeting seconds.

Hey, we all have our dreams.

The two words that stand between me and literary genius

The second book should have been easier.

After all, it took seven years to complete Smart/Casual. That’s a fair apprenticeship. If I had trained as a doctor instead, I could be performing three open-heart surgeries a day by now.

That’s depressing.

Anyway, the second book. Obviously, it was going to be better – much better – than Smart/Casual. After all, I had made my mistakes. Not only that, I had LEARNED from these bitter lessons with detention and corporal punishment and the writing of hundreds of lines. My craft was honed to a fine point.

The key, I now knew, was planning.

Also, writing. (Quite important, that one.)

I would establish a routine. I favoured a Spartan model: austerity, abstinence, light diet. I would be a shining beacon of discipline.

So that went well.

Despite all my best efforts, I still swing between thinking About Time is:

a) so heinously awful it actually results in a net decrease in the amount of meaning present in the universe; or

b) a work of extraordinary literary genius, but for two words. One of which is ‘shinsplints’.

(Still can’t figure out what the other one is.)

Cosmic prank

When I completed Smart/Casual in early 2007, it was 90,443 words long and most comfortably described as ‘Chick Lit’ (or ‘Clit Lit’ as my buddy JohnO likes to call it, the cheeky spank meister).

By that stage, I was sick of the sound of my own voice. If any of my characters had walked through the door, I would have attacked them with a frozen chicken with an unseemly amount of bloody relish. 

I nearly did not submit Smart/Casual at all. Whenever I read through it, all I could see were the flaws. And after all, I had learned so much from the process of writing it; and my second book would be better. Yes, definitely.

Also, I was a little bit terrified.

But whenever friends asked how the writing was coming along and I said with as much enthusiasm as I could dredge up: ‘Well, I’ve finished my first book, and – hey! Guess what? I’ve started on the second!’, it proved to be rather a conversation stopper. People didn’t see the point – and after a while, I rather lost sight of it myself.

So I decided to submit. Good experience etc; and I might get some feedback as to the degree of my literary delusion.

One of the greatest leaps for me was to view Smart/Casual as a product and the submission as a pitch, rather than my precious baby and a personal vendetta respectively. I focussed on the first six chapters and, with the assistance of various kind members of Litopia and Bookshed, ensured they were as fabulous as possible without doing serious damage to my brain.

I did a load of reading about the submissions process: recommended layout, what agents look for, what makes them snarl. An invaluable resource was Miss Snark, a blog offering advice from a literary agent’s perspective. I read pretty much every archived entry, took note, and winced at all the mistakes I’d been planning to make.

Then I went through Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, picking out agents that specialised in chicklit/ humourous fiction/ general fiction. I prioritised agents who accepted email submissions, since I lived in Dubai at the time and organising SASEs was problematic (I actually ordered £300 worth of stamps from Royal Mail, but they got lost in the post 🙂

In most instances, the W&A Yearbook provided explicit submission guidelines. I customised each submission EXACTLY. First three chapters? Here they are count ‘em. Font Times New Roman point size 700? One letter per page, coming up. Every fourth word to be ‘ostrich’? Not a problem.

There were only seven agents who accepted email submissions in Smart/Casual’s genre. Over two years later, I am still awaiting a response from two and received form letters from another two. BUT three wrote back and asked to see the full manuscript.

Of these, one never got back to me. Another responded six months later with a rejection. However, she wrote a terrific, thoughtful email on why she passed, and asked me to bear her in mind for my next book.

The agent who offered to represent me was Peter Buckman, of the Ampersand Agency. Within two days of my query, he responded asking to see the full manuscript. Within a week of receiving the manuscript, he offered to represent me.

Although Peter requested a significant overhaul, representation was conditional only on my accepting his revision requests – i.e. he signed me before I completed the revisions. He was proactive, responsive and encouraging throughout the entire process.

I completed the ‘final’ edit in August 2007 and Peter started sending Smart/Casual to publishers. The responses trickled in; first rejection came in November, followed by . . . oh look, it’s still too depressing. One said my voice was ‘angry and caustic’, which I would have accepted as a compliment – except it was a rejection.

Most of the publishers were kind enough to give feedback on why they passed. Whilst all liked my writing/’voice’, most had issues with the plot (could see the twists a mile off when they weren’t focussed on the holes etc).

Finally, in early 2008 we got an offer from Little Black Dress Books, for a two book deal.

Although it is all tremendously exciting, there are still times I feel like the subject of a great, cosmic prank

How to avoid painful paper cuts

Before I started Smart/Casual, my greatest literary accomplishment was a Top Tip published by Viz.

I don’t know whether Viz claims copyright on Top Tips, but it’s not as if the bastards paid for it. In fact, all I got for my tip was an empty envelope with a Viz pen-shaped hole in the side. Since the transaction is still incomplete nine years later, one could argue that the following remains the intellectual and creative property of Niamh Shaw:-

Avoid paper cuts by carefully cutting off the sharp edges before handling

After this pinnacle of achievement I considered myself ready to move on to bigger things, so I started writing my first novel. My book was going to have it all: plots, twists, Ming the Merciless style villains, slaveringly handsome heroes, characters with depth and quivering emotion, maybe a dragon or two.

At the time, I was happily ignorant of the fact that I possessed not even half an iota of a clue what I was undertaking. I knew nothing about plot, technique, tension, pace, or the sheer scale of the project.

Smart/Casual started out as a parody of the general romance genre. Despite being a chick-lit fan, I was frustrated by the eroding quality in a market flooded with crap since the success of the original chick-lit queen, Marian Keyes. I could barely read them for all the eye-rolling they inspired. I figured I could do better than these half-dimensional characters, backfiring jokes, and wafer thin plots featuring contrived and/or implausible misunderstandings.

The first five chapters of Smart/Casual came effortlessly, possibly because they had little to no bearing on the plot, which had yet to be conceived.

Five chapters in, it struck me how arrogant it was of me – an unrepresented, unpublished, barely author – to send up the romance genre. Also, I realised there was probably only a small to non-existent market clamouring for that type of work.

At that point, the book morphed into a standard chick-lit style novel until, five years later and roughly halfway through, I felt the plot would benefit from the addition of a habanero chili or two. Whereupon it turned into a kind of comi-tragedy supernatural thriller murder-mystery without the corpses.

Kind of.

Please rest assured that the manuscript has been subjected to NUMEROUS editorial evolutions.

As has the title. It started out as ‘Memos to Self’, but there were no memos in the story. I changed the working title to ‘Plan Z’, but experienced similar issues with that (distinct lack of plans A through Y, never mind Z).

Smart/Casual was one of those 4am revelations inspired by a dinner of beans washed down with margaritas

Essay: How did you become a writer? – Discuss

When I was a little girl, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up:-

A long-distance lorry driver.

That was until I decided to follow a glamorous career as a princess. Then, at the age of 9, I realised my skill set was more suited to professional figure-skating. Unfortunately I never found the right doubles partner, so I set my heart on international espionage specialising in the termination of shady, highly placed political figures. I would have liked to have been a rock star, but I always knew that was more a sideline than a full-time career.

At no point did I consider writing as a way of life – and even less so when reality caught up with me. At school, English was not my best subject – although in fairness, neither was anything else. My annual reports gloomily chronicled my ongoing failure to achieve my potential (NB or anyone else’s). Even though teachers pronounced themselves ‘satisfied’ with my work, they never made that sound like a positive thing.

In college, I studied Applied Maths and Computing, mainly because with mathematics the answer is either right or wrong and doesn’t involve a ten page essay discussing the importance of the motive of revenge in calculating an answer.

When my application to the Irish Secret Service was rejected, I became a project manager (or if you don’t mind, I prefer frustrated rock goddess).

I moved to London in 1996 and graduated from letter writing to email, my preferred method for notifying my parents I was still alive. Occasionally I included heavily censored accounts of my life. It seemed pretty action-packed at the time, mainly because I was spectacularly self-centered. (My father had just been ordained as a priest, so it was inevitable bordering on cliche that I would hit a kind of delayed puberty at full throttle, which I celebrated by drinking inhuman amounts of alcohol.)

Two years later, I started sending friends 4000 word accounts of my experiences settling in the Middle East. Many responded suggesting that, if I had never considered writing, I really should. They might have been biased and/or delusional, but I was touched.

It was another year or two before I started taking it seriously.

In 2000, I took some time off between jobs to write. I wasn’t sure WHAT, but I had romantic notions of sitting at an antique desk in a sun-dappled room crafting a great literary work containing inspiring words like ‘shinsplints’ and ‘ficus’.

There were a number of reasons my 9 month sabbatical was a dismal failure. Mainly, it was because my writing desk was modern. But also, I underestimated how much I defined myself by my career and earning potential. I struggled with peoples’ assumption that I was dependent on Pre-Husband for financial support, and that I lay around all day snorting grapes and flirting with my muse.

It took another 7 years to complete Smart/Casual

Tractors Weekly: poor substitute

According to Amazon and my publishers, Little Black Dress, Smart/Casual came out on 2 April.

The Outlaws threw a launch party to compensate for Husband not being present to take me out for dinner. Had he been around, Husband would more likely have celebrated the grand occasion by hacking into Amazon’s website to see how many copies had been sold, and maybe agreeing to watch an episode of House instead of Top Gear. However, I was touched by Mother-In-Law’s high opinion of her progeny.

Despite the secret cake, candles and high levels of literary expectation, it was all a bit of an anticlimax. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but the cake was slightly undercooked in the middle.

However, the main reason was the notable absence of the book. The Little Black Dress website stated Smart/Casual was ‘coming next month’, and instead of listing it as ‘This title has not yet been released’, it was ‘out of stock’ on Amazon.

We had to substitute a copy of New Zealand Tractors Weekly, but it was slightly less interesting and not as fictional. I offered to show The Outlaws the 879Kb Word document of the final manuscript on my laptop, but nobody seemed to feel that would really capture the moment

Clause prohibiting poodles in trenchcoats

Before signing with Little Black Dress, I requested of my agent that he add a clause to the contract stipulating that the cover contain no:

(a)  martini glasses
(b)  fluffy mules
(c)  female apparel in particular stilettos and/or mobile phones
(d)  poodles in raincoats

I know, I’m hard nosed.

Little Black Dress just sent through the cover for Smart/Casual, and here it is:-

0901-smart-casual-cover

I am not sure how the stray dog found its way onto the cover, but having examined it carefully I am satisfied that it is not wearing a raincoat. In retrospect, I’m rather pleased LBD ignored condition (c), since a heroine standing on the cover in the nip would probably give the wrong sort of impression.

Did you know apparel can also be applied as a verb? For example, I am often guilty of appareling the truth. I just discovered that, along with a dead spider stuck under the letter ‘g’ in my keyboard.

ISN’T THAT EXCITING? (Not the spider so much.) If you want to see the cover operating in an official capacity, here is the link to Smart/Casual on Amazon

On Amazon, darling

This is tremendously exciting! Although possibly not half – or even three millionths – as much for you as it is for me. It is now possible to <insert drumroll here> pre-order Smart/Casual on Amazon!

How awesomely awesome is that?!

The Man Who Must Not Be Discussed found the listing on Amazon. Husband sent the link to me this morning. His copy has been pre-ordered 🙂

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