Coming Up Short

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, bemoaning the fact that I’ve made it through the last chapter of the second draft of the first book in a new cozy mystery series . . . and I’m still 12,000 words short of the minimum length my publisher requires.


Now I should point out that I write multiple drafts of every book, with long breaks to let the writing “gel” between revisions, and that each of my drafts tends to be longer than the previous one. However, twelve thousand words—that’s roughly fifty typewritten pages—is a pretty big gap at this stage, even for me. To tell you the truth, I’m a little worried. You see, as far as I can tell, I’ve covered all the plot points I need to, I’ve done as much character development as is necessary to make these people believable, and I’ve successfully planted all my clues and red herrings. I could be wrong—my judgment may be off, since I’m so close to the project—but assuming that I’m not, I’m in a bit of a pickle.

My contract says I owe the publisher a novel running somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 words. The only way 63,000 words would make the cut is if every page had lots and lots of “white space” and although I do write some dialog in short, pithy single sentences, that’s not really my style, let alone the style of the characters.

Padding for the sake of word count is also out. You might remember the song, “The Book Report” from the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Lucy has 95 words. She needs 100. She writes: “The very, very, very end.” This is obviously not a good solution, no matter how long the piece of writing.

So where am I going to find all those additional words? Good question.

Some will come naturally when I do the next pass, what I call a “read thru/revision” of the whole manuscript. My rough (first) draft came out to a little over 50,000 words. So, yes, I added 13,000 words when I revised, but no way can I add another 12,000 words to my opus by adding more descriptive details and replacing vague words with specific ones. Even finding areas that need a bit more exposition to clarify what is going on won’t help much.

Fortunately I have some time before the book is due. One obvious solution is to add a second subplot, or perhaps simply enlarge upon the subplot I already have. Here’s the set up: Mikki Lincoln, a woman my age (or, at least she was my age when I originally wrote the proposal—now she’s a couple of years younger than I am!) has been happily living in Maine with her husband for the last forty-plus years. When she’s widowed, she decides on impulse to move back to her old home town in New York’s Catskill Mountains after fifty years away. The trigger for this drastic step was finding a listing for her childhood home in the real estate ads. When the book opens, she and her cat have moved into this house and Mikki is worrying about how she’s going to pay for the extensive repairs it needs. Then she has an idea. She’s a retired English teacher. Why not set up shop as a freelance editor—a book doctor? Cut to a couple of months later, when this plan seems to be going well . . . until one of Mikki’s first clients ends up dead. Solving the murder, of course, is the main plot. The subplot deals with Mikki adjusting to old friends and old stomping grounds that have undergone some pretty drastic changes in half a century.

I have had one idea for a new scene. It revolves around the requirement that Mikki get a new driver’s license and license her car in New York State. I see the experience as having humorous elements. Now all I have to do is figure out how it can also advance the main plot. Maybe not every single word of the 75,000 has to push forward toward the solution of the crime—some can simply develop character—but I can’t just throw a scene in for the heck of it, either.

If I do write that scene, it will run 1000-1500 words. That will still leave me way short of what I need. I guess the real question I’m asking myself at this stage is what is padding and what is not. Obvious information dumps are out, but what about reminiscences?

I’ve already included quite a few glimpses of Mikki’s past, as well as a number of scenes with her cat, Calpurnia. Mikki talks to the cat. The cat does not talk back. There are also a few scenes with Mikki editing manuscripts. I’ve gone lightly on the details, save for mentioning the occasional pet peeve, because I’m leery of overdoing this.

The real “Calpurnia”

What do you think, those of you reading this blog? What do you like to find included in a cozy mystery, aside from the mystery itself? Do you enjoy reading lots of character backstory? Do you want a hint of romance? What about details of the protagonist’s profession—how much is too much? Any and all comments will be much appreciated.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse ~ UK in December 2016; US in April 2017) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are and


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27 Responses to Coming Up Short

  1. I know the feeling, Kathy! I always write sparse, and always manage to get up to somewhere near the required minimum. But I’ve also learned that my editor will acccept too-short manuscripts with nary a comment, so you could try that if you get close.

    I always like a hint, or more, of romance, and that could be a continuing subplot. Maybe he has an idea about the murder that your protag runs with.

  2. Jacki York says:

    I agree with Edith- a romantic subplot always adds a nice layer of interest.

    I also really enjoy an historical subplot- maybe something from the character’s previous life in NY or something connected to her childhood home.

    Good luck!

    • Thanks Jacki,
      Romance has to be on hold for the moment (see my answer to Edith) but bits and pieces of history could well creep in. Her family goes back many generations in this particular town.

  3. Monica says:

    Foreshadowing for next book? Meeting the neighbors? Finding out the old high school nemesis turned out OK after all? (Possible sidekick material.) Realizing it isn’t easy to move back into ones childhood home after all? If she’s civic-minded, she could join some clubs. Or, if she’s not, there could be strife as every club in town knocks on the door, interrupting her work day.

    • Good idea about doing more with the neighbors, who are all new since she lived there last. The old high school nemesis is already a key player (and has NOT changed all that much). Another high school friend has the role of sidekick and an important part to play. I like the idea of joining a club to get reacquainted with the community. Might even be the setting for a future book in the series.

  4. Thank you for posting, I am in the last throes of a first draft of my first mystery and though I am sorry for your problem, I appreciate hearing about a problem and ideas for solving it to meet a publisher’s requirements.

    A few ideas as I sit here this morning: I like the driver’s license/ car registration issue. I know it’s not 10,000 words, but because it is humorous, I think it might be extended into several scenes. All of us have had issues with motor vehicles…… in New Jersey, to obtain a license, one needs several forms of identification and them several more to prove one lives at the address noted. It isn’t easy! I only had one picture ID and that wasn’t enough. People get sent back home for insufficiencies all the time. If you’ve just moved, can’t find an old passport, passport is expired for too long etc, there’s a problem. You get the idea.

    Here in Maine, I was afraid I wasn’t going to pass the eye test….another issue. My aunt had a problem with motor vehicles because she constantly lied about her age. When social security and MV started doing computer matching to confirm identities, she didn’t match…. her explanation that “everyone does it” was not met with smiles. So, what I am suggesting it that several trips to the DMV, growing frustration and silly red tape can add some to the word count.

    I wouldn’t mind hearing about the editing she is doing if it adds humor. I have edited two books, both quilting books. I re-wrote instructions for the projects. I know how to sew, but what if the person editing didn’t? I can also imagine being asked to edit some rich person’s pet project (a tome of boring family history) and the person being resistant to suggestions to his/her writing style. Or, perhaps a town project (history of the town, garden club, local church, whatever) and resistance to editorial changes which are humorous.

    I hope these ideas help; I am sure you will receive many other fine ideas. You are in the home stretch and I am confident you will get there.

    • Hi, Valerie,
      Oooh, great ideas, especially the one about trying to edit a book on a topic she knows nothing about. I was already thinking of a town history project for the second book, so lots of possibilities there. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Karen Whalen says:

    I enjoy subplots that deal with the secrets that suspects are hiding but that don’t end up having anything to do with the actual murder. This is one way to add information about her old friends or the town itself. I am ok with “padding” the plot with details about her occupation or by adding a romance as long as it doesn’t read as though you padded the plot. I assume that’s an art in and of itself!! Good luck!!

    • Hi, Karen,
      Good point about secrets other characters have. I have done a little of this with one character, but could probably do more. I’ve been wary of making Mikki too much of a busybody. Curious, yes. Pushy about knowing everything that’s going on, no. Sometimes it’s a fine line.

  6. Sennebec says:

    Add a politician. They’re NEVER at a loss for words.

    • Ah, John–always the one to supply the unexpected answer! And I will admit to stealing a bit of a certain political figure’s businessman past to add negative traits to a character.

  7. Gram says:

    I am looking forward to this one…it will be interesting to see if you take a suggestion or two from the comments or go in another direction.

  8. Heidi Wilson says:

    My favorite cozies always contain a lot of material about what I might call specialty issues that have nothing directly to do with the plot. Best example: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, which is full of hilarious insights into the copywriting profession. She did the same in The Nine Tailors, but I found bell-ringing far less amusing. In both cases, the specialty issue is integrated tightly with the plot, but only at one point. All the rest of it is for fun (though maybe it distracts the reader from the point of contact.) In your case, your protagonist is in the Catskills. How about bringing in the remnants of the old Borscht Circuit comedians who played the Catskill resorts? Plenty of humor in the jokes, and maybe some pathos in the retired comedians.

    • Good thoughts, Heidi. I can probably do more with the book editing. Of course, it’s going to be her profession throughout the series, so a little per book will go a long way. Same with the bits of Catskill history, but the real problem is that Mikki’s world (read my world back in the day) and that world never really overlapped. A few people I knew worked at the local hotels, but most spent their time in town and had jobs at Woolworth’s or the phone company. We wanted tourist dollars but not necessarily their company. The local swimming hole, which was for town residents only, does play a part in the story.

  9. Mary Lou Hofmann says:

    Sounds like you are getting some good suggestions from your author colleagues. I selfishly would like to hear more about her high school days – people, events, activities. In addition to trying to solve the mystery as I read the book, trying to deduce who might be who (or a compilation of whos) and finding elements from my HS days (think Safety Patrol in one of your early books!) would be great fun. Love the idea of perhaps planting the seed of a romance to blossom in future books with someone from her high school days. Also it if it hasn’t been included already, would love to hear about the special quality of time and place of where she grew up – rural area mingled with sophistication and celebrity of “the City.” I am loving this book already, regardless of the number of words! Keep at it!

    • Thanks, Mary Lou. I’m working in bits and pieces you’ll recognize. You’ll undoubtedly recognize houses, too, but not (I hope) any specific people. What I found fascinating at our reunions was that different events stood out in memory for different people. You’d think, since we all did so many things together that there would be more overlap!

  10. Beth Clark says:

    Perhaps when she returns to her childhood home she finds something from her childhood in the house; or something left by previous owners. Maybe the house had a story to tell.

    • That’s a definite possibility for a future book, especially if I combine my old house with the one my grandfather built. We lived in the upstairs apartment there until I was three or so and one of my Little Golden Books really did turn up years later down behind a radiator. In the house we live in now, we still occasionally find something from previous owners. When we renovated last summer, it was marbles.

      • Beth Clark says:

        Neat. I have been drafting a blog about objects we have found in old houses so will be interested to see if you incorporate that.

  11. Barb Ross says:

    I always have this problem. It’s the thing that causes me the most stress during the writing process. Fortunately, as Edith says, my (our) editor will accept shorter manuscripts. But maybe that’s only for mass market paperbacks?

    You’re written great stuff here on the blog about your family’s history in the Catskills. I would love to read some of that, maybe as a set up to a mystery down the road?

    • Hey, Barb–wish I could use one of the solutions you found and add recipes to the end, but there are absolutely no cooking or baking or food connections in either of my series. I’m thinking of adding a few of Mikki’s pet grammar peeves to the end, but I’ll have to be careful not to overdo. And I’ll have to be careful to be right! As for Catskills history, I’ve used some of that already. One of the books Mikki is editing is a novel about the days when Murder Incorporated (ie the Mob) used to dump the bodies of their enemies in a nearby lake. That was back in the 1930s. Fun times!

  12. Can Calpurnia play a bigger role? Maybe she can dig up a clue.
    Good luck finding more words!

    • More cat scenes are always good. She is in quite a few already, and takes her role as “ferocious guard cat” very seriously. Cats have good instincts about people, so in my other series I’ve tried to keep the villain away from the heroine’s cat. Otherwise everyone would probably figure out who the bad guy is much too soon. I’m thinking I should create a villain for this series (although not necessarily in this book) who gets along just fine with animals.

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