Scribbler Manuscript Contest Winner: Camellia Phillips
In January 2022, Scribbler hosted its first-ever manuscript contest! There were a plethora of strong entries and the editors had a heck of a time reading through all the wonderful submissions.
One manuscript shone for its ingenuity, heart, and wonderful writing and took first place! Camellia Phillips’ middle grade novel, Rat, Jack, and The Impossible Job, impressed the Scribbler staff and we were thrilled to award her first place.
After winning, we asked Camellia a few questions to get a deeper understanding of her manuscript, writing journey, and more. Thank you for the interview, Camellia!
Can you describe your history with Scribbler/Scribbler Writing Contests?
I first heard about Scribbler when my husband Marco Rafalà’s debut novel, How Fires End, was selected for the October 2019 Scribbler box. Getting to watch the process from the author’s side was incredibly inspiring and made me a Scribbler fan for life. The Scribbler team put so much thought into the box and all the subscriber extras, and made it a great experience for Marco and his then-editor/now-agent, Hafizah Geter. I could see how much Scribbler truly cared about writers and writing.
So, last year, when I finally had a middle grade manuscript that I felt was good enough to query, I checked out Scribbler’s resources. I immediately signed up for a Query Letter Critique with Scribbler Editorial, which was very helpful. Then, in 2022, I set a New Year’s goal to enter at least five writing contests—and the Scribbler Manuscript Contest was one of the first!
What did you feel when you found out you won?
I did not believe I had won. Truly. I didn’t think it was real. At one point, I thought maybe Scribbler had picked another Camellia Phillips (because it’s such a common name?). Once I realized it was real, the rest of the day was a blur. I ran around shouting and texting and calling everyone I know because I was so excited.
How did the idea for your manuscript come to you?
I’ve often seen authors describe a book as “the book of my heart,” but I never knew quite what it meant. Well, after writing countless first drafts of books that never made it to a completed second draft, I finally started writing the book of my heart: Rat, Jack, and the Impossible Job. Yes, the title sounds silly. The concept—that eight years after a monster invasion, a group of sewer smart orphans have to outwit crime bosses and break into a monster fortress to save their friend—sounds a bit silly. But this book is about so much more. I started writing it after suddenly losing someone dear to me. I wrote this silly-sounding book to explore the meaning of family and how we can go on living even with unspeakable grief.
In September 2021, Claribel Ortega tweeted about writing Ghost Squad because, “My brother passed and I wanted to live in a world where he could still be with me, so I wrote one.” Other writers replied that they wrote books for the same reason. Well, so did I.
Once I started this novel, I felt such an incredible drive to persist to the end. I wrote the first draft on my iPad on the subway during my commute to and from work, and then the second draft on my phone (which helped when the subways were crowded and I couldn’t get a seat).
What was a moment while writing your manuscript you’ll never forget?
How can I choose just one? While writing this manuscript, I felt like I was right there alongside Rat, Jack, and their friends every step of the way. This manifested as me reading aloud while I wrote. I’m sure you can imagine someone on the subway, poking away at a screen, and mumbling to themselves about alien invaders and underground rivers and secret bank vault hideouts. No one gave me a second glance.
When my job went remote at the start of the pandemic, I used that commuting time to instead write at home. Without strangers around, I got even more into the moment with my characters. My husband and I live in a small Brooklyn apartment and we both write in the living room. At one point he looked over and caught me acting out a scene I was editing. I was doing character voices and flinging out an arm for emphasis. We cracked up. And then I got right back to it.
Can you share three tools you feel are essential to your writing process?
1) A writing spot. I don’t actually like desks. So I trained myself to write on the subway, and then I trained myself to write sitting on a cushion on the floor with my laptop perched on the coffee table in our living room. Not particularly ergonomic, but it signals to my brain: it’s time to write.
2) Tea. I adore tea, but because I have chronic migraines, I can only drink two cups of white tea per day. I treasure those two cups. I have a favorite tea (white peach) that I drink from my favorite mug. Writing and editing can be hard. Sometimes it’s much more tempting to do the laundry than rewrite a scene. So I tell myself that I can only drink my tea while writing or editing. It works!
3) The right soundtrack. My manuscript has two point of view characters in close third. I made a couple playlists for the manuscript, and each character has their own songs. Which, of course, I listen to on repeat whenever I’m writing or editing from that character’s point of view. Every manuscript deserves a mix tape.
Is there any writing advice you wish you knew five years ago?
You don’t need an hour to write. You don’t even need 20 minutes. I drafted and edited this manuscript sometimes in 5 or 10 minute chunks. My motto was: Any sentence I write today is a sentence I don’t have to write tomorrow.
It took me a couple years to write the first draft. But you know what? I finished it. And then I finished a second draft and a third draft and so many more I can’t count. No matter how many words you write per day, you still write a story one sentence at a time.
Has there been an author or piece of work that inspired you to write this book — or to become an author?
As a kid, one of my favorite books was Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. I still have my childhood copy and I always buy one for the kids in my life when they learn to read. I haven’t re-read Ronia in years, but I still have this feeling of the book in my mind: two scrappy kids on adventures. So when I was writing this manuscript, I wanted to evoke that spirit.
Also, Octavia Butler, my all-time favorite author, inspired me to finish this book—and inspired one of the themes in it. Butler was the first author I found who spoke plainly about the process of writing, not as something magical but as the ordinary act of habit and persistence. In one piece, she explained: “…my most important talent—or habit—was persistence. Without it, I would have given up writing long before I finished my first novel. It’s amazing what we can do if we simply refuse to give up.”
Would you rather read fiction or nonfiction? Fiction, always.
Coffee, tea, or water? Tea! Specifically: Harney & Sons white peach tea. I’m that person who carries my favorite tea bags with me wherever I go.
Has a book ever made you cry? Too many times to count.
Writing to music or silence? For drafting and editing, I need music. But for line editing, I need silence so I can read aloud.
“Pantser” or “plotter?” How about a leggings-er? I like to know the beginning, the end, and a couple key plot points. But otherwise, I love the adventure of not knowing exactly what may happen next.
Would you rather handwrite or type your books? Type. I can barely read my own handwriting. Although I do organize my plot, character, and revision notes on handwritten index cards–which I generally have to rewrite a couple times so I can actually read them.