Kristen Arnett: How I Write

The award-winning writer discusses her writing rules, going from short stories to novels, taxidermy, and more.

Kristen Arnett
Short story and essay writer Kristen Arnett. Photo by Maria Jones

An accomplished short story and essay writer, Kristen Arnett won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw. The highly anticipated release of Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things, did not disappoint. The book tells the story of a grieving family in the taxidermy business, exploring family dynamics, loss, and love, all set in her home state of Florida and wonderfully punctuated by dark humor. Arnett also writes a hilarious popular column for Literary Hub based on her experiences as a librarian.

 On taxidermy

Living in Florida, there’s a ton of taxidermy everywhere. I don’t have any hands-on experience, but I do have a lot of family and friends who’ve performed taxidermy. I’m very interested in writing about the body, and this seemed like a natural way to explore interior and exterior things, to pair with my character reimagining art in a unique way.

Humor

I always think of how many ways I can tell a joke and see how I can make it funny. There are things that happen to all of us that are bad but also kind of funny. When bad things are going on that we have to process, life is still going on around us. And that includes humor. Mostly Dead Things can skew dark: death, family dynamics, grief. That can be overwhelming, and so it was important to me to find the levity in certain situations and make sure there were bright spots with appropriate humor.

Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett

Going from short stories to novels

I hadn’t written that large of a work before, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. I wrote a short story about a brother and sister taxidermizing a goat and their interaction, and I was delighted with it. But when I got done, I wanted to know more about those people and what they did next. Usually, I feel a short story is complete, but it didn’t feel complete with this. So I put that story away and started fresh.

Self-imposed writing rules

I gave myself rules because I hadn’t written anything that lengthy. With short stories, I write and edit as I go, but that wouldn’t work with a novel. I gave myself Monday-Friday to write a thousand words minimum a day. That would give me at least 5,000 a week, and by the end, I would have a book-length rough draft. I wouldn’t allow myself to go back and read as I went along, and I would only read the last paragraph before I started writing again. No going back to edit. And by the end, I had a completed draft.

When bad things are going on that we have to process, life is still going on around us. And that includes humor.

Plotting versus pantsing

I like to be surprised and see what happens. I kept a Word doc with important information like character names, names of businesses, and setting – but I didn’t want to know what happened. It’s the same thing with essay and short story. I have a question(s) I’m trying to answer, but I don’t want to over-structure the plot or narrative. I don’t want to know what characters will do because the reader will know, I think. I allowed the plot to move organically to what the characters wanted. With essays, there’s something I’m trying to figure out, but then other questions come up, and I discover surprising things about myself or my situation.

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—Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.