7 Questions With Author Rebecca McNutt
Rebecca Maye McNutt, born in 1998 in Nova Scotia, Canada, has been a published author since she was twelve years old. What started as a way to make extra spending money led to the release of a number of published novels and short stories. One of the youngest published authors in Canada, as well as a freelance ghostwriter, photographer and Goodreads reviewer, she is often either reading or writing in her spare time.
Rebecca spent most of her childhood on a military base in rural Canada, and now lives in a suburb of the coastal city of Halifax, Nova Scotia where she is studying Law and Political science at Dalhousie University. She is also a graduate of the Nova Scotia Community College, where she studied Library Information Technology, and she has studied a course in Occult Magic at the nearby King’s College.
Her published novels include Bittersweet Symphony, a book about the impact of the September 11th Attacks on a group of corporate Americans, and Necromancy Cottage, an occult fantasy novel and allegorical work about the 2019 Canadian Federal Election. Her short stories, mostly in the occult and supernatural genre, include Rite of Passage, Restless Souls and Shallow Graves, Of Late I Think of Christine Chubbuck, Husks, Danvers: the Reckoning and Crooked E, among other titles.
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What were some major setbacks of this profession?
Well, I’ve always enjoyed writing, but there are quite a few setbacks, especially for self-published authors. For one thing, it can be difficult to make a lot of income through writing. That never necessarily bothered me, because I just publish books for fun and to share stories with other people in my free time, but considering how expensive promotion can be, it would be nice to have the money to fund that.
I can understand why many authors aspire to be traditionally published, as many of the costs (editing, cover design, promotion, etc.) are taken care of by large-scale publishing houses for you if you’re a traditionally published author. Another downside to self-publishing is that it can be very difficult to get readers to take your works seriously. A common misconception is that self-published books are poorly-edited vanity projects, and many readers won’t give them a chance unless they happen to receive one for free.
To get around that obstacle, I often give digital copies of my books away to Goodreads members and through Amazon giveaways, and on occasion (usually around holidays), I will give away printed copies. Because I started publishing back when I was a kid, I’ve found that readers (and publishers in general) don’t want to publish works written by younger authors, both because of legal concerns and because younger authors are considered generally to be inexperienced.
Even now, it’s still just me and my laptop and a few pens and notepads, competing against the big prestigious publishers, although I try to not look at authorship as a competition, but instead a universal contribution that anybody can partake in. For me though, the biggest downside is that once a book is published, it’s out there in public forever. If you write something early-on and then publish it, only to decide later on that you don’t want it published anymore, it’s too late to control that.
All you can do as an author is attempt to remove it from further printing and circulation, which is next to impossible. When I was in junior high, my first works were a short series of novels I had published through the now dissolved publishing company CreateSpace. In retrospect, these novels were poorly-edited, angry in tone and very amateur. I am now sort of annoyed by them, since they are on my Goodreads author page and still saved within my Amazon account in a draft status.
They are no longer in print, and I have uploaded false manuscripts to overwrite their original files so as to keep them from being re-printed in the future, but still they are there. This is why I think it’s important for minor children, if they plan to become published, to have an adult guiding them along in it. I was twelve years old at the time and I did it all myself, so nobody was aware that I was published until I told my family about it.
There were a lot of legal matters and practical matters which I didn’t understand. I was naïve about it back then. I try not to be negative about the downsides to being an author, though. Over the years, I’ve built up a small following and an audience who are fans of my books. It makes me happy just to know that people enjoy reading them, and to hear new opinions about my stories.
What’s your definition of the first draft?
I have a lot of first drafts saved as document files on my computer. In my case, a “first draft” is usually a very un-edited manuscript with little notes typed in between paragraphs to mark suggestions which I can look back on later and perhaps fill in.
My first drafts are usually what I send to my beta-readers, who look for typos and give me suggestions on further additions to my stories. I also have a large number of composition books stashed away in desk drawers which all have rough drafts for short stories in them.
I’ve been keeping these since junior high school. It started out as a hobby that I could do while in class (so my teachers would think I was doing homework), and then it became a way to save brief ideas for stories. A rough draft for me includes everything from little observations to drawings and sketches of what characters might look like in a visual sense.
There is no limit to a draft, and there’s a kind of freedom in that which can make it easier to collect ideas without necessarily having to worry about what other people may think of them later. A good way to keep drafts is to purchase a large box to keep them all stored in (I use an old blanket box that my parents gave me). You can store not only printed documents from a computer and handwritten notes and books inside it, but you can keep photos, books by other authors that helped inspire you, items that inspired certain settings or characters, almost anything you want to save, and you can store it all in one place and go back and revisit it later. That’s the way I think of my “first drafts”.
What are some common stereotypes related to the genre(s) you’re writing in?
I write primarily occult fiction and supernatural fiction. A lot of people consider this very odd, because I’m studying to be a lawyer and I’m a really conservative sort of person. Occult fiction and supernatural fiction are often stereotyped as being dark and graphic genres which are written by creepy, reclusive people.
I personally shy away from writing overly graphic content. My books can be very dark, but I like to keep them on the happier side of things in many cases. I always feel sorry for my characters if I write about bad things happening to them, so I like to try and give them at least a happy ending, or something that they can hold onto as characters. I also try to avoid writing gory/exploitative content, another thing the occult fiction genre can be known for. I find extremely graphic content to be rather tasteless, especially if it serves no real purpose to the story being told other than shock value.
As for the stereotype that creepy people write dark fiction, I was a bit of a goth in junior high school, I believe in magic and ghosts, I like horror films and I wear mostly black, but I also love shopping with my mother and sister, I volunteer with groups in the summer such as my city’s public gardens committee and local nursing homes, and I love taking photos of big cities.
I don’t think an author can be defined as a person by the genre they write, and I do think as well that occult fiction often gets a bad rep for being weird, when a lot of it can actually be very interesting. A lot of occult novels I’ve read by fellow authors have a lot of intriguing folklore, history and mythology, and a lot of work goes into creating them. There is nothing inherently violent, bad or weird about the occult and supernatural fiction genre. I’ve found that it’s actually one of the most versatile genres to write in, because it’s got a lot of room for mixing elements from all kinds of subjects and subgenres together.
Authors vs. Social Media. How do you approach the tools you have at your disposal?
I try to be careful with it. I do use social media. I have an author blog, I am prolific as an author and reviewer on Goodreads, and I occasionally use other websites such as Facebook and YouTube (mostly to keep in contact with my family), but it has taken me a long time to learn how to use social media effectively as an author.
Goodreads was especially tricky. There are many unwritten things to be learned which you won’t find in the website’s Terms and Conditions contract. I have run into some trouble in the past, such as an old beta-reader having temporary co-access to my author account (they ended up adding and posting reviews for a number of unpublished draft manuscripts I had designed cover images for, and they are now permanently affixed to my author page as books, even though they will never be published).
Because Goodreads is one of the largest publicly-accessible databases for books, it is a tool for readers and collectors, not just authors. Goodreads librarians will not remove books which have already been reviewed, even if they were never published or released. In hindsight, I should have handled the issue better than I did, but I was still in junior high at the time, and having somebody to co-manage my social media presence seemed good to me back then.
Just something to remember for any future authors out there – try to keep your social media power under your own personal control if you can. It makes it a lot easier to keep track of everything as you build up an online presence. I also try to keep a line between personal and professional. I’m pretty casual about my author profile; I’ll talk politics on it, I’ll post about my private life to some extent, but I keep most of my identifying information private, I don’t give out my home address, and I don’t discuss severe personal troubles.
It makes it easier to keep my author profile dedicated mostly to books and reading. I also try to walk a fine line when it comes to online self-promotion. I never rate my own books, I never pay for reviews (I can’t afford the cost to, anyway), and I don’t put down fellow authors just to make my books look good against theirs. I find such things unethical, to be honest.
I’ve seen a lot of it on social media, and in my experience, an honest 1-star review is usually still indicative of a better novel than one which has a page full of 5-star reviews that were paid for by the author themselves. I also think that as an author, using social media as a system to make fellow authors look bad (such as giving 1-star reviews on purpose in an attempt to lead readers away from a competing work) goes against what writing is supposed to be all about.
When an author starts to view writing as just a way to get quick fame and money, and they’re willing to step on the backs of other authors to do it, it looks bad and it cheapens the practice of writing in general.
How do you manage to juggle life and writing?
It can be difficult. I am currently a student at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, and this university happens to be over two hours away from my house by bus, leading to a lot of my free time spent riding the public transit to and from school.
Especially when midterms and final exams roll around, I find it extremely difficult to find time to write anything. None of my professors or fellow students at Dalhousie know that I’m an author, so I sort of lead two separate identities. I try to set aside an hour or so on weekends to write, or at least to think of new ideas for potential stories. I have a lot of priorities, but I really enjoy writing (it’s my one activity I don’t get graded on), so I try to make time for it when I can, even if it’s just thinking of what characters of mine might be doing or what would make a good setting for a book. A lot of my books are inspired at random by other life experiences, anyway.
For example, I wrote my latest novel, Necromancy Cottage, over my two-week summer vacation when I was reconsidering old childhood cottages I’d stayed in back in the early 2000’s, and the book is an allegory for Canada’s recent federal election, so I think personally that having a very busy life, as hectic as it can be, has given me many topics to write on. I do wish often though that I had more time to write.
Sometimes I dream of being one of those bestselling authors who can go to isolated retreats and quiet beachfront houses to be alone and write stories, but at the same time, I want to complete my education, pay off my debt and go into a legal career. For that, I have to keep a balance between my education and my writing. Writing for me is escapism too, so I can sometimes get too heavily immersed in it and a bit distracted from my education.
While I’m grateful to have the opportunity to go to university, I often find studying politics to be a depressing and volatile subject, because as a student, it can make you feel like you have no voice if your opinions and views go against the general consensus. Writing gives me an escape from all of that sometimes, and writing also gives me a voice that goes beyond my own local city.
Many authors have experienced trolling or cyberbullying upon publishing their manuscripts. Could you share your experience & some useful advice for all authors going through this?
Well, it’s always annoying when such things happen to arise. Personally, I’ve had my fair share, from a spam Goodreads account giving all of my books 1-star ratings (even titles which had never been completed or released, go figure), to having somebody send me a string of curse words in an email because they didn’t like that one of my books had political undertones.
First of all, I think it’s extremely immature and a complete waste of time to cyberbully authors, or anybody else for that matter. I skip over offensive messages anyway, and I typically ignore 1-star reviews unless they contain constructive criticism which isn’t malicious or mean-spirited, so anyone who is attempting to troll or cyberbully me is wasting their own time and behaving like a child.
Secondly, I flag it. I don’t really care when it happens to me because I’ve learned how to get used to it over the years. I was bullied a lot physically back in junior high, so nothing on the internet really offends me too much anymore. I know though that there are some people who will troll multiple authors, and it can be very discouraging to authors who are trying to make a living or start out with a debut book.
People often forget that for authors, their book is more than just a book. It’s an entire universe that they’ve built by themselves and poured a lot of time and effort into. It’s something that they believe in and care about a great deal. Being rude and obnoxious to an author, simply because you didn’t enjoy a book they wrote, is both pointless and discouraging. Most social media platforms are responsive and fair when dealing with cyberbullying, I’ve found.
Goodreads has always been very helpful to me in that regard, as long as what is being reported is genuine misuse of the website and not just a complaint because a reader happened to dislike my book or something. I would like to hope that grown adults are above harassing people online, but unfortunately that’s not always the case, so it’s better to just avoid interacting with the people perpetrating that stuff as much as possible, and to let website moderators deal with it.
I recommend keeping a record of every cyberbullying attempt, because it makes it easier for website moderators to look back on if the perpetrator of the bullying deletes the evidence. One thing I definitely don’t recommend though is stooping to the level of the bully. Don’t ever mock the bully back, don’t draw attention to them, and don’t try to get revenge. As the old saying goes, you should never roll in the mud with a pig. You’ll just get dirty, and besides, the pig enjoys it. Most internet trolls get some sort of weird little thrill out of the reactions of their targets, hoping to upset them. Don’t give them that power. They don’t deserve it, and as an author, you can be the bigger person and rise above their bad behavior.
Just how much research is there behind a novel? Tell us how it looks behind the scenes.
It depends on the novel. Most of what I publish is entirely fictional in nature, and based on personal experience alone. There have been a couple of cases though where I did go a step further in doing actual research for a book. The first case was when writing my novel Bittersweet Symphony, which I released about a year after graduating high school.
The book was written as a response to learning that a relative of mine had lost a friend in the September 11th Attacks, and as a response to going to school with students who would often tell jokes about those who had died in the attacks. People from my generation are very desensitized to 9/11, and here in Canada, 9/11 hasn’t impacted many families the way it did in the United States.
For research, I watched several films (both fictional and non-fictional), I read accounts from authors who had witnessed the attacks themselves, I looked at archived imagery of the attacks, I collected 9/11-related memorabilia to try and get an idea of some of the artifacts of the time, such as a matchbook cover from the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, and a ticket for the World Trade Center observation deck, I donated money to 9/11-related charities and support groups, and during a study break over a semester of school, I visited the new One World Trade Center and the 9/11 Memorial nearby.
I really don’t think I could ever truly capture what happened on September the 11th in fiction, but doing the research on the subject really showed me the human side to the tragedy, the side that my generation doesn’t think about very often. I think it’s important that people my age continue to learn about these attacks, and about how it continues to affect society.
The second case where I had to do research for a novel was when writing Necromancy Cottage, an occult fantasy novel which is actually about politics allegorically. Before writing the book, I had studied political science, Soviet history and the functioning of my own country’s political system. This ended up being hidden through symbolism throughout the novel itself, which from all appearances is just a fantasy book about kids on an island learning black magic.
I didn’t care about politics when I was a kid. Researching politics is also a huge portion of my university major, so it ended up that learning these things inspired a whole new story. Sometimes coincidental learning can be the best research of all.
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