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Book Review: The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne

In January, this mermaid was fins deep in both reading and writing.  This was due to that fabulous Savvy Author’s workshop, Editpalooza, I haven’t stopped raving about.  Today, three months later, I’m still benefitting from its lessons and its where my book review has sprouted from.


But backstroking to the first week’s assignment, we had just been tasked to open our manuscripts and read from title page to the end–The Full Read.  The rule for this lesson was to make short notes whenever our eyes would start to skip a paragraph, glaze from the page or get confused and then report these issues to our group and editor.  My notes mostly consisted of too much back story in the opening.  I had done this unknowingly trying to show the emotional connection between my two estranged friends who had just been reunited.  My group’s editor,  Kerri-Leigh Grady’s, feedback was spot on.  She ascertained this was happening because I probably wasn’t sure how much of the characters’ pasts needed to be shown.  Not only did she give me great advice on why chunks  of back story aren’t necessary, she also recommended a book that was a superb example of how “back story can be built with the same efficiency of effective world building.”  That book was Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, published in 2008.


Eager to learn, I checked this book out from the library (and later purchased it digitally) with no idea how I was going to read my own 70,000 word manuscript, continue to keep up with my daily Editpalooza lessons, critique my group members on their work and at the same time read this 375 pages by Joanna Bourne!  Well, it was easy because The Spymaster’s Lady is a brilliant book with NO INNER WANGSTING to bog down the pace.  And that was the lesson Kerri-Leigh wanted us to grasp.


To quote KLG, she said, “Characters absolutely need to ponder and consider their feelings in romance—after all, this is an important element of building a romance—but unless those feelings are changing, they don’t need to be addressed.”  She wanted us to know that we could and should let go of focusing too heavily on internal monologue because that kills the pace and cheapens the depth of emotions.    This was her recommendation: “A really good example of a novel that was emotionally engaging without relying on long swathes of he-loves-me-not internal angsting is Joanna Bourne’s  The Spymaster’s Lady….Read the story to get a feel for dialogue, sexual tension, and body language that build the emotional elements of the relationship.”


What a gem!  The opening sentence both thrilled and terrified me when Annique Villiers, a young French spy contemplates her situation: “She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.”  I was in awe of Ms. Bourne’s style.


While the story of Annique kept me fascinated and up late nights, I also appreciated her hero and the secondary cast of characters.  In fact, my favorite line of the book is by one of those supporting men.  His name is Adrian and he is the hero’s good friend and fellow English spy.  Annique is wanted by both the French and English at this point and the men are having a rather inventive brainstorming session about how to keep her safe in London.  Adrian comes up with the idea of thwarting Annique’s captors with venomous snakes.  One of their men replies, “You can’t get cobras in England, for God’s sake.”  And then Adrian says, “I know where to get cobras.”   That line might not have you rolling on the floor yet, but read this book and you will know who that young man Adrian is, feel who he is, because with a precise and delicious use of words, Ms. Bourne makes you care about every detail of the story.

No Wankers! Praise for Savvy Authors Editpalooza 2012

Savvy Authors: “Wouldn’t it be great to have an editor available to help you polish your manuscript? Wouldn’t it be great to learn to self-edit like an editor?”

Me: Oh boy…yes, yes, yes!!!

Savvy Authors: “Because at Savvy Authors we feel, and share, your pain and we know exactly what you need…. EditPalooza!”

Me: You do know what I need…I’m feeling this, you totally get me!

Savvy Authors: “We will teach you how to edit like a professional! We’ll be pairing you up in groups of 5 (or more) to work with our team of guest Editors as they walk you through self-editing your novel to a best-seller’s shine.”

Me: You had me at “Wouldn’t”…where do I sign up?

41 days later (the editors extended our class length to ensure we had plenty of time to complete our lessons) and I feel like a new writer.  My editor (it felt oh so good to say that for the month!), Kerri-Leigh Grady, Associate Editor at Entangled Publishing, was phenomenal and my group members, ranging from paranormal to contemporary, YA to adult fiction, couldn’t have been better resources.

“To keep your experience as close to the real deal as possible, we will be utilizing the three pass editing process used by most publishing houses. We’ll spend two weeks on the first pass, where we’ll focus on characterization, plot, and scene structure, as well as major craft issues that might be stifling your voice. We’ll then spend the remaining two weeks on our second pass which will further focus on voice, dialogue, tightening language, and polishing your prose. And finally, you’ll be given the tools to do a third pass on your own, or perhaps stay with your crit buddy after the thirty days to finally fix remaining mechanical issues and those pesky commas.”—Liz Pelletier, Publisher & Senior Editor Entangled Publishing www.EntangledPublishing.com

This was my January/February in a nutshell.  It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before but something I will use each and every time I finish a draft from here on out.  You may be like me, having taken classes and workshops on craft in the past.  I had the tools prior to participating in this year’s Editpalooza, but now I’ve gained working knowledge of how to evaluate each of my scenes to ensure those elements are present and doing their job to give me (and my reader!) the best story possible.

What do I believe made the difference?  That’s easy.  In Editpalooza, you work with one of your very own manuscripts, applying everything you learn to your story, and you’re not alone.  I can’t tell you how valuable it was to have Kerri-Leigh and my group members read my assignments and tell me exactly what was working and just as helpfully, what wasn’t.  And then how to fix it, the way a professional editor would.  How liberating it felt to have Kerri-Leigh say things to me like, “Good call, Carlene” (in reference to identifying chunks of backstory or “inner-wangsting” (see NO WANKERS pic below) that I admitted needed tossing or the way a plot line could be tweaked to add more conflict) and “Your story sounds meaty and intense.”  That was a priceless feeling, that one there.

To the right is my “NO WANKERS” t-shirt from Old Kings Road pub in Santa Barbara, which I have vowed to wear as moral support whenever revising future manuscripts! 

The best news, it was a ton of hard work, but it was sensible and applicable and so many wonderful things happened to my story and clicked in my head as I completed the exercises.

If you missed this year’s Editpalooza, be on the lookout for next year’s.  And check out Savvy Authors for tons of great opportunities!