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How a First-Time Novelist Wrote a Bestseller in Six Months

On How To!, Taffy Brodesser-Akner shares unexpected writing tips to jump-start your book.

The writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner with a book
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Scott Heins.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner may have given up coffee, but she still gets everything done—including write a bestselling debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, in six months. A master of the celebrity profile, Taffy, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, has developed a knack for getting people to open up to her, whether indoor skydiving with Melissa McCarthy or golfing with a reticent Robert Pattinson. Even when Bradley Cooper rebuffed all of her questions, Taffy simply wrote a piece titled, “Bradley Cooper Is Not Really Into This Profile.” And when her editor didn’t like one of Taffy’s story ideas—inspired by a divorced friend’s newfound life on dating apps—Taffy came up with an audacious way to write about it: Turn it into a bestselling novel. On this episode of How To!, Taffy reveals the breakthrough moment for Fleishman Is in Trouble and how she finished the book in just six months. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Charles Duhigg: Did you intend to become a novelist? 

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Did I intend to become a journalist is the first question. I went to film school and I showed a couple of things to my professors—in the ’90s, my male professors—who were like, “This isn’t good.” So right after college, I got a job in journalism because that was a thriving industry. Let us have a laugh at that! Eventually I became someone who wrote good stories. The story I told myself as a result was, “Oh, it must be that you’re not good at screenwriting. It must be that you’re not a good creative writer. It must be that you’re a good journalist. So you should be very happy for the success you seem to be having and go with it.”

Then, one day, I went for lunch with a friend of mine who said, “Listen, I’m getting a divorce.” He had already moved out. The alimony was worked out. The child support was worked out. He took out his phone and he showed me what it is like for somebody our age to be on dating apps. My mind was blown. I had never seen anything like this. I knew by then that if I had never seen anything like it, it might be a good story.

I left that luncheon. I remember I was on Fifth Avenue, on the street. I called up my GQ editor and I said, “I have to do a story about dating apps.” He said to me, “You know, you don’t usually sound like a clueless New Jersey housewife in her middle age, but right now you do.” And he explained to me that the GQ reader by now knows about dating apps and they’re not going to risk their reputation as a hip magazine on a 40-year-old woman writing about dating apps. Something in me woke up. I pulled over literally into a restaurant. I sat down and I wrote the first 10 pages of my novel.

So you had those 10 pages written. What did you do next?

I’m so practical that I thought there’s no way I can forfeit a significant period of time to work on this without knowing I will get paid. So I said to myself, “I’m going to give you six months to write this. You won’t give it one more day than six months. But you have to do it, because clearly there’s something in you that needs to be put to rest.” I had to find out if my screenwriting teachers were correct, that I am not a good creative writer.

If you are in your 40s like I am and you’re a woman, you have earned a head full of stories in which you are not supposed to be doing this. Someone better than you out there is doing this. Why should you even do this when there’s dinner to be made, when you already have a good job, when your children need you? There are so many forces that are at work against you to write a book, but there’s this tiny voice inside of you that is screaming for you to pay attention.

I think about the fact that men never ask these questions. I’ve taught writing a lot and I’ve never seen a man ask me the question, “What right do I have to take up this space?” I think it’s important to keep asking yourself “Why shouldn’t I have this?”

How did you actually do it? How did you situate your life so that you had the time and the energy to write every day? 

The thing that I would do is I would lock myself in a room and I would say, “What is the book that I see myself writing? What is the point that I need to make?” A great thing to have is a goal. A goal should be a word count because some of your writing is spent thinking, pacing, picking your nose, cooking, or scrolling through Twitter while you’re figuring it out. I just saw something on Twitter by the magazine writer Chris Jones that blew my mind—if you write 500 words four days a week, on the fifth day you revise those 2,000 words, and on Monday you start over again, in a year you will have finished a book. I wrote that book in six months. I wrote the first 30 pages in one month.

Did you ever experience writer’s block?

I’m so glad you asked that. It’s my favorite question. I don’t believe in writer’s block. I wrote half of my book in the Nordstrom ladies room where there’s a couch and the other half with children sitting next to them watching TV so that they would have the illusion that I was spending time with them. Like, I never ask my sister, who’s a veterinarian, “Oh, you’re not blocked today, are you? Because you have that surgery to do.” This is a profession and you have to treat it professionally. At its heart, writer’s block is the act of thinking about writing instead of doing it. And if you just remember that, you can always know that you could just write the next sentence. It might not be very good, but the one after that probably will be.

Jonathan Franzen once said a lot of people think a book is about what happened, but the better version of a book is, “Here’s what happened. Now let me tell you how.” And I thought that was so remarkable because it means that you don’t have to have some big reveal about action. You have to have a big reveal about character. And the process of writing is very much the process of getting to know your characters.

Think about standing in line at CVS and the story you tell yourself about the guy in front of you. Now think about the ways you hate him. Could you also use those things to make him into something that you love? Because the work of fiction is empathy. The work of fiction is, “Here’s a story that makes no sense to me. Here’s a story where everyone seems terrible.” Now create circumstances in which you understand why everybody would behave that way.

I’m sure you have this moment—I have it all the time where I sit down and I write something and I’m embarrassed that those words came out of my fingers. What do you do when what you write is bad? You’re a good judge of writing.

Not my own! You don’t get to the good sentences if you don’t write the bad ones first. I actually heard this tip recently from Charles Finch, who is a mystery writer, that the first thing you should do is write the entire story in 10 sentences. Think about how innately we know how to tell stories. I think that every writer would be a better writer if she sounded like she does when she talks. All stories should be told—fiction and not—as something that is akin to running into a room, grabbing someone by the lapel, and saying, “I have to tell you this thing that I just heard!” Another writer I know once told me that if you can’t figure out a way to start your article, you do it by saying, “Here’s the thing…”. Eventually you’ll delete the “here’s the thing,” but it’ll prompt you to access the skill you have as a verbal communicator.

If I’m confused about a section, I will sometimes read it backward—the last sentence, the second to last sentence, the third to last sentence. That was actually something I learned at my New York Times orientation. If you’ve read something so many times, you can just read it backward and see if the sentences make sense.

How many of your original 10 pages that you wrote in that restaurant changed versus stayed the same?

The first 30 pages are intact and everything else changed. I learned that I can’t let my husband read things until they are published because he can judge a piece of writing and I get too attached to his opinion. So I have a group of people I send my stuff to, nonprofessional people who I know like to read. The biggest change that happened to my book came when someone said, “This should be a first person book.” I was like, “That’s crazy!” It cost the book a year, [but it turned out to be] the reason I was writing the book. At the end of my book, I had this nontraditional rant about what it is like to be a woman in the world. The entire book is a ruse so that I could make that point.

To hear Taffy help an amateur writer workshop her own idea for a novel, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.