In this 5 On interview, author and radio broadcaster Reggie Lutz discusses her tendency as a writer to synthesize fiction genres, recommends qualities to look for in a writing critique group, offers advice on pitching and interviewing with radio hosts, and more.
Reggie Lutz is the author of Haunted and Aliens in the Soda Machine and Other Strange Tales, and is an occasional broadcaster. Summers she can be heard on WRKC with her show The Not-So-Hectic Eclectic, featuring a mix of alternative music from the ’90s and now. She lives on top of a mountain with a parrot who offers editing advice and a dog who provides comic relief. A professional radio broadcaster in the ’90s, she has turned her attention to fiction writing.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: Is there a story behind your website’s tagline, “Lady Writer”?
REGGIE LUTZ: There is, but it isn’t very interesting. A lot of folks who haven’t met me assume I’m a guy because my first name is Reggie, and I have a fondness for hiding my face in photos. It causes confusion when meeting someone via telephone for the first time, which was more prevalent in ’90s radio. I used to get a lot of interactions like this:
Phone person: “Can I speak with Reggie Lutz?”
Phone person: “No, I need to talk to Reggie.”
Me: (Sighs. Holds phone to shoulder for three seconds. Puts phone next to ear.) “Hi, this is Reggie. What’s up?”
Phone person: “I thought you were a dude.”
“Lady Writer” is just a tagline for clarity.
When you were little, you were reading the Little House on the Prairie series, you’ve said, but you also tried to read the North and South series because it was something your dad enjoyed. How would your review of North and South read had you written one at that time/age?
That’s a tough question to answer, because I don’t remember much of it. Given that I was twelve, I probably would have said something like, “I thought there would be more horses in it.” I remember being disturbed by discussions of slavery in those books.
Part of what disturbed me is the violence, but I kind of recall at least one passage where one family of slave owners was described as more fair than another family of slave owners, and though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, it struck me as a particularly insidious thing. It seemed like a justification, or an argument that there are degrees of slavery. It didn’t sit right with me, and I remember it made it hard to care about the characters. I don’t remember much else about those books, and that might actually be the reason.
What were you reading by the time you reached high school and, of what you read as a young person, what had the most fundamental influence on what you write?
By high school I was reading the beat poets, Anaïs Nin, Naomi Wolf, Alice Walker, the plays of Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, of course. Joanna Russ was someone whose work interested me, and of course I was probably re-reading Tolkien. Ursula K. Le Guin was on my shelf. I read a lot of sci-fi because my brother and I were always swapping books—he was the sci-fi guy and I was reading contemporary fiction. By college I discovered Thomas Pynchon, Tom Robbins, and Angela Carter.
This is another tough question to answer. I have a hard time pinpointing the most influential storyteller I read, because I read fast and across genres. It’s probably the habit of reading widely that accounts for a lot of how I approach writing fiction. I’ll start writing something that is meant to be contemporary, and then I can’t resist putting in paranormal elements. Conversely I’ll start writing something intended to be fantasy and then it will turn out to be a drama about family, just set in a strange place.
I think that with early Pynchon and Tom Robbins there’s a sense that there are no boundaries / all things are possible that is freeing as both a reader and a writer. Their work, when I first encountered it, sort of widened the landscape for me in terms of what could be achieved with narrative prose. Tom Robbins, for example, could make a dirty sock, a spoon, a conch shell, and a painted stick magical and weirdly sexy as characters in a book. I can’t even begin to pretend that I can do the linguistic gymnastics those guys pulled off, but it was that blurring of genre with literary fiction that gave me creative permission to simply write the story I wanted to write and worry about genre later.
You wrote—and finished—your first novel when you were twelve. What was it about? What about it (besides finishing it) makes you proud, and what makes you cringe?
Oof. I don’t remember, and I haven’t looked at it in a long time, but it was probably a terrible mashup of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and the movie Labyrinth. I’m proud that I did the work and was able to see it through at the age of twelve, but the rest, I am sure, is cringe-worthy.
When writing, what comes more easily to you, and what challenges you? And when you get to the challenge, what do you to do work through it?
As a pantser at heart, my biggest challenge is often plot. I do plot my novels very loosely, now, but I have this tendency to either go off and write deeply in tangential territory to the point where I lose the plot and have to re-tread, or if I’ve plotted too closely I’ll get mired in a certain scene that won’t come easily and get stuck re-writing the same sentence over and over.
The tendency toward narrative that will eventually have to be cut is the easiest to cope with because, in that case, words on the page are still words on the page, and if writer-brain wants to go off-roading, it is best to just let it go because there might still be something useful there.
When I get stuck in a scene and can’t move forward, sometimes I’ll just move to a different place in the chronology of the story and come back to the problem scene refreshed, or I’ll go into editing mode and work on what came previously. Editing will sometimes reveal what the issue is with the scene where you are stuck and jog something loose in terms of narrative problem-solving.
5 on Publishing
You’ve said of self-publishing that there are “a lot of hurdles your first time out,” including which projects will be best served by going the indie route. How did you arrive at the conclusion that your novel and short story collection should be self-published, and do you plan to try to get a traditional publisher for any of your works in progress?
A lot of the stories I write do not fit firmly into a genre, which can be an issue when attempting to go the traditional route. The novel Haunted was one of those, but I also knew I had something that deserved its chance out in the world. I was reluctant and afraid to go the self-publishing route with it at first, but the more I thought about it, the more the idea of self-publishing appealed to me. I figured that if I gained nothing else from the experience I would learn a lot, and that knowledge would help whether the next project was traditionally published or self-published. So partly it was awareness of the sort of project I had, and partly it was to see what I could learn and whether I could do it. I didn’t make a huge splash financially, but I broke even and did a little better, so I’m pretty proud of that.
The short story collection as a self-published project felt like a natural progression. I had several previously published pieces that had generated some buzz but were no longer available, in some cases, and some new stories that I once again could not find appropriate markets to submit to. Interstitial work, once again. I also wanted to offer something to readers who were curious about my other work, or waiting for the next set of misadventures with the characters in Haunted.
I do have a few works in progress that sit more firmly within genre categories that I plan to take to traditional publishing when the time comes.
What hurdles fell away (or got shorter) as you became more familiar with self-publishing, and which ones persist?
Formatting the first time was a tear-inducing exercise in frustration. The second time was far easier. It’s one of those things that the first time you do it seems impossible, and then suddenly everything clicks and the second time out is no big deal.
Marketing is a persistent challenge, largely because the things that work the first time out do not necessarily work as things change. In my case, I’m relying on internet word of mouth for much of this, and generating that kind of buzz is a crapshoot. Things change there every day.
My advice to people is to have as much fun with it as you can. One of the things I did for Aliens in the Soda Machine and Other Strange Tales was to hire Trevor Strong to write a song for the book, which was a blast. I uploaded it to YouTube with a cover of the book as a video, and when Aliens was released I used the song in social media posts as a fun way to promote it. I had the idea that this would be a great payoff for audiences who stick with me through literary shenanigans, almost like a fun internet Easter egg people might find down the line.
I’m not sure how well it worked in terms of marketing, but I view it as a fun bonus for the audience as they find my work. It was also an opportunity to blend two of my greatest loves: music and fiction.
As part of the pre-self-publication process, you send (or used to send) your writing to Claw Critique for feedback. What was the system there, and what key things would you say to a writer considering joining her or his first critique group?
Claw Critique is a critique group that meets in real life. I moved after I hooked up with them, but I continued with them online.
When searching for a critique group, I would suggest keeping in mind that you want a group whose writing goals match your own. Are you writing fiction, screenplays, memoir, etc., and does the group take those forms on? Is their level of seriousness about craft the same as yours? Are they meeting with the intent to produce work for publication, or is it hobby writing?
You won’t necessarily be able to figure all that out right out of the gate. Don’t be afraid to shop around for the right fit. Ask a lot of questions.
When you submit for review, at least the first time, I suggest only submitting work that is in at least a complete first draft stage. Make sure they do have a process in place. Our critique group developed a process to make sure everyone who had work up for review in a given week got time and attention. The way we did it was to have everyone submit new work, either a chapter or a short story, the week before it was to be reviewed. Then at the meeting we’d take turns offering feedback. The author was allowed to respond once the feedback had been delivered.
We met once a week, but that frequency doesn’t work for everyone, so look for something that will match your schedule. Online we have a closed group and you can post as you finish things, then folks can respond as time permits, but meeting in person is invaluable because things come up when conversation is made possible that won’t come up in an online forum.
You’ve interviewed authors as part of your radio broadcast. What advice do you have for authors being interviewed in a voice-only environment?
Get comfortable with sentence fragments and be prepared for snark.
I would suggest finding out a little about about the program and the host’s personality beforehand, if you can. The reason I say this is that the way someone approaches interviews on a college station is different from what someone working for NPR will do, and someone who hosts a commercial music format will deliver their questions very differently. There’s sometimes a disconnect: what sounds fun in an audio-only environment can sound almost hostile in real life.
Another thing to be aware of is that, unlike a conversation in person, radio hosts will ask a question, let the guest answer, and then move onto the next question without responding in a satisfying way to the thing the author has just said. It can feel really awkward. This has to do with radio format and keeping the program moving for the sake of the audience. If you can do the interview pre-recorded in a studio, things are easier, because you can have a regular conversation with the host and then, in production, someone will edit out all of the ums and ahs to make it sound good.
Also, remember that you, as the author, would not have been invited if the programmer or host didn’t think you were worth having on the air. Don’t worry about perfect delivery, diction, or even making sure every last word is interesting. It’s up to the host to work around things like that. It will get easier each time.
And: the thing you said you feel most anxious about is probably the very thing that lands best with an audience.
When it comes time to pitch an appearance, send a press release that is clean, short, and as to-the-point as possible. Media outlets tend to receive a ton of press releases that are about everything from recent releases of different kinds of art to announcements about lost dogs, so if it is too long the person who vets such things might set it aside. Send links and relevant information. (Email works best.) If you have an appearance upcoming in the same market the radio station broadcasts from, you have a better chance of getting on the air, because it serves local interests. So be sure to mention that in the release you send.
When writing a press release, error-free is always desirable, and be as straightforward as you can. I think if you are an author who writes humor, then going for funny is a good thing; otherwise, you want to be as clear and concise as possible. If you have public speaking experience or have done interviews previously, include those things, because that indicates you’ve got guest chops, meaning you’re more likely to be engaging to an audience.
Programming needs change very rapidly in radio. On the program I do as a volunteer, I have control over content, so when I am doing author interviews it tends to be with people whose work I am interested in, and I reach out to invite people to appear, which is a bit unusual. If time passes after your first pitch and you want to follow up, emailing once again is probably best. If you don’t hear back, it can mean a million different arbitrary things. My advice is to simply let it go and try again with the next project.
You’ve had to do a lot of your own PR. What were you almost positive would work that, in fact, didn’t, and what more than anything else has drawn attention?
As much as we have all come to depend on the internet, print media is still really important for bringing awareness. As someone who works in radio, I know what radio can still do to boost awareness, and that, too, is a lot more than people think.
I don’t know that I was confident that any one particular thing would do wonders. I think, because of my experience working in media, I knew before going in that PR works best when you don’t hang your hopes on any one attempt. You send your press releases to as many media venues as you think might bite and cross your fingers and hope that enough things hit in the right time to make a positive difference.
Nothing can replace the connections you make with other human beings who love story, though. That’s everyone from your best friend to the random person you strike up a conversation with at a coffee shop or bar.
Thank you, Reggie.