Syche Phillips' short story, "Genesis," was selected as the winner of SNHU's 2015 Fall Fiction Short Story Competition. A writer of fiction, creative nonfiction and plays, Phillips is pursuing her online Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing with a concentration in Fiction with Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). She also works in marketing at a professional theatre company in San Francisco, where she spends much of her time writing for their website, marketing materials, theatre programs and the company's blog.
Phillips was not expecting to be a finalist in this competition, let alone to win it all. "I had submitted 'Genesis' without a ton of hope because I figured there would be a lot of submissions," Phillips said. "Finding out that I was in the top five was really wonderful. It felt like a sign that I had made the right choice in starting on this path."
A judging panel narrowed the 550 competition entries down to five through a numeric scoring process. The public was then invited to vote for their favorites, the results of which were assigned point values that were added into the overall cumulative scores for each. "Genesis" garnered top score.
Phillips has been writing ever since she learned how. "I remember writing a story in kindergarten about an orphan who goes on an adventure, only I couldn't think of the word 'orphanage," so I just kept saying 'adoption company'," Phillips said in recollection of her earliest writing memories. She has also written poetry, but said, "It was easier when I was an angsty teenager."
Fiction comes naturally to Phillips because she can create her own world and characters, and then see what those characters will do. She also enjoys creative nonfiction, which can be found on her blog. "Creative nonfiction is a fairly new term for a type of writing that's been around for a long time. It's a great genre to read and write," Phillips said. Phillips got her bachelor's degree in theatre arts and English. "Since then, I've been a playwright, mostly of short plays, but I am currently working on a full length play based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story," she said.
Phillips attributes the success of "Genesis" in part to her Fiction Fundamentals course and professor Dalia Pagani. "I had written 'Genesis' for fun a few months prior, but that class is the one that inspired me to change the point of view to second person, and to do some major editing, which I think made the whole thing much tighter and better," Phillips said.
Her Victorian Literature professor, Jenn McCollum, has taught Phillips a lot about academic writing and has been her favorite professor at SNHU. She has also enjoyed working with her peers in her English classes, "because the really important thing about fiction writing is whether it resonates with other people, and that's the whole point about peer reviews," Phillips said. "The English classes are really helpful in terms of creative writing: for inspiration, for peer feedback, for the motivation to just do it and write."
Attending graduate school online at SNHU has increased Phillips' knowledge about publishing. "I always had this kind of dreamy idea of 'maybe publishing someday' but I had no real idea of how to get there," she said. "SNHU has given me a really great understanding of the publishing industry and how to get into that world."
Phillips is especially proud to be earning her master's degree. "This has been something I have always wanted, and I'm proud that I'm finally making it happen," she said. Phillips hopes that one day it will inspire her two young children. "I want them to know they should always go for what they want, and that it's never too late if they want to learn or grow or change careers."
Phillips will be completing her master's degree in the fall of 2016, which will open up 10-20 hours per week that she can commit to writing. "Having the accountability of one or two classes per term has made me realize that I actually do have the time outside of work and regular life, which means that when this program is done, I won't have an excuse for not spending my evening time writing or submitting for publication," she said.
The best piece of advice Phillips has received, related to writing, touches upon the importance of writing every day. The advice was from novelist Anne Lamott who advises authors to "just get it down on the page one word at a time," Phillips said. "She [Lamott] has also said that she lives by the idea of 'short assignments and lousy first drafts.' You don't have to crank out an opus every day. You just have to create something new." One of her favorite authors, Stephen King, also keeps to a disciplined writing schedule every day.
The lengthy list of authors that have inspired Phillips includes Stephen King, Ira Levin, David Sedaris, Marion Keyes, Jen Lancaster, Shirley Jackson, Barbara Kingsolver, Donald Margulies and Quiara Alegria Hudes. Each writer inspires and affects Phillips differently. "I am inspired by Ira Levin and his precise crafting of language in books like 'The Stepford Wives' and plays like 'Veronica's Room'," she said. "When I read Shirley Jackson, I find myself writing character-driven short pieces. Playwrights like Donald Margulies and Quiara Alegria Hudes can tell you so much just by using dialogue; they have perfected the art of exposition, which is admirable."
Phillips is currently writing a short play that will be performed in late April and she's waiting to hear back about other plays she has written. Upon graduation, she plans to complete a new draft of her full-length play, continue to write fiction, and submit her work for publication in journals and anthologies.
Learn more about SNHU's online Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing.
This article was originally published in The Penmen Review, SNHU's online journal for creative writers.