Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How Writers Can Save Their Readers’ Backs

Forty-nine years ago tomorrow, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. My guest today is Keith Raffel, whose newest thriller, A Fine and Dangerous Season, takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which Kennedy was, of course, a major player. Today, though, Keith considers the question that most writers grapple with at some point: how long is a book? Thanks for being here, Keith.  ~ Sheila

How many words in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? 561,996.
Wow. I recently heard Penelope Lively, one of my favorite authors, talk about book length.  She noted that a disproportionate number of her favorite novels were short and 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 novel-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 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 the next draft.  Writer Catriona McPherson says, "The second draft is like cleaning up after a great party."

If I’m a little sensitive about word count right now – well, as Steven Martin would say, “Excuse me.”  Microsoft Word counts 61,865 words in my latest,  A Fine and Dangerous Season.  The good news is that Fine and Dangerous is published only as an ebook.  A Nook or Kindle carrying my book weighs the same as one that’s just downloaded a 500-page sprawling multi-generational saga.  If only ebooks had been available 50 years ago, Mr. Golding would have suffered no embarrassment at the slenderness of his classic and the backs of thousands of undergraduates would have not ached from hauling around Ms. Rand’s masterwork.
Keith Raffel’s stints as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee and Silicon Valley entrepreneur inspired him to try his hand at writing mysteries and thrillers. His fourth novel, A Fine and Dangerous Season, is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Published  just in time for the 50th anniversary of the crisis, it’s available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Gayle Lynds, the  bestselling author and co-founder of International Thriller Writers, called Keith “a master storyteller” and praised A Fine and Dangerous Season as “a rare historical novel exciting and utterly believable with Jack Kennedy as you’ve never seen him.” Check the latest on what Keith's up to at


Happy Thanksgiving, everyone - be safe!


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  1. My book came in at about 127,000 words and the agents who really liked it said, to sell it, I would have to cut it by about 40,000 words. But then two of them added disclaimers, saying "not to listen" to them. I went back to the manuscript and toiled over it, slashing and cutting, but had already cut it drastically from the original length so I let it be. Maybe in years to come I will decide I could have shown more restraint, but it is such an easy read, and the real reason for the concern about length is the cost of printing and taking those risks on an unknown author. So, at exactly 400 pages, I will see if its legs can carry its heft out into the world.