New Voice: Donna St. Cyr on The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate

Donna St. Cyr is the debut author of The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate (Blooming Tree/CBAY Books, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Robert Montasio didn’t think his day could get any worse until his sister drinks a bizarre soda that causes her to start shrinking. Robert’s only hope is a mysterious organization known as the Secret Cheese Syndicate. Unfortunately, they can’t help without a special cheese that has been lost for years.

Now, with a tiny little sister in his pocket, Robert has to travel the world to find the Mystic Cheese of Eliki and, perhaps, discover secrets from his family’s past.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Revision is my friend. I didn’t think this at first, but I believe it now. I have been a teacher for over twenty years, and one of the things I watch students struggle with is the revision process. Mostly, they want to turn in the first draft and be done with it.

Even though I know better, I like to think my work is ready after the first pass. Mostly, I attribute this to laziness, a character flaw I’m trying to eliminate.

So, how about the revision process for “the cheese story” (my critique group’s nickname for the novel)? I suppose the first revision came after I outlined the story. I developed the plot, created the characters, and outlined the chapters. As I wrote, the majority of that outline got tossed in the trash.

The second revision included what I call the “rewrite while you write” exercise. I have a habit of rewriting a paragraph several times while I’m trying to get the words down. I don’t think this is the most productive form of revision, and it probably slows my writing down, but I do it anyway.

The third revision came through my critique group, usually two or three chapters at a time. My group is very supportive and we use the TOT – Take or Toss – method of critiquing. If the criticism rings true, take it and use it; if not, toss it out.

I can not stress enough how important my critique group was in developing the continuity of the story, fleshing out the characters, and giving me fresh ideas. In a way, this story belongs to them as much as it does to me. The fourth revision was a second complete run through by my critique group. Let’s see, we’re up to about two years by now.

The next revisions came post-contract. So, revision number five was the first revision request by my editor. Aside from plot and character points that she wanted cleared up, she wanted a longer book. So I added another 10,000 or so words, which meant developing all sorts of new adventures. At first, I didn’t think I could do what she asked. I thought the story was finished, but she was right. The new characters I created have become some of my favorites.

Revision number six was the second go round with the editor. I was grateful she agreed with my rewrite, and this time there were only minor edits, mostly line-edit types of things and a few more continuity issues.

Finally came copy edits, which are not so much revisions as spell and grammar checks. I was amazed, however, after so many eyes had seen the story, how many typos still existed. The copy edits put the post-contract revisions at three and the total number of revisions at seven!

The entire process took about four years. I don’t know if my process was particularly slow, but it’s taught me a great deal of patience.

Revision advice? Get a critique group. Don’t be offended by the advice. Step away from the story for awhile before revising. Be patient, it’s a multi-step process.

As a librarian-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a librarian has been a blessing to your writing?

I love my job as a librarian. In many ways, my experience in the library is what prompted me to become an author. I’ve had writing aspirations since high school, but never acted on them. Life always seemed to get in the way. Going to work everyday and reading to children reignited that desire and gave me the courage to give it a try.

Being in the library has made it much easier to see what good fiction is out there. I have worked in school libraries, and because my programs have always been small, I was responsible for all purchases. What power! What responsibility!

Using a selection process and stretching my limited dollars to purchase what I considered to be the best fiction each year gave me the opportunity to read some fantastic books that I might have otherwise missed. Exposure to good writing is an important factor in developing your own writing style.

On the commercial side, dealing with publishers and book vendors every day helped me to see what types of things were making it to market. That’s not to say that as a writer I should pay too much attention to market trends for specific stories, however, I could see first hand which types of books different publishers were promoting. During the submission process, it was helpful to walk over to my shelves and pull books from a specific publisher and check out its work.

After I began to write, I started sharing the writing process with my students. I began increasing their awareness of authors and their own stories. I started to look for every opportunity to promote author awareness and pumped up the number of author visits to our school. Nothing sparks their interest like a real, live author in front of them.

Librarian and author are naturally complementary careers. I have been blessed to work in both of these arenas and am grateful for the opportunities that each vocation has provided.

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.