About The Coach

My name is Cliff Ratza, and I believe I have something of value for you if you are an undiscovered writer ready to pen a novel for publication: I can successfully guide you through the process.   What you are reading is my first article for a novelist writing a book or wanting to improve skills.  Additional articles explore particular topics in more detail, and I also offer one-on-one conversations covering specific subjects.  If you are interested in holding them, please contact me. 

   So, who am I?  I am the author of the critically acclaimed “Lightning Brain” series.  I have also written two collections of poetry, have earned five university degrees, and have used my writing skills in numerous business and academic careers.  Some examples: I teach at three universities, train telemarketers, write newsletters and develop Website copy for my clients, write sales and marketing plans, and publish articles on selected subjects.

   I have studied Literature and Linguistics (grammar, syntax, semantics), have read numerous books and attended many seminars explaining “how to write a novel,” and have applied all this in my writing.  And I offer you something few writing coaches can: superior verbal and numeric ability.  Most writers and liberal arts types are afraid of numbers and have little understanding of “Realpolitiks.”  Not me.  I have advanced degrees in hard science subjects and have held demanding jobs.  Not only do I write novels, but I also know the business side of becoming a successful author: generating Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action among the reading public as well as industry professionals.  Writing a novel is like building a house.  Project planning, a course I teach, can keep it on track.  So, if you think I can help, please read on.


What You Need

   Before you put pen to paper, make sure you have the following items:

·         Time and Discipline.  Writing a novel will become your second job.  Make sure you can budget time and have the discipline to write each day.

·         Motivation.  Answer this question: Why do you want to write a novel?  There are many suitable answers, and perhaps the best is that you are creating it for the enjoyment of recording a story you want to tell.  Whatever your reasons, make sure they are not a whim.

·         A story.  What do you want to write?  There are two kinds of novelists: Planners and Pantsers.  Both can be successful, but both have an idea before they start.  And each will adjust the storyline as they proceed.  So, have a compelling idea before you start.  Especially important: have a tangible beginning and an ending in mind along with a protagonist who will carry the plot.

·         A solid mastery of the language in which you are writing, which for me is English, and I’ll assume it is yours as well.  You don’t need to take a college course in Linguistics, but you must know grammar, syntax, and semantics better than most people.  And your language skills will soar as you focus on writing your novel.

·         A suitable vocabulary.  Writing is painting a picture with words.  Have a well-stocked palette. 

·         A reader’s eye, developed from having devoured books from all periods and genres (especially the genre your novel fits.)  It will help you express yourself in a reader-friendly manner.

·         A support network.  Only you can write your novel, but you need people (not just friends and family) who can honestly give suggestions, judge your work, and help build your “footprint” in the publishing industry.  You won’t have it when you start, so work to build it as you build your novel.

 Don’t fret about mastering all the above before you start writing.  No one ever does.  Just keep working to improve as your writing career unfolds. 

   If you have at least started assembling the above, you can write a novel, but there are no guarantees you will be successful because that depends on talent, hard work, and luck.

·         Writing talent is comprised of form (the mechanics of writing a novel) and content (character, plot development, and setting).  Mechanics is a craft you learn by studying; content is an art you learn by doing. 

·         Hard work pays off in the form of a finished novel.  (Think: motivation and discipline.)

·         No matter how you define success, achieving it requires a bit of luck, much of which is outside your control.  But remember this:  It’s not whether you have good luck or bad, it’s what you do with it that matters.

   The more you write, the better you become.  If you are about to write your first novel, many writing coaches say your skill gets better simply by writing.  So write it, put it away, and write a second that will be your first published novel.  Later, you can revise and publish the one you wrote first.  Coaches will also tell you to practice by taking creative writing classes or completing writing exercises.  That’s up to you, but I think that coaching, classes, or exercises work best when focused on your novel.  

Words don’t magically appear unless you produce them.  It helps to have targets for how many you need to write each day.  Please consider the following parameters.  And as with everything about writing, the ranges are broad.

   Your novel, when published, will fill enough pages to tell your story:

·         One page contains 44 lines averaging 10 words per page for a total of 440 words.  Readers are intimidated by large blocks of lines, so have enough paragraphing and “white space” on each page to be “reader-friendly.”

·         Page count should fall within a range that fits most of today’s genres and reader expectations (350 to 700 pages), giving total word count between 154,000 and 308,000.

·         Contemporary readers prefer shorter chapters than those from previous generations.  Five to ten pages is a suitable lower limit.

·         Professional writers can produce 3 pages daily and expect the time to write equals the time to revise and edit.  One novel per year seems reasonable if you are serious.  


 Tools of the Trade


   Like a good carpenter, a writer needs a set of tools to get the job done.  Assemble yours before starting:

·         A comfortable and quiet place to compose.  Today, that means a computer and most likely Microsoft Word.

·         A designated time.  Schedule a time EACH DAY to put words into a document.  Doing so will help overcome procrastinating and wasting time.

·         Online References (Dictionary, Thesaurus, List of Commonly Misused English Words.)  Use google.com to locate and open them when you need them. 

·         Reference books.  Even the best writers must review Grammar (Syntax and Semantics) regularly because it is easy to become “lazy.”  I constantly use a set of reference books (and the Internet) to check my writing.  There is a plethora of great grammar books; I will list some of my favorites.

o   Simon and Schuster Handbook for Writers by Lynn Troyka

o   Grammar Desk Reference by Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson

o   Guide to Concise Writing by Robert Fiske

o   The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

I have read them (and others) thoroughly, and each day I pick one for reviewing a particular point of interest.  Don’t try to memorize them; instead, make mastery of grammar a lifelong game.  And you don’t have to study Linguists as I have.  Simply master the grammar of the language you write in.  And critics and readers alike give contemporary novelists leeway for expanding the range of acceptable grammar.  But my advice is to follow today’s accepted norms for your genre, especially when starting.



People read novels to learn or to be entertained.  You, the author, can do this by interweaving Characters (for developing reader empathy) and Plot (for keeping readers spellbound) in a Setting (for making the blend come alive).  For your novel’s genre, draw from your reading experience what makes for strong characters and plots.  But before you delineate characters and plot, make sure you can summarize in a line or two what is the theme and thesis you will explore. 

   Theme is the overarching “Big Idea” your novel covers.  Thesis is a focused theme.  I’ll illustrate them using my “Lightning Brain” series. 

·         The theme for all books in the series is this: extraordinary people are sometimes victims of a primitive world that can’t handle the truth, but no matter how exceptional they are they must still deal with the complexities of being “merely human,” best handled with an optimistic and pragmatic philosophy.

And here is the thesis for the fourth book, The Girl Who Cloned Lightning:

·         This book, the fourth in the Lightning Brain Series, is the sequel to The Girl Who Commanded Lightning, and it traces an action-packed trail of technological and political intrigue running through Electra Kittner’s professional and personal lives. Electra – now an Electra-Alisha split personality infected with an STD-like T-Plague mutation – must cure herself first before battling a new set of enemies in Cyber as well as 3-D Space.    She must also contend with a relentlessly harsh government as well as random acts of terrorism masterminded by a rogue paramilitary force allied with China and Russia.


   Think of your thesis as the foundation for building your plot as soon as you populate it with characters.  (Consider characters and plot Siamese twins; you will develop and revise them in concert.)  Then you create a setting: a world in which your plot unfolds.    

A plot traces the chronological journey of your novel, encompassing the “ups and downs” that occur.  A great way to picture it is like the letter “W.”  The leftmost downstroke is the first act; the middle two form the second, and the rightmost upstroke the third. Each stroke accounts for roughly 25% of the pages. Predicaments and outlook darken when tracing downward and lighten tracing upward. And here is a classic interpretation:

  • The first act sketches enough of the main character (aka protagonist), setting, and challenges to hook the reader.
  • The second act begins when some event “triggers” the protagonist’s quest for success.  Conditions improve until midway through the second act some “surprise” causes a reversal of fortune that leads to a crisis/decision point marking the end of act two.
  • The third act takes the protagonist from the depths to a climactic event that ushers in “success” and resolution that ends the novel.

You determine trigger, quest, success, and resolution events to match your story.

     There are two broad categories of novels: character-driven and plot-driven.  Character-driven stories focus on peoples’ inner transformations and relationships showing how emotion and personality drive decisions, whereas plot-driven books emphasize fast-paced action.  Every novel combines both.  Literary novels, like those written by Jane Austen, weight character more than plot; Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park series reverses it.  You decide what works for you.

   And there are two broad categories of characters: rounded and flat.  Rounded characters are those whose personalities are nuanced, and they often “grow” as the story unfolds.  Flat characters, by contrast, are often stereotypes (don’t make them caricatures!) that serve as foils or shields for the main and supporting characters.


Basic Plots

  Literary experts claim that every book can be pigeonholed into one of these basic plots:

  • Overcoming the Monster stories involve a hero who must destroy a monster (or villain) that is threatening the community.
  • The Rags to Riches plot involves a hero who seems quite commonplace, poor, downtrodden, and miserable but has the potential for greatness. The story shows how the hero manages to fulfill his potential and become someone of wealth, importance, success and happiness.
  • Quest stories involve a hero who embarks on a journey to obtain a great prize that is located far away.
  • Voyage and Return stories feature a hero who journeys to a strange world that at first seems strange but enchanting. Eventually, the hero comes to feel threatened and trapped in this world and must he must make a thrilling escape back to the safety of his home world.
  • Rebirth stories show a hero (often a heroine)trapped in a living death by a dark power or villain until freed by another character’s loving act.
  • Rebellion Against ‘The One’ concerns a hero who rebels against an all-powerful entity that controls the world until it is forced to surrender to that power.
  • Comedy is a story which is humorous or satirical and often has a happy ending.
  • Tragedy is a story in which the Story Goal is not achieved (outcome=failure) and the hero does not resolve his inner conflict happily (judgement=bad).
  • Mystery is a story in which an outsider to some horrendous event or drama (such as a murder) tries to discover the truth of what happened. Often what is being investigated in a mystery is a story based on one of the other plots.

      What I’ve just listed should get you started, and I recommend you glance at a book written by the famous mythologist, Joseph Campbell: The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  It articulates plots according to the path taken by the main character.  (I’ll revisit plots in a subsequent article.)


Character Types

   As with plot, also with characters.  They fall into these distinct categories:

  • Main Character (protagonist) This is the person your story revolves around. Most of the time it’s also your narrator, but not always. The majority of books only have one protagonist.
  • Side-kick. Sometimes called the second-in-command to your protagonist. If your main character has a partner, that is the side-kick.
  • Villain (antagonist).  The person or thing that causes your protagonist all the drama. It doesn’t have to be a person, though. Antagonists can be internal, too. Mental health issues such as anxietydepression, or stress can cause just as many problems for your protagonist as another person or creature with an axe to grind. There can be multiple villains.
  • Love interest. It’s the person your protagonist is destined to fall in love with, even if only temporarily. You may wish to toy with your readers by having your protagonist and love interest not get together, but be careful because if you drag this out for too long it can get frustrating and cause you to lose readers. You can put in more than one.
  • Mentor. The mentor is the person that guides your protagonist through their journey (whatever that may be). Most mentors die at some point during the story.
  • Narrator. This is the person who tells your story. If you’re writing in first person, this will likely be your protagonist. If you’re writing in third person, you are the narrator, but you don’t want your reader to be aware of this. You still want them to forget all about you and focus on the actions of your characters.
  • Secondary Character. There are usually several. They join your hero for the journey and add depth and complexity, allowing you to expand your story by adding subplots
  • Tertiary Character. There are usually many. They are like “function words” (prepositions, conjunctions, and expletives) because they fill in wherever needed to support the overall story. You can provide less background for them than for protagonists or secondary characters, but give enough to make them believable. And avoid making them caricatures.


   You don’t have to include every type of character.  Use the ones you need to make your story come alive.

   There can be other classifications for plots and characters, but they usually contain a manageable number of categories, so ask yourself this question:  Why have millions of books have been written? Because there are so many combinations.  And this is the time for your creativity and imagination to come out and play.

   Once you pick your overall theme and thesis, start choosing a plot and characters.  As you do this, you will iteratively add subplots and additional characters and settings that will make your book even more captivating. Authors who are planners document as much detail as they can before starting to write.  Pantsers, on the other hand, just start writing, which sparks their imagination.  Either way, you will revise your characters and plots as you proceed.  And as soon as you can, write a synopsis for your novel.

   A synopsis is a concise summary of overall plot (at most two pages).  Use it to generate interest among agents, publishers, readers, etc. You might also want to “storyboard” your novel, which deconstructs each chapter into scenes, each one characterized according to setting, characters, and a graphic as well as narrative description of what takes place.

  And you’re not done yet!  For each of your characters, write a physical and psychological description. Name them and list each one’s goals, motivations, obstacles, and storyline. Then, collect enough factual background (including, history, technology, geography, etc.) so you can write authoritatively.  You don’t need to be a “subject matter expert” on everything, but you must know enough to be credible.


   The more thorough you are on all the above, the smoother your writing will go because you won’t have to stop to fill in background information gaps.  And expect to update all of this as your writing journey continues.  

When you are satisfied that you have enough plot and character details written down, you can actually start doing what you’ve been impatiently waiting for: the moment to begin writing your novel.  For both planner and pantser, you start at the beginning: chapter one page one. Sit at your computer and begin typing.

   The more you do, the easier come the words; just let the sentences flow and don’t edit them.  Your goal should be to complete at least the first page and as much of the first chapter as your creativity and energy allow, but don’t burden yourself with unnecessary pressure.  And don’t be self-conscious about your writing voice or style. (I’ll talk about them in another article.)  Just write what comes naturally.

   Some authors like to write a chapter, rest a day, and then, coming back with a fresh set of eyes, do an initial edit. If you do that, here are basic style editing guidelines:

  • Place yourself in the background.
  • Write in a manner that comes naturally.
  • Follow your chapter/plot outline.
  • Write with nouns and verbs.
  • Do not overwrite or overstate.
  • Make sure the reader knows who’s speaking what dialogue.
  • Avoid fancy words and worn out clichés.
  • Be clear.

Don’t obsess over them. Time and practice will make them instinctive.


   If you stick to your plan, you can have the first draft completed in a couple of months.  And remember to update synopsis, storyboard, and character profiles periodically.  Then reward yourself by taking a break for a couple of weeks.  You’ve earned it!

  If this is your first novel, I recommend you pay a professional to do content and syntax editing after it has been read objectively by a couple friends or associates (aka beta readers’ group).  Although it will cost several thousand dollars, it is worth having it done one time. What you’ll get back is a redlined manuscript containing recommended syntactical and semantical changes.

   I had this done on my very first novel. After considering all the recommendations, I made only a handful because I knew more about modern novels’ writing techniques than the editor.  And then I went to work thoroughly self-editing. While doing so, I discovered numerous typos and syntax errors the professional editor missed.  Please remember this: no one can edit your book better than you, once you have gained enough experience.

   I enjoy self-editing and continually re-read a book I previously told you to buy, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I’ll bullet point some of what it says, and the more you read and write, the more its techniques become automatic.

  • Show, don’t tell.  Narrative is telling, whereas dialogue or action is showing.  Your writing must have both, but edit in more showing; edit out more telling.
  • Don’t dump too much characterization or exposition at one time.  Supply it in useful chunks to readers via dialogue and action.
  • Keep the POV (point of view) obvious.  POV refers to who is narrating the story: first person, third person (one of the characters – usually the protagonist), or omniscient.  You can use multiple POVs throughout the book, but don’t jerk from one to another.
  • Spend the right amount of words on each scene.  More on major, less on minor.
  • Make Dialogue Attribution transparent. You must make sure the reader knows who is speaking.  Some writers avoid the standard “he said, she said” mechanics as much as possible, but they run the risk of annoying readers by contriving awkward substitutes.  Sometimes you can skip attribution mechanics if the speaker’s identity is clear from the context. 
  • Read aloud the dialogue.  Words come out differently when speaking instead of writing.  You want your characters’ dialogue to sound much like normal speech (though not as rambling).  And choose words that mimic each character’s personality.  
  • Use interior monologue appropriately.  It is the discussion going on inside a character’s head (usually reserved for the protagonist or a major character), and is a great place to relate what and how the person is thinking.  You don’t need to enclose it in quotes.  Though not necessary, I place it in italics.  There is no rule governing how much to have.  Again, use judgment gained by reading and writing.
  • Describe only once.  Every writer has a tendency to tell what they’re going to tell before telling it, which adds to verbiage and subtracts from reader surprise.  So, guard against this and remember that it’s OK not to tell all details.  Leave some for the readers to fill in.

   You will need to make several editing passes.  Pause at least a couple of days before the next.  I am always surprised how many changes I can make even after I have edited thoroughly several times.  

What's Next

You will want to submit your manuscript to Kirkus Reviews because you need an objective source evaluate it.  There are other reviewing services, but you only need one.  Kirkus is the gold standard, so use it. It will take several hundred dollars and perhaps three months to get your book reviewed. And though adequate, it won’t provide as in-depth an analysis like those found in the New York Times.  However, turn some of their comments into back cover quotes as a stamp of approval.

      If you are an unpublished author, it is unlikely a traditional agent will answer your query letters.  Most are too busy promoting the authors they have under contract.  But there are some authors whose first novel is picked up by a traditional agent or publisher.  What’s their secret?

   Actually, it’s no secret; it’s how marketing works.  They have contacts that get them in front of decision makers.  And sometimes, their contacts have to “pay to play.”  I have checked a number of “popular” first novels handled traditionally.  In all cases, the author either worked in a publishing-related field or knew someone who had contacts.

   As I was writing my first novel, I sent out thirty query letters, attaching the book’s synopsis, to test my expectations, and I got back exactly what I predicted: nothing except form rejection letters in those few cases the agents answered. If it weren’t for the publishing revolution caused by technological innovation self-publishers use, I would be waiting forever to publish.

   In all likelihood, you’re going the self-publishing route and are ready to send your manuscript to the publisher you have chosen.  The publisher will set manuscript into galley proof and develop front and back covers.  And it always takes longer than you want to get them back.  And then you must read them carefully for more editing because the self-publisher might have accidentally inserted typos or you missed some.