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Unnecessary Thoughts on “Friday Night Lights”

TIM RIGGINS FOREVER

TIM RIGGINS FOREVER

So, about 10 years too late to the party, The Duchess and I binge-watched Friday Night Lights recently. And I do mean binge: We normally don’t tear through shows too quickly, but The Duchess became absolutely addicted to FNL and so it took about three weeks to watch 76 episodes. It’s also one of the rare shows that could make her declare “I hate this show” when it did something emotionally devastating, only to have her welcome it back moments later when it did something uplifting.

Friday Night Lights isn’t a perfect show, despite what some people might say. It had some seriously dubious plot developments (there is no need to speak of the murdered rapist) and it dropped more plot threads, never to be mentioned again, than your drunk grandma at a knitting contest (we must imagine that poor Santiago is still living with Buddy Garrity, possibly in a pit in his basement, putting lotion on its skin).

But what FNL did well, it did exceedingly well. There were few Big Moments; this was a show about normal-sized people without super powers just trying to find their way through modern small-town life. But when it came to Character Arcs and sketching out the lives of these people, it was nearly perfect. Let’s discuss two specific things that are representative of the show as a whole: Tim Riggins, and the Housing Market in Dillon, Texas.

The Housing Market in Dillon, Taxes

One of the simplest ways to define a character in a visual medium is to show where and how they live. Yet for most TV shows (and most films) there’s a tendency to go for Setting Porn instead of realism. The kids on Friends couldn’t afford those impossible large apartments, and the titular Broke Girls on that awful sitcom Two Broke Girls live in a huge apartment that people would pay top dollar for, rats and all.

But in FNL, where the characters lived was pegged very realistically to their socioeconomic status. Smash Williams, whose mother moved her family from a crime-ridden town nearby and can barely afford West Dillion, lives in what appear to be either public subsidized housing or very low-cost rentals. Vince Howard, living in poverty-stricken East Dillon, lives in similar lodgings with his drug-addled Mom. Matt Saracen, living with his grandmother while his father is in Iraq and his mother is elsewhere, lives in a sagging old house with a scrabbly front yard. The Riggins Brothers live in a run-down ranch house that had once been part of a new development.

Moving up a little, Coach Taylor and his dual-income family live in a nice enough home on a suburban-looking street, with a neat front yard, and the taylors feel safe enough to play pin-pong with the garage door open at all hours. But they’re just municipal employees; the house is tight on space and little things are broken or run down. They’re doing okay, but there are frequent dreams of larger places and frequent arguments about money.

Buddy Garrity, initially a successful car dealer, lives in a much larger and newer home. It’s not a mansion, but it’s much nicer than the Taylor home. And the McCoy’s, rich and moving to Dillon solely to get their talented quarterback son into the best high school football program around, do live in a mansion. The housing for every character is almost perfectly chosen. It tells you everything you need to know about their economic background, their social status (outside of football, of course, which has its own social pecking order the town respects), and how they live, all without one word of exposition of “As you know … ”

Tim Riggins

As played by Taylor Kitsch, the character of Tim Riggins initially seems like a poorly-acted jock asshole, the sort of athletically gifted handsome lad who coasts through everything and while not precisely mean–though he is, initially, selfish and callow–does a lot of damage solely by dint of not really caring about anyone else. This character could have been a sad cliché, but FNL approached character development in a very smart and measured way.

First of all, most of the true character development took place in the younger characters, the kids. The adults in the show had their tribulations and their moments of clarity, but by and large all the adults are the same people, basically, that they were at the start of the show (which only covers about 3 years of fictional time, after all). It makes sense that characters that start off anywhere from 15 to 18 years old would go through a lot and emerge on the other side changed people: That’s what happens when you’re in high school. Me, I’m 44 fucking years old. I am who I am.

Tim Riggins is handled with almost supernatural subtlety. In the beginning his best qualities are his absolute affection for his friends, and a brooding inability to complain. Over the course of the show the writers slowly move Tim, an inch at a time, from the entitled jock to an actual adult person, someone who sees his glory days as a past chapter in his life–but not with any bitterness. Tim, in the finale, is a man who still loves football, still loves Dillon, Texas, but sees clearly that winning the State Championship as “Big Tim Riggings” of the Dillon Panthers was just a great moment–a great moment that’s gone. He practically spends the last two seasons of the show advising people to put football in perspective, to value it and enjoy it, but to be prepared to leave it behind.

Tim’s depicted as a fundamentally good guy who slowly figures out that you don’t do good things and behave in a responsible or moral way because you’re rewarded for it–in fact, the show mined a lot of drama and humor out of the fact that Tim often did good deeds only to be punished for them–but rather because it’s the right thing to do. After being crushed underneath a litany of bad breaks–deadbeat father, idiot brother, continually assumed to be an amoral seducer of underage girls, and finally falsely confessing to a crime and spending some months in jail–Tim could easily have been depicted as a rage-filled asshole. Instead, he finds some peace in knowing exactly what he wants: A house he builds himself on the outskirts of Dillon, a job that pays the bills, his brother and his extended family.

That’s a character arc that’s almost a straight line in its subtlety, yet it’s a powerful moment, and it’s the reason the series chose to end on the image of Tim and his brother building that house. Tim Riggins was the whole point of the show, in a way: People suffer, people triumph, and in the end all you have is what you make for yourself.

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We Are not Good People & WDAC

This year at the 2015 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, I’ll not only be offering up my presentation on plotting a novel (which was really well-received last year and which will be 150% more awesome this year because I plan to be sober this time) I’ll also be attending the cocktail reception and signing copies of We Are Not Good People (the plotting of which I discussed last year in a WDAC-related post). It’s my understanding that the conference is sold out, so this isn’t really me drumming up attendance (and yes, I fully expect to be sitting there alone, nursing a drink and weeping when absolutely no one buys my book to get signed).

If you’ve read WANGP, then you know the ending sort of folds back on the story, and the ending has been a divisive aspect of the story for some. It was very deliberate, though; Despite the fact that the whole book was more or less pantsed (that is, made up as I went, as opposed to being planned out) I did have the ending in mind as I wrote. As the story progressed, it became clearer and clearer to me that this was the only way the story could end.

One of the hardest things to come to terms with as a writer isn’t the people who think your works sucks and that you’re a terrible writer–every author will have those folks, and what can you do? No, it’s the people who love your work but hate one thing vehemently. When people tell me they loved We Are Not Good People but hate the ending, it’s difficult, because you feel like you disappointed Your People. These aren’t haters, they’re fans, and so their feelings about your work matter a lot more than the people who think you’re a Pantsless Wonder.

While writing this book, though, it slowly dawned on me that the whole point was really the friendship between the main character, Lem, and his nonsexual life partner Pitr Mags. This was a bromance, really, and Lem has nothing without his friend. As that friendship loomed larger and larger I realized, in the end, that Lem would do anything to save that friend–and thus that friendship. At a certain point, there was really only one way it could end. Sometimes plotting is like that: There’s only one possible ending, whether other people get it or not.

I’ll be talking about WANGP a bit during my Writer’s Digest presentation, and I’ll be ready to sign copies. Or sit there getting soused and muttering obscenities at people, whichever.

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Hanzai Japan

Hanzai Japan

Hanzai Japan

One of the great joys of writing, for me, is selling a short story. I can’t explain it: You can’t live on the money you make, you often get very little notice for it, and yet I’m privately incredibly excited whenever I manage to convince someone that some chunk of words is worth paying me for.

My short story “Three Cups of Tea” will be included in the forthcoming Hanzai Japan from Haikasoru, which naturally makes it your priority. “Tea” is a Philip K. Marks story; this is the fourth story I’ve sold starring Mr. Marks, who’s a sort of run-down paranormal detective with huge chunks of his life missing from his memory (but not from some unpublished stories). For some reason when I think of Marks I tend to get some really awesome ideas.

I have some stiff competition in this anthology, though. Here’s the complete TOC:

Genevieve Valentine “(.dis)”

Yusuke Miyauchi “Sky Spider”

Libby Cudmore “Rough Night in Little Toke”

Ray Banks “Outside the Circle”

Yumeaki Hirayama “Monologue of a Universal Transverse Mercator Map”

Brian Evenson “Best Interest”

Jyouji Hayashi “Vampiric Crime Investigative Unit: Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department”

Naomi Hirahara “Jigoku”

Carrie Vaughn “The Girl Who Loved Shonen Knife”

Kaori Fujino “Run!”

S. J. Rozan “Hanami”

Violet LeVoit “The Electric Palace”

Setsuko Shinoda “The Long-Rumored Food Crisis”

Jeff Somers “Three Cups of Tea”

Chet Williamson “Out of Balance”

Hiroshi Sakurazaka “The Saitama Chain Saw Massacre”

Get excited and pre-order this one today! And while you’re at it, buy Haikasoru’s other anthologies: The Future is Japanese and Phantasm Japan.

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How I Conquered the Country, Grew Fat on the Blood of my Subjects, Tired of Absolute Power, Abdicated the Throne, and Returned to my Ancestral Home

The Nova I drove. Gumby was not present.

The Nova I drove. Gumby was not present.

This essay was written in 1994 and appeared in Volume 1, Issue 1 of The Inner Swine.

(Or, South Dakota and Back in a Few Short Days)

The trip cross-country is an icon of the American Experience, a dream which has lost none of its attraction with the aging of culture. The Unites States’ Interstate Highway system never fails to fascinate, the concept of going anywhere never fails to boggle the mind. You could fit Europe inside the U.S., and we can drive from one end to another, any time we want. I know it made me giddy. I suppose I had the same romantic vision most people have, just me and Jack Kerouac motoring down empty roads bathed in pure sunshine, eating local food and making new friends, laying the local girls and somehow burning my name into this cold land of ours. I guess I figured it would be like the end of that movie How I Got Into College, where the hero’s friend gets picked up by a group of gameshow hostesses driving around the country in a pink convertible with a U-haul attached full of unclaimed prizes. At some point, I thought, MTV would be secretly filming me for use in one of their videos.

And if not that, then I would have the sort of intense experience that bring about books, that bring about movie rights for the complex, moving tale of a young man finding himself in the heartland of America. I could entitle it Wild Country or Dark Roads or something like that and be hailed as the brooding new artist of the shadows, writing biting commentary about our fellow Americans while still managing an epiphany of wisdom, of sorts. I would come back a changed man, I thought: how could I not?

I’ll tell you how. Because there are more Bob’s Big Boys out there than local diners, because no one living out there gives a shit that you’re driving cross-country and finding yourself, because the cops are all pricks when your license plates aren’t local, because gas is too fucking expensive and the local girls don’t fuck the drifters prowling through like thinned wolves looking for a fire to lay down next to. Because the closest things to friends I made were two drunk guys named Todd and Marty who owned a Chevy Malibu with a rusted tailpipe and a trunk full of beer, because the closest thing to an epiphany of wisdom I managed was the realization that there is absolutely no reason to ever, ever enter Nebraska.

So, I suppose in a way I learned a great deal by attempting to drive cross country, since I now know better than to ever want to do it again.

(more…)

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Process and Plot

Walled_coverAs I mentioned last week, I’ll be returning to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in August, once again giving a presentation called TAKE YOUR PANTS OFF AND WRITE! THE BENEFITS AND PITFALLS OF PANTSING VS. PLOTTING A NOVEL.As you might guess, the subject of the presentation will be plotting out novels, and the different approaches you can take to the problem. After all, it’s easy to come up with a clever premise. It’s much harder to create a story that doesn’t simply make sense, but keeps your reader guessing in a good way, surprising and challenging them but hanging together in the end.

I’m not a particularly experimental writer. For a while, in my youth, I thought I might be, and I played around with POV and narrative technique a little. Even today I’ll work in some little bits of experimentation from time to time, just to give myself a jolt of energy. For example,when I found myself missing Avery Cates and suddenly filled with ideas about a new set of stories set around that character, I could have just wrote a fucking novel or three and been done with it, as I usually do. Instead, I decided to try something new: I pieced it out.

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

I already had a stray short story on my hard drive starring Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears. It was the germ of my new ideas for the character, so I simply dusted it off, ran it through editing, and published it myself as a digital-only short. Threw it up on the online stores, and then set to work–writing more short stories. What I mean is, I took about three novels’ worth of story and carved it up into short segments, and began working on them individually. When I finished the second one, The Walled City, once again I ran it through the editing machine and published it, then began working on the next segment, which will be titled The Pale and will be out in a few months.

It might seem like a minor change in process, but it’s really kind of a big change, at least for me. I don’t usually outline my novels much before writing, but this time I plotted the whole sequence out first, one long story. Then I divided that story into three, and then I divided each book of the resulting trilogy into 4-6 sections. Instead of writing the whole story, I’m working on quick sections of it, getting it ship-shape, and then publishing it. The danger is, I can’t go back and change anything if I have an inspiration or realize I’ve plotted myself into a corner.

But the fun is, it’s a fast, dirty way of working that’s kind of exciting. If this was how I always wrote it would just be my process. But since it’s different, it’s exciting–and often that’s the key. You just have to shake things up, sometimes, to get the rusty plot gears turning. The big question, of course, is whether or not I’ll be able to finish all these connected stories and put out the complete novel versions. Gosh, that would be embarrassing.

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The Inexorable Sadness of Pencils

Jeff Needs Some Liquor Monies

Jeff Needs Some Liquor Monies

Y’know, fiction and films and TV shows are supposed to entertain. And also inform and expose us to ideas and lifestyles, but for a lot of people entertainment is primary, and that’s fine. As a result, a lot of the stuff we consume–even the dramas and tragedies–are more or less uplifting, in a way, even if only by allowing us to be smug for a moment. After all, you might be bored and unhappy in your life, but at least you weren’t diagnosed with terminal cancer which inspired you to start baking meth, becoming a monster-god that destroys your whole family.

Sometimes, a particular aspect of our entertainments bothers me: The depiction of work. As in, jobs and careers, not, y’know, barn-raising with the community. With a lot of exceptions, a huge swath of entertainments depict careers and jobs as incredibly positive and life-affirming: People on TV shows (especially TV shows) and films are often shown either loving their jobs, peacefully co-existing in their jobs, or seeing their lives changed for the better simply by getting a job.

And in real life that’s very often bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong: Jobs are necessary. And if you’re unemployed, getting a job is the most important thing in your life. And everyone should have a way of contributing to society, and for most of us that’s going to be a job: Performing meaningful labor in exchange for money which you then use to keep the economy’s plates spinning.

But, as someone who has worked jobs and who knows a lot of people who have jobs, I know one thing for sure: Jobs are much more frequently soul-killing boredom machines or even destructive stress factories than glorious life enhancements. Your job is much more like to suck than to be a wonderful place you can’t wait to get to, or even a more or less benign activity that fills your day and gives you beer money. And yet our entertainments constantly try to tell us otherwise.

Job as Adventure

You see this a lot in situation comedies, where a character who needs an arc winds up lusting after a career, and then gets a lot of A, B, and C plots depicting their struggle to get credentials, to netowrk, and finally get that job! And once they get that job, their lives change for the better. We could call this the Rachel Green Effect, from the Friends character. Rachel was a humorously aimless woman for much of the show, and in later seasons found her calling and pursued a career, and was therefore happy and fulfilled and mature.

Bullshit, of course, as anyone who actually has a job–much less gotten a job after being out of the corporate world for years, like Rachel was. Jobs suck. They eat up 8-12 hours of your day depending on your commute and other aspects, they force you to socialize with other people (shudder), and they put you under the thumb of other folks who may or may not be sociopaths or incompetents or boors. Yay job! Jobs erode your will to live and can ruin huge chunks of your life with misery.

Another trope in fictional careers is the Easy Button Job. The EBJ occurs when characters are given jobs that they are effortlessly and preternaturally skilled at and enjoy 100%. This is where it gets really awful, because characters with the EBJ are usually depicted as loving their career, and spending all their time on it because it’s just so goddamn enjoyable and fulfilling. They stay late, work weekends, are very successful and sought-after, and yet somehow also are usually depicted as having copious free time, lots of friends, and a lust for life.

Fuck that noise. Of course there are people in this world who “love what they do.” Of course there are people who work very hard and don’t mind and are rewarded as a result. That’s great. Most of us watch the clock until 5PM and then leap from our chairs with a song in our hearts, and when we’re on our deathbeds we will regret every moment we spent staring at a computer screen, selling our time off for pennies a minute.

Job as Salvation

And, of course, careers are frequently used as easy ways for troubled characters to find themselves, often with the implication that all anyone needs to settle down and start enjoying life is to get the right job. Or any job, for that matter. How do you know you’ve found the right job? Generally, you will be magically competent at it without any prior experience or training, and it will make you very happy and eager to leave behind your troubled past.

That first part, the ease with which fictional characters often pursue careers, is part of the entertainment factor, of course: No one wants to see Jimmy embark on his new career only to immediately become mired in training seminars, night school, and weeks, months, or perhaps years of being junior and shit on by the higher-ups. That’s understandable in a fictional work where the career is just a prop and not the point. But it’s still insane, because very few people decide out of nowhere to be, for example, salespeople and simply start killing it on day one. Most sitcoms present a white collar fantasy where you go from unemployed and possibly homeless or couch-surfing to working in a nice office almost instantly, and of course you’re always super excited about your new career.

Again, this is bullshit for most people, for whom a job is a way of not starving to death. Jobs can be stressful, boring, and restrictive–but even when they are interesting, fun, and exciting they’re still a matter of selling off your time for money, and I wish more TV shows and movies would address the fact that rather than being healing, transformative wonders that save souls, jobs suck.

The Illuminati Again

Of course, this is all part of the plan: Work is always celebrated in American culture, and no matter how hard you’re working you’re likely not working hard enough. We get very little vacation or other time off, yet the conversation is usually about people not working hard enough. Careers and work in general are celebrated as the solution to just about any problem. Depressed? A new career! Broke? A second job! It’s obviously beneficial to society as a whole that we all sell off our time in service of other people’s goals, and therefore a lot of media celebrates being a workaholic and devoting your life to your career, your job, the labor you’re doing for other people.

Your mileage may vary, of course. Some people do sincerely love their work. I love the work I do now–though it’s not a job, as I’m a freelance writer and author. When I did have jobs, I kinda sorta hated them. Admit it: So do you.

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Speaking @ The 2015 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference

Me Smart.

Me Smart, circa 2014.

As some of you may recall, I conducted a seminar on plotting a novel at last year’s Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, which was a smashing success. Or at least I was not chased from the building, pantsless and weeping, as so often happens when I am invited to things.

Welp, surprisingly, they invited me back to offer my insta-classic seminar Take Your Pants Off and Write! The Benefits and Pitfalls of Pantsing vs. Plotting a Novel once again.

http://www.writersdigestconference.com/index.php/schedule

What will you learn at this amazing seminar? Many things! I’ve written nearly 20 novels and published 9 of them for money, so I can obviously string fictional events together into a story. If you’re struggling with that aspect of your writing, I’ll be exploring the two main plotting processes writers use (pantsing vs. plotting), the advantages of each, and how they can be combined into something I have dubbed plantsing.

You will also learn how sweaty a grown man can become in public, how often his wife interrupts him so she can “tell the story right,” and how many times he can mention the fact that he’s published nine novels. Also, I’ll be lingering around the rest of the day, lurking on the edges of the events until the cocktail reception, at which time the pants come off and my inner John Belushi comes out.

Pass this on to anyone looking to improve their writing! Or anyone who wants to insult me in person.

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drying eyes, wasted breath

It had only been fifteen minutes, and Bob hated them all. He knew every detail of the elevator, from the three buttons which refused to light up when you pressed them to the minute design of diamonds on the worn, red and black carpet. He didn’t know the specific people he was trapped with, but he thought he knew their type, and was convinced, based on the slanting looks and curling lips, that they knew his. Jocular in familiarity, contemptuous, he snapped his gum cheerily, to annoy, and shifted his weight from foot to foot.

Softly, in the background, an instrumental Killing Me Softly played over the tinny speakers.

Bob had not been very surprised when the little door marked EMERGENCY had been opened to reveal loose wires where the phone should have been. None of the other people in the elevator evinced any shock either, but whether that was actual cynicism or an urbane facade Bob couldn’t say. They had all looked at each other and shaken heads, clucked tongues, no longer amazed, it was implied, by the incompetence of Other People. He thought it must have been the rarest of coincidences, that the Brain Trust of the World, the four most brilliant people in the universe, happened to all work in his building. One of the Brain Trust was now busily reading People magazine, slouching against the rear wall of the elevator with the bored insubordination of youth, the implication that he would not even attempt to somehow make the situation better, and that the rest of the Brain Trust ought to leave him alone.

The kid annoyed Bob the most. Probably about twenty-one or -two, he had INTERN written all over him, from the wrap around sunglasses he wore (still) even indoors to the loud music leaking out of earphones, to the combination of decent dress pants and shirt with unlaced sneakers and a worn denim jacket. His cool demeanor made Bob decide that if anyone was going to have to climb into the shaft in a heroic search for help, it would be the kid.

They were suspended between the fifteenth and sixteenth floors, the elevator having squealed and sighed and jerked to a halt a few seconds after the doors had shut on floor fifteen. Bob had accepted this turn of events with cheer and aplomb, because he was now about ten feet away from his floor, twenty seconds away from being off the elevator and into the warm current of a Typical Day. Now instead of floating along on the swells of things that happened every day, he was standing in a box with four strangers who were, if nothing else, not quite as tantalizingly close to a Typical Day.

They’ve got to know what happened. They must be working on the problem.”

Bob looked up in surprise, at The Librarian. He didn’t know what the woman actually did with her time, but the sharply angled glasses perched on her nose made him think of a librarian. She wore an affected shawl over her shoulders, too, and stood in the center of the elevator in a stiff-backed posture. She wasn’t looking at anyone, and he figured she was speaking just to comfort yourself. He snapped his gum a little louder and replied to the air

Sure, sure. That phone looks like it was attended to without delay.”

The Librarian looked at him, sniffed, and looked away.

Bob shrugged, chewing his gum. He leaned against the wall of the elevator and stared at the ceiling. He couldn’t even see an escape hatch, a maintenance crawlspace -every movie he’d ever seen that had involved people trapped in an elevator had involved a crawlspace, but he couldn’t see one here. He wondered if there was any way out of the elevator. Or at least one that didn’t involve the elevator splitting open after hitting the basement.

(more…)

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“The Shattered Gears” Reviewed at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

Patrick over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist has always been a fan of the The Avery Cates Series, and he’s put up a great review of the first Cates short story The Shattered Gears, which was released in December 2014:

“I was pretty keen to read it! And then the Holidays rolled around and I totally forgot about it. My bad, I know . . . If you are a long-time fan of the Hotlist, you may recall that I pimped Somers’ series as much as I could every time a new volume came out. And though it’s been four years since the last one, it was so much fun to be reunited with Avery Cates, if only for the duration of a short story.”

It was also a lot of fun to return to write a return to Cates, frankly. Sometimes as a writer you get caught up in seeking challenges for your writing, breaking new ground, or worrying about your sales and your audience, and you forget to just enjoy writing. These Cates shorts, which will keep coming and eventually coalesce into a novel or three, are just a lot of fun!

You can buy The Shattered Gears over at

Amazon

Kobo

B&N Nook

Google Play

for 99 cents.

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WINNERS: “The Walled City”

Walled_coverToday we held the ceremonial Choosing of the Names here at The Somers Compound. Dressed in our ceremonial Choosing Robes, I handed my wife The Duchess a copy of the comments left by the hopeful who wanted a rare print version of The Walled City, the new Avery Cates short. She reviewed them, drank half a bottle of wine, watched some TV, and finally chose:

Winner #1 — MATT MCROBERTS

Winner #2 — SEAN P.K.

Congrats to you both! I’ll contact you via email to get delivery specs. For those of you who were not favored with the Random Hand of The Duchess, you can always buy a digital copy for yourself:

KINDLE

NOOK

KOBO

GOOGLE PLAY

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