By day, Jeff Zentner is a prosecutor for the state of Tennessee. By night – and any other spare moment he can grab – he’s an award-winning author of books for young adults.
On Friday, Sept. 15, 30 students at Heritage High School gathered in the media center to learn about the art of writing from none other than Zentner himself. The students were members of media specialist Rhonda Sixto’s Reading Club and English teacher Tara Tollett’s Writing Club. A few "outsiders" also joined the event arranged by Sixto, including her mother, and Shannon Neal and Lexi Ettenger of the Catoosa County Library.
Zentner’s first book, "The Serpent King," features three teenagers struggling with their desire to be unique and with their mixed feelings about their rural southern community. The book does not shy away from strong themes like suicide, mental illness and religious snake-handlers. Nor does it leave readers with a sense of hopelessness. Best-selling author Stephanie Perkins wrote of the book: "A triumph of love and dignity." Accolades from reviewers, including The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly, have been abundant.
"The Serpent King" is the winner of at least seven prestigious awards, a finalist for many others and a best pick on dozens of lists and websites, among them Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Buzzfeed and Mashable.
"Goodbye Days" is Zentner’s second book and has been received with the same enthusiasm as his first. It’s a book in which he draws on his own profession as an attorney in a story about a young man feeling responsible for the death of three friends in a car accident and a judge bent on making him pay for his son’s untimely demise. Best-selling author Nicola Yoon calls "Goodby Days" an "ultimately life-affirming mediation on grief and forgiveness."
But Zentner’s topic at Heritage High was not his own books. It was all about helping students hone their writing skills.
"Good books have a viewpoint, an attitude," Zentner advised the students, who jotted notes on paper or into their laptops. "Readers should snag on your words, get immersed in the story. Don’t pull readers out of your story."
The main focus of Zentner’s talk was how to create realistic and compelling dialogue in a story. He suggested limiting "dialogue tags" – the overuse of "he said, she said." "Try to use action in lieu of dialogue," the author told students and gave them some examples.
Then came the moment of reckoning – the assignment. "You have fifteen minutes to write a dialogue using no tags whatsoever," Zentner told the young writers.
A fury of scribbling and tapping ensued and when their time was up, Zentner called on some of the students to share their work, he reading one of the parts of their dialogue, much to their delight.
Following the workshop, attendees helped themselves from a lunch buffet while Zentner talked with fans and signed books. Zentner’s books were made available for sale by Starline Books of Chattanooga. Later in the day, Zentner addressed the entire student body.