“I Thought Up This Title in the Bath” (by Mat Coward)

Mat Coward’s latest short story for EQMM, “Yeah, I Meant to Do That,” appears in our current issue (March/April 2021). The British author’s novels span the genres of crime, fantasy, and science fiction, but he’s particularly distinguished in the mystery field for his short stories, which have twice earned Edgar nominations. He has a unique voice—but not in the way he laments here! If you haven’t tried his fiction yet, do. You’ll find it compelling. —Janet Hutchings

If you want an illustration of the unfairness of it all, just think how insomnia makes an exception for nightmares. 

When I first started writing short stories, I used to produce two kinds—funny and not-funny—and it was a while before I realised that I was the only one who knew there was a difference.

The writer doesn’t decide what a story’s about. Readers decide what a story’s about, and it follows that they’re also the ones who decide whether it’s funny or serious. And if it has jokes in it, they will decide that it’s funny, which is well-known to be the opposite of serious.

The important thing is to remember that it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, because it really does, I’m saying the important thing is to remember that it doesn’t matter. 

Other writers have a much easier life than me. I know this, as every writer knows it; as every writer who’s ever been has known it. I picture all the other writers in their smart, clean, tidy offices, writing rooms, their writing spaces, fragrant and organised, everything in its place, where they can lay their hands on anything in a minute as opposed to, say, a month or a lifetime. 

Their plots mirror their working lives: neat, unholed, flowing. In fact, in point of fact, I happen to know they use flowcharts to marshal the smooth blossoming of their plots. I don’t know what a flowchart is but I do know that it wouldn’t work for me, in the sense of cooperate with me, even if I knew what it was. Actually, I might be thinking of spreadsheets, but since I don’t know what those are either it’s not important. 

Other writers don’t constantly get their timing wrong, always, every time they write anything. This is true of all other writers, as all other writers know. A decade ago I wrote a near-future police procedural novel in which people avoid shaking hands for fear of infection with epidemic germs. Imagine if that had come out a month before the COVID? I’d be a millionaire by now. I’d be retired. They’d ask me to write a blog post for Ellery Queen and I’d say, “I’m sorry I can’t I’m going to be spending the next three weeks choosing a pair of carpet slippers.” My uniquely bad timing cost me that. 

(That wasn’t the whole plot by the way, the not shaking hands, that was just an incidental detail. Because that would have been a bit low-concept even by my standards.)

Other writers, all other writers, are able to write in their heads. I’ve heard them boasting about it, about how they get stuck on a story and how they go for a walk—or they go for a jog, the really boasty ones—and by the time they get home they’ve solved the problem. I’ve never been able to do that. The other day I had a twenty-minute walk to the doctor’s and I determined to use it fruitfully, working out how the detective inspector knew that the giant sausage was hollow. Because from the outside it looked solid. In the event, I spent the whole trip to the surgery trying to remember the name of a guy who played for Middlesex County Cricket Club in the mid-1980s. Then I spent the whole trip back trying to remember why I’d been trying to remember his name. Middlesex isn’t even my team! I never did remember his name, anyway, so at least there’s that.

I can’t write except by writing, unlike all other writers. I never have been able to. And when I say writing, I mean typing: a pen and paper are no help, I have to be sat at the keyboard for every single word. The way I plot is by brute force. Brutish force. “He was a leading, and the sole, practitioner of what came to be known as the British Brutish style, due to the sheer inelegance of its construction.”

I type “Maybe the husband killed the wife because she wouldn’t agree to a divorce.” But that’s too obvious, so I actually, physically, type on the next line “But that’s too obvious.” Then I go down a line and type “OK so perhaps he killed her because she would give him a divorce. For some reason yet to be established that meant he had to kill her.” On the next line I’ll type “But that’s only one degree of twist; think we need two degrees here—three, if no twist in final paragraph.” Then I go for a walk, which doesn’t help at all, and when I come back I go down another line and type “Possibly he didn’t kill her, possibly the burglar killed her, because she wouldn’t give the burglar a divorce,” and then under that I type “Is that too ridiculous though?” and under that I put “Yes, obviously it is.” And this’ll go on for weeks, while all the other writers are picking their kids up from school and returning home with entire trilogies in their mental notebooks.

I have a real, legitimate phobia about starting story titles with “A” or “The” and I have no idea why, except possibly it’s because I used to work in a public library where one of my jobs was typing up index cards for new stock and you’d write the title as “Case of the hairy heiress, The,” and I developed a horror of seeing my own as-yet unwritten titles ruined by inversion. Whatever the cause, I really envy other writers because none of them suffer from irrationality in their writing habits. 

All other writers, their fingers nimbler or at least more easily reprogrammed than mine, can type the word “them” without it coming out as “therm,” which is just my luck because it’s a real word, so the spellcheck doesn’t highlight it. If I could only train myself to type “threm” instead there’d be no problem. All the other writers in the world type threm, I just know they do. 

What I don’t know, and what I often find myself wondering about, especially when I’m taking a walk, is whether all the other writers in the world realise how lucky they are. 

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6 Responses to “I Thought Up This Title in the Bath” (by Mat Coward)

  1. Jon L. Breen says:

    Mat, this was great. Clearly, you are one of those writers (Paul Levine is another) who can be both deadly serious and hilariously funny in the same story–or even the same sentence!

    Ed Hoch once said that every time he tried to write something funny, people took if seriously.

  2. Mat says:

    Thanks, Jon!
    There’s no doubt that having your jokes taken seriously is more perilous than having your seriouses taken jokily.

  3. Robert Lopresti says:

    Lord, that was funny. I very much enjoyed the current con man story. I don’t write while jogging, by the way, but I often plot on my bicycle. Your mileage may vary, ha ha.

    • Mat says:

      Thanks, Robert!

      Hope you’ve checked that Plotting Whilst In Charge of a Moving Vehicle isn’t a misdemeanour in your state …

  4. Wynn Quon says:

    Curse those Other Writers!
    What a delightfully funny and truthful piece. Thanks for this.

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