When I first learned to drive, I had to have complete silence in the car to focus. I couldn't have on any music; I couldn't even concentrate on a conversation. Now, years later, I can talk, listen to an audio book, and juggle eating an apple all on the morning commute. Sometimes, I don't even remember driving.

What changed?

I built up a mental representation of the act of driving until it became automatic. I didn't have to think of the steps, I'd internalized the pattern. The same is true of writing.

 Before you even begin writing, you must ask yourself: Can I recognize good writing when I see it? Do I have a strong, high-quality mental representation of a good novel? Can I imagine all of its component pieces in an organized manner?

Mental road maps are habits, words, and influences we receive from outside ourselves. They provide a blueprint of the ideal novel—what it has, what it doesn't have, how the characters behave, how the plot unfolds, etc.

We develop this map over time by reading different novels. We reject some stories and embrace others. The key here is to be consciously aware of why some stories work for us.

We have to search for common themes, elements of success that are consistent across works and genres, that we can then practice until we perform it perfectly. It will become second nature over time.

Deliberate practice requires continuously strengthening our mental representation of the ideal book.

This ideal book will be different for each of us, but it will have some things in common. There is a pattern to good writing to be discovered. It's our job to find the pattern and repeat it. Every component has a different model. A writer can excel at plot or narrative but fail at character.

Shakespeare had an unparalleled command of every part of the writing process.

Shakespeare had an unparalleled command of every part of the writing process.

One of the things I think made Shakespeare so great was his command of every element of writing. What are his characters' arcs? How does he build tension, even in stories where he tells the ending at the beginning? How does he create that creeping dread in Romeo and Juliet that envelops the characters until the final, tragic moment?

 Another way to build good mental representations is to look at very different books and try to find the commonality, for instance, how is Madame Bovary like 50 Shades of Grey?

Now, 50 Shades of Grey is no one's definition of "good" writing, but it is remarkably successful. Success like that should not be discounted as a fluke. So what did its author get right? What can you add to your mental road map? Throw the junk away and focus on the jewels.

How to read like a writer—Romeo & Juliet Case study

Okay, so you're reading Romeo and Juliet. The miscommunication has happened. Romeo has defied the stars and is heading back into Verona, a doomed man.

How can you, as a writer you use this information? What if your protagonist isn't a teenage boy? What if your protagonist is a 90-year-old man whose only goal is to live to see 100? How does Romeo and Juliet help you?

 Let's catalog what we know about this scene.

  •  Romeo is desperate and suicidal. He needs to see for himself that his beloved is dead even though he knows if he enters Verona, his life is forfeit.

  • The audience knows more than Romeo. The audience knows that Juliet is really alive, but the viewer also knows that, in the end, the star-crossed lovers will take their lives.

So there are three pressure points here. The tension of Romeo's mad dash, the knowledge that Juliet is dead, and the dread of what will happen when Romeo and Juliet come together.

How can a writer with the 90-year-old protagonist use this roadmap?

Perhaps you can have the protagonist’s last physical chart be mixed up with that of a healthy 50-year-old. The character is told he is in excellent health for a man his age, but in reality, he is days away from a heart attack.

In this mental roadmap, the key to both scenes is letting readers in on the miscommunication. This creates constant tension, even though the reader knows everything.

Writing Exercises

  •  Examine passages or scenes that move you, cut them up into sentences and rearrange them. Analyze. Wait a while, and then try to put them in the correct order.

  • Write out the first sentences of novels you love. Try to imagine what the author was thinking as he/she/they choose every word. Return to the passages after a while and try to write them from memory.

Build Your Road Map by Reading


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