Author Jeff Zentner Speaks to Creative Writing Class

On Tuesday, March 2, award-winning author Jeff Zentner spoke to students in Kate Muttick’s Creative Writing class about his career path before leading a quick workshop on writing effective dialogue.

Jeff Zentner is the author of New York Times Notable Book The Serpent KingGoodbye Days, and Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee. He has won the William C. Morris Award, the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, the International Literacy Association Award, and the Westchester Fiction Award. 

Zentner told the class that before becoming a writer, he started his creative life as a musician in the Nashville area.  Although he performed and recorded regularly, he never “made it big,” and decided to shift gears when he turned 30. He earned a law degree and got a job as a prosecutor in Tennessee, but still felt a desire to pursue something artistic. He became interested in writing for young adults after volunteering at the Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and having a friend publish a young adult novel.  

“I was no longer afraid to fail,” he said. “I had tasted failure with music and survived it. It turns out, nobody keeps track of your failures but you. If you give yourself permission to go out and try, you can accomplish amazing things.”

Because he had limited time to write, Zentner said that he wrote The Serpent King almost entirely during his commute to work.

“I opened up a Google Doc, titled it ‘The Serpent King,’ and started typing with my right thumb on the bus to and from work,” he said.

Growing up, he had a misconception that authors were “well-educated people living in ivory towers who worked behind large mahogany desks.” “What I learned is that you don’t need an Ivy League degree,” he told the students. “You just need a story to tell and everyone has that by moving through the world.”

He added that successful writers have an ability to take criticism and help it make them stronger. 

Zentner concluded his presentation by leading the students through a dialogue workshop. “I used to be terrified of dialogue; I didn’t know how to make it seem realistic,” he said. “Writing good dialogue is so important, though, because it allows the reader to forge more of a connection with the characters.”

His tips for writing effective dialogue include:

·      Letting dialogue ‘sit lightly’ on the page with lots of space and room to breathe. Each line of dialogue should be its own paragraph. “I’ve never heard anyone say that a book has too much dialogue and not enough description.”

·     Using the word 'said' when attributing a quote. “’Said’ is a magic word for dialogue because it’s uninteresting,” said Zentner. “It shouldn’t detract from the dialogue, which is the interesting part.”

·     Catching clunky dialogue by reading it aloud.

·     Keeping dialogue sentences short. People don’t usually monologue with each other.

·     Making sure actions are realistic. People don’t usually wink and shrug.

·     Making sure characters don’t say each other’s names too much. That isn’t realistic.


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