Instructor Q&A

Katherine Catmull is the author of Summer and Bird (Dutton Young Readers/Penguin), one of Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and a TLA Spirit of Texas Reading pick for 2014-2015. Her YA fantasy The Radiant Road comes out from Dutton in January. She is one of four co-authors of The Cabinet of Curiosities (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2014), a collection of scary short stories. Catmull is also an actor, freelance arts writer, and a produced and published playwright.

Katherine is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “He Said, She Said: Dialogue is All About Conflict” on Saturday, September 5 at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

 Katherine Catmull headshotScribe: Were you an actress, playwright, or writer first? How have you developed into and because of these roles?

Katherine Catmull: I always meant to be a writer, but in college I got stopped cold by fearfulness, by comparing myself to the Greats, by how hard writing is—all the monsters that stop you. So I turned to acting, which is also hard—but theater creates enormous social pressure to just show up and do the work, no matter the monsters. Everyone is depending on you! Show must go on! So you’re forced into working, and of course working is so exhilarating.

Once I hit 40, it became more exhausting to rehearse and perform week in and week out and still drag myself to a day job. Also, I began to want to see something with my own vision out there in the world, rather than working to further a playwright and director’s vision. So I wondered if this theater thing of “just showing up and doing the work” would also work for writing. And it did—though of course, far easier said than done, without all the other people to badger and cheer you on. But I lightened my acting load and started writing short plays, beginning with monologues I wrote for myself to perform at FronteraFest, the yearly fringe festival at the Hyde Park Theatre here in Austin. I also collaborated on some longer plays. That was great practice at not being precious with your writing. Is it working for the play? Great! If not, throw it out! And then, like Wart in The Sword in the Stone, I took all the skills I’d learned from all those experiences, and with enormous effort, wrenched my first novel out of a giant rock. That’s what it felt like, anyway.

Scribe: What is the biggest thing that people think they know about writing dialogue, that isn’t necessarily true?

KC: There are several of these, as I’ll address in my class. One that’s simple: many people are encouraged in school to use lots of different dialogue tags besides “said.” They’ll have characters “averring” things, or “opining” things, or “ranting” things or “gulping” things or “intoning” things. Don’t do that. While there are a few tags that work when used sparingly— “replied” or “added” or “insisted,” the occasional “snapped” or “barked”—mostly, don’t get cute with those tags. The idea is for them to vanish into the background. Often you don’t need a tag at all, and I’ll get into that, too. Meanwhile, teachers! Stop telling students to do that!

Scribe: What is the most important thing that people don’t know about writing dialogue that they ought to?

KC: We should try to remember, I think—and I count myself as someone who needs to remember this—how rarely people say what they actually mean. In many ways, they hardly ever say what they mean. This is so important to remember.

Scribe: Do you approach dialogue in a play differently than you would dialogue in a novel? What guides you?

KC: Oh, yes. In a novel, you have so much more control over the rhythm of the piece—over where the character pauses, or looks nervously away, or zones out, or raises her voice. In plays, you have to leave room for the actor and director to make those decisions. But you can’t leave so much room that they have no idea. It’s tricky.

— Thanks, Katherine!

Click here to register for Katherine’s class.

Click here for a full schedule of classes.

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