How many words in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? 561,996.
Wow. I heard Penelope Lively, one of my favorite authors, talk about book length; she noted that a disproportionate number of her favorite novels were short. She mentioned William Golding in particular whose Lord of the Flies comes in at 59,900 words.
I take solace in Ms. Lively’s comments. So many of my thriller-writing friends and colleagues whine that their editors are making them cut their manuscripts from, say, 140,000 words down to 120,000. Still 120,000 words is a long book. I think there’s a certain machismo among thriller authors that impels them to write big books, books that take some effort to heft, books that take up lots of room on the shelf.
When I write, I have the opposite problem. My first draft typically comes in around 50,000 words and then I have to figure out how to lengthen it. One reason for the short length is that I don’t do outlines. In my hurry to find out what happens next to my characters, I sometimes write too cryptically in draft #1. I know what’s happening in my head but do not put enough on the page for a reader to follow. Filling in the necessary details is a chore for subsequent drafts.
Why am I so sensitive about word count right now? On August 20, my next book, A Fine and Dangerous Season, will be a Nook First selection. (That means it’s available for download exclusively on Barnesandnoble.com for four weeks.) It’s 61,865 words long, about the same length as Erich Maria Remarque's classic, All Quiet on the Western Front.
I suspect a thriller that length works better as an ebook. The machismo of carrying around a 500-page tome disappears because a Nook or Kindle is the same handy size no matter how big the book files inside it are.