A Brief FAQ on Dover Beach and The Distance Beacons

These are private eye novels that take place after a nuclear war of some sort.  Is this some kind of weird SF subgenre?

Beats me.  They weren’t based on anything I read, and I haven’t subsequently read anything else like them.  This is surely not the most commercial concept anyone has ever had, as the folks at Bantam let me know.

What possessed you to write them?

I became fond of the narrator, Walter Sands, and his narrative voice. He is not a very good private eye, but he wants to live his dream, in spite of the obvious obstacles to it.  And I liked his friends.

What’s the difference between the two novels?

Dover Beach introduces the post-nuclear world and Walter’s relationship to it.  The Distance Beacons focuses on one aspect of this world: what kind of government do people want or need, after the old government has apparently failed so miserably?

I liked Senator.  Will I like these novels?

I dunno.  They all have twisty plots.  They all take place, mostly, around Boston.  So there’s that.

I hated Senator.  Will I hate these novels?

Probably.

What are the details of the nuclear war that took place before the action of the novels?  It’s never described.

I dunno.  I don’t think it’s all that important.

Will we see more of Walter Sands and this world?

Yes.

Dover Beach and The Distance Beacons ebooks now available!

These two novels have arrived at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  They’ll show up at other sites, like iBooks, shortly. Dover Beach is available for the minuscule price of $2.99, and The Distance Beacons for the only slightly less minuscule price of $3.99.

Here are the links for Dover Beach on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  And here is the cover, designed by Jim McManus:

DOVER-BEACH-COVER1L

A description of Dover Beach, along with its first chapter, is here.  Previous posts that talk about Dover Beach are here and here.

Its sequel, The Distance Beacons, is also available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Here is its great Jim McManus cover:

DiSTANCE-BEACONS-COVER.final.L3

Learn more about The Distance Beacons here.

I’ll have more to say about these novels, now that I’ve finally managed to get their ebooks out the door.

Help! I need a title!

And it can’t be Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies, because that’s already taken, dammit.

For those of you just tuning in: I’ve got a sequel to my post-nuclear-war private eye novel Dover Beach; it is tentatively titled Locksley Hall.  I’m not convinced that the title Dover Beach ever did me any favors, and I’m even less convinced that Locksley Hall will be any better.  This post explains.

The hero of both novels, Walter Sands, is a bookish guy, so it makes sense that he would come up with a bookish title.  Locksley Hall, a poem by Alfred Tennyson, surely qualifies as bookish.  But I’m pretty convinced that no one is going to want to read a book with that title, unless maybe it’s a Regency romance.  On the other hand, I don’t want to give the novel a boring, self-explanatory title, like Walter Sands’s Second Case.

Locksley Hall is a weird poem in which the narrator is trying to come to grips with being dumped by his beloved.  He ends up getting past his personal unhappiness and giving a typical Victorian paean to the future and its wondrous possibilities.  Here is a couplet from near the end of the poem:

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

I have made this the epigraph of the novel. You will notice that, in the context of a novel that takes place after a limited nuclear war that has made a mess of everything and everyone, the Victorian optimism of the couplet is absurdly ironic. On the other hand, as we see by the end of the novel, it is not completely ironic; after many setbacks and a lot of self-doubt, the hero has solved his second case and is finally starting to feel good about his personal future, even if the world he inhabits is still a mess.

So how does the title The Distance Beacons strike you?  The first thing that you might notice about the title is that the grammar is misleading.  The tendency is to think of “beacons” as a plural noun–so what the heck are “distance beacons”?  Is that confusion bad?  Sometimes a title that grates on you a little is a good thing.  Think of The Sun Also Rises, which is a quote from the Bible that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until you really ponder the novel.  What is that “also” doing there?  (OK, OK, I’m no Hemingway.)

I’d love to know what you think.

Here, by the way, is the scene where Walter discusses titles with his friend Art, proprietor of Art’s Filthy Bookstore.  Walter is taking refuge there after being shot and chased by Federal soldiers.  “TSAR” is a shadowy group that calls itself “The Second American Revolution”.

**********

My friend Art is a pleasant-looking little old man with a long white beard. He is also a smut-peddler, but everyone’s got to eat. His store is filled with books and magazines that let people fantasize about a world they can never experience. He has his own fantasies, but they aren’t sexual: he dreams of literary soirées, of long philosophical discussions over a glass of sherry in faculty lounges, of a world where people can contemplate great ideas and meditate on the mysteries of life instead of brooding about the past (like Henry) or struggling just to stay alive. He feels that I am a kindred spirit, and I think he may be right.

“Walter!” he cried out when I staggered inside. “What happened to you?”

“Long story,” I mumbled. The prospect of finally getting some relief made me realize how exhausted I was.

He led me through the bookstore and into the back room where he lived. I lay down on his cot and closed my eyes while he bustled about, trying to find something he could use to bandage my arm. “I should tell you that you might get into trouble if the Feds find out I’m here,” I said. “They aren’t happy with me at the moment.”

I’m sure this didn’t please Art, but he was brave about it. “Then we’ll just have to keep the Feds from finding out,” he replied. He sat down next to the cot and began tending my wounds. “Now tell me everything,” he said.

I summarized for him the case so far. He shook his head in wonder as I described what I’d been through. “Why don’t you write about these things instead of living them?” he asked.

That had been Henry’s advice, too. “Maybe I will, if I ever get the chance. But right now I’ve got to figure out how to find Gwen before sunrise, or else TSAR says they’re gonna kill her.”

This was the kind of reality that made Art uncomfortable. It didn’t make me feel very good either. “But what can you do, Walter?” he asked. “How can you find her?”

I tried to think. I had no more theories. The only thing I could do was to find out what Gwen’s theory had been. How had she managed to find TSAR when no one else could? But to find out Gwen’s theory I had to somehow get to the Globe. “Have you got a bicycle, Art?”

“Well, yes, but—”

I struggled dizzily to my feet. “I’ve gotta go to Dorchester and talk to Gwen’s editor.”

“Don’t be a fool, Walter. You’ve got to rest. You won’t help Gwen if you collapse on the way—or if the Feds capture you again.”

I supposed he was right. “But I can’t just stay here,” I said.

“Look,” Art said. “Why don’t I send someone over to Bobby Gallagher’s place? Mickey can come pick you up and drive you to Dorchester.”

Bobby and Mickey once again. I decided to buy my own car once this was over and learn how to drive. Couldn’t I accomplish anything without help? “I dunno,” I said. I took a step; it wasn’t a very steady one. I sighed. “All right.”

“Good. Now rest.”

I sank back onto the cot and rested.

* * *

Art got a teenaged boy who lived next door to make the trip to South Boston for us. His payment was an ancient copy of Playboy, which sounded like a pretty good deal to me. While he was gone, Art cooked me some food and tried to keep my spirits up. “Have you thought about a title for your case yet?” he asked.

A title. When I had started on the case, I hadn’t thought it deserved one. Now, well—a title couldn’t hurt. But I sure was in no mood to come up with one. “Any suggestions?” I asked.

Art brought some scrambled eggs over to me, and I wolfed them down. He sat on a wooden chair next to the cot and considered. This was the sort of thing he enjoyed. “Your case really starts with the president and her dream, right?” he said after a while. “She thinks the referendum is the start of a great new age for America and the world.”

“I suppose so.”

“Then how about Locksley Hall for a title?” He smiled and quoted from the poem. “‘For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,/Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be.'”

“That’s some serious irony,” I said. I quoted from another part of the poem. “‘Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained a ghastly dew,/From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue.'”

“Irony is good in titles,” Art pointed out, and he topped my quote. “‘Till the war drum throbbed no longer, and the battle flags were furled,/In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”‘

The Parliament of man, the Federation of the world. The president was having some difficulty with her vision of the world. All we had gotten so far was the ghastly dew.

“It’s a bit obscure, don’t you think?  We’re probably the only two people in Boston who know that poem.”

“Why should that matter, Walter?  It’s not like anyone is going to read the book.”

“That’s a very good point.”

I finished my eggs, and we waited for Mickey.

 

Which is the better title: “Bride of the Slime Monster” or “Locksley Hall”?

Previously we looked at the titles Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies and Dover Beach and decided that Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies won hands-down. In fact, in my opinion Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies might be the most awesomest title ever.

Let’s consider Bride of the Slime Monster.  There’s no question that this is also an excellent title.  Short, funny, gives you a clear sense of what the book is all about.  Is it as good as Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies?  I think not, but I recognize that others may feel differently.  The cover is also pretty good.

Now, what are we to make of Locksley Hall?  I think it’s pretty clearly an awful title, except maybe for a Regency romance, with a cover showing an auburn-tressed young maiden running from an English country estate, her half-uncovered bosoms heaving with strong emotion.  While “Dover Beach” has the benefit of being the title of a somewhat familiar poem, nobody nowadays reads the 1842 poem “Locksley Hall” by Alfred Tennyson.  It’s too long, too hard to follow, and it’s got just this one memorable line: “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”  So memorable, in fact, that it has been totally decoupled from the poem in which it occurs.

So what kind of an idiot would title a science fiction novel Locksley Hall?  That kind of idiot would be me!  That’s what I named the long-unawaited sequel to Dover Beach.  If you think you have read this sequel, you are quite probably deluded.  But before too terribly long it will be an ebook you can put on your eshelf next to your dog-eared ecopy of the original novel.  Yay!

My original error, it seems, was in buying into my editor’s idea that naming a post-nuclear-war private-eye novel after a nineteenth-century poem was a good one.  So I decided that I should do the same thing for the sequel.  But when Bantam examined the box office receipts for Dover Beach, it decided that the market for post-nuclear-war private-eye novels named after a nineteenth-century poem wasn’t as strong at they had imagined it to be and, in spite of great reviews, they didn’t want to publish its already-completed sequel.  Boo!

Which isn’t to say that Locksley Hall is a bad title, in the sense that it is tightly integrated with the novel’s themes, in just the way that Dover Beach is. The poem “Locksley Hall” (that’s its author over there on the right) is all over the map.  In outline it is a standard romantic poem about lost love.  But it takes weird digressions into sexism, racism, and weirdest of all, science fiction.

Here is the SF-y passage, which seems to come out of nowhere:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;

Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;

Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.

My novel, it turns out, is about the attempt to form a better government as New England is recovers from the “ghastly dew” that rained upon it.  Some people are still dreaming of a parliament of man, a federation of the world, and other are thinking: You’ve got to be shitting me.  Look how well the old government worked out for us!

And in the middle of it all, Walter Sands stumbles onto his second case, and he has to figure out which side a private eye should be on.

The Sandman rides shotgun and quotes Titus Andronicus

Here is another excerpt from Dover Beach.  It’s early in the story, and our narrator is accompanying two of his friends on a trip to New Hampshire to do some business.  It’s nighttime, and it’s snowing out, and they’re far from what’s left of “civilization.”  Not a good combination in the world of this novel.

Our narrator, we are beginning to discover, has an odd literary bent.

*************

The road barely existed anymore. Hunched over the wheel, Mickey stared out through the snow and swerved constantly to miss the rocks and potholes and assorted debris. A broken axle up here would not be a good idea.

Bobby was nervous. When he’s nervous, he talks too much. “So she says, ‘Oh, it’s so hod to pot with all this. It’s been in the family for generations, you know. We godded it all through the Frenzy and now things are settling down, but what am I to do? One must eat, mustn’t one?’

” ‘Oh, certainly one must,’ I says. Jesus, they all make you feel like they’re doin’ you a favor, handing over their firstborn or something. But I’m not the one that’s starving. You know what I’m saying? Jesus, this snow’s a bitch.” Bobby leaned forward and peered out at an abandoned house. He doesn’t see very well. “I hate bein’ outside the city. I mean, the city is dangerous, but at least you know what’s goin’ on. There are rules, sort of. Who the fuck knows what’s goin’ on up here?”

Bobby sat in the middle, between Mickey and me. A shotgun rested between my legs. I held its smooth barrel in my right hand. The van’s heater was turned up full blast, and it felt great. I wished Bobby weren’t so nervous. He was making me nervous too.

We were off the highway now, passing by cold white fields and scrawny trees and rocks. Bobby was right: we didn’t belong here. Still, something stirred inside me—wisps of memories that were better left unremembered. “How much further, Mickey?” I asked.

“Not far,” he said. Mickey was about as talkative as Gwen.

Bobby drummed his fingers on his thighs. “This guy is so fuckin’ weird, Wally, you won’t believe it. It’s being stuck up here in the boonies, if you ask me. You got no human interaction, you know what I’m sayin’?”

“He has you. And O’Malley’s people.”

“O’Malley’s people. Shit. Talking to one of them’s like talking to a tree. This guy is so weird. Christ, I wish I could see something.”

Mickey was going even slower now. Eventually there was a light in the distance. “That’s it,” he said. We aimed for the light, and came to a stop in front of a large gate. The light shone down at us from behind the gate like a beacon from heaven. A dog was barking. I don’t like dogs.

“Get out with your hands up,” an amplified voice ordered. It sounded like God.

I looked at Bobby. “So fuckin’ weird,” he said, shaking his head. He motioned to me to get out. I left the shotgun behind and climbed down into the snow with my hands over my head. Bobby and Mickey did the same.

The gate swung open, and two figures appeared out of a shack. One stayed behind and trained a shotgun on us. The other moved forward. He had a revolver in one hand, a Doberman on a leash in the other; the Doberman was about the size of the van. The figure was wearing a knitted cap and a homemade sheepskin coat. He was about twelve.

He searched us. The Doberman growled when it was my turn. Good doggie. I kept my hands up. The boy found my Smith and Wesson and pocketed it. He found the shotgun in the van and gave it, and the Doberman, to the figure waiting by the gate.

The boy returned to us. “Okay,” he said. We all got into the van. The boy kept the revolver trained on Mickey, who drove slowly through the open gate. We passed the other figure, standing by the shack and restraining the Doberman. It was a girl, maybe a little younger than the boy. The Doberman kept barking. The gate clanged shut behind us. I felt as if I had crossed a border.

Here is a survival skill I have learned. Generally, when you come upon an isolated farm surrounded by barbed wire, with searchlights and Dobermans and shotguns in evidence, it is a good idea to move on. Quickly. Not tonight, however.

“So how do you like this snow?” Bobby asked the boy.

The boy didn’t reply.

“I don’t think there was this much snow in the old days,” Bobby went on. “Of course, they say that about a lot of things. But I think maybe they’re right about the snow. A lot more snow than there used to be.”

Bobby was nervous. I wished he would shut up.

The land extended flat and unbroken on both sides until it disappeared in the darkness. The road along which we were traveling was plowed and newly paved. We were headed for a sprawling house that blazed with light about a half mile in front of us. Several smaller buildings were scattered like seedlings around it. There was a large barn and a silo off to one side, and in the distance a windmill loomed like a creature from a fairytale.

“Stop,” the boy said when we had reached the house.

Mickey pulled up by the front porch.

Another figure stood by the door, holding another shotgun. The boy got out and waved, and the figure motioned for us to come in.

“Here goes,” Bobby muttered. We got out and crunched across the snow to the open door.

“Wipe your feet,” the figure commanded.

We wiped our feet and walked inside.

“Come with me.” The figure took off her cap—it was a girl with a misshapen face. We followed her while our senses reeled. Warmth: the house was warmer than the van, warmer than the Ritz; a month’s supply of logs blazed in a fireplace. Light: electric lights, shining out from chandeliers and sconces, reflecting off mirrors and polished mahogany furniture. Smells: the sharp sweet scent of burning birch, the rich aroma of something sweet being baked. Apple pie? Strudel?

Somewhere close by a piano was playing, children were laughing. I felt as if I had stepped into a storybook.

The deformed girl led us into a long dark room lit only by a coal fire. The room had a vaulted ceiling, tapestries on the wall, a Persian carpet on the floor. At the far end of an oak table sat a man with a gray beard and deep-set, glittering eyes. He was wearing a flowing white robe. Maybe I hadn’t stepped into a storybook; maybe I had stepped into the Bible. Maybe he was God.

“You may return to your post, Lavinia,” the man said in a deep, God-like voice.

The girl silently left the room. The man’s gaze turned to us: three travelers from a distant land, bearing gifts.

Not much to look at. Bobby is the only fat man I know—but it isn’t a healthy fat, a storybook fat. And his eyes are clouded, and his teeth are rotten. Mickey is short and has a shriveled arm. And I—well, I am reasonably normal, which means reasonably scrawny, reasonably scarred by life. I don’t think I look like a private eye.

“Please sit,” the man said.

We sat.

“I trust your drive was uneventful.”

“Wasn’t bad, Mr. Fitch,” Bobby said. “But the snow didn’t help matters much.”

“Ah, yes, the snow.” Mr. Fitch paused. “‘When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul.'” He fell silent then, as if he had exhausted his supply of sociability, or forgotten the next line. He looked as if he didn’t have much need for sociability. He sat straight and stiff as a pine tree, his hands folded on the table in front of him. His skin was leathery, his mouth hard. He scared me.

“We brought some very good merchandise,” Bobby said. “You’d be surprised at how much is still out there, if you know the right people.”

Mr. Fitch nodded, unsurprised. “I’ll take a look.”

“Want us to bring it right in here?”

Mr. Fitch unfolded a hand and gestured at the empty table.

Bobby stood up. “Great. Come on, boys.”

Mickey and I followed him back out to the van. Lavinia kept a careful watch on us from the front porch. “What’d I tell you about that guy, huh?” Bobby asked as Mickey opened the doors and jumped inside. “He’s got maybe thirty kids and half a dozen wives and he goes around lookin’ like the goddamn Lord of the Universe. Watch that stuff, Mickey, okay? It’s fucking fragile.”

I did most of the lugging. Mickey couldn’t help much because of his arm, and Bobby preferred talking to lifting. After a few trips back and forth we had covered the table with our stuff, and Bobby started his sales pitch. “Look at this china, Mr. Fitch. Rose Medallion. Service for six, plus assorted other pieces—almost perfect condition. See this portrait? Look at the signature: John Singer Sargent. He was famous. Ever see his murals in the Boston Public Library? That tea set is sterling silver. And you said you liked books, right? A complete set of Dickens—leather bindings, acid-free paper. I don’t think anyone ever opened them. Isn’t that something?”

Mr. Fitch examined everything while Bobby rattled on. He unwrapped every piece of china and stared at it. He took the painting out into the hall to study it in better light. I noticed he was wearing hiking boots under his biblical robe. Bobby was sweating. Mickey and I stood by the fire and waited.

“All right,” Mr. Fitch said eventually. “Come with me.” He strode outside and signaled to Lavinia, who fell in step behind us. We crossed to a long, narrow structure off to one side of the main house. He took out a key and opened the padlocked door, then went inside and flipped on an electric light. We followed him in.

It was a storage building—shelf after shelf of cartons jammed against the walls, a narrow aisle down the middle. Amazingly, the place was heated. We stood awkwardly in the aisle while Lavinia waited outside, her shotgun cradled in her arms.

“PC?” Mr. Fitch asked.

“Right,” Bobby said.

Mr. Fitch reached up and took down a small box. He opened it. The object inside was covered with bubbly plastic stuff. He unwrapped it.

It was not as beautiful as the china, but Bobby was not interested in beauty. He took it from Mr. Fitch and hefted it approvingly. It was a hard drive, I knew.  Not that I cared.  “How many?” he asked.

“I’ll give you twenty-five.”

“Are you crazy? I need fifty, or no deal.”

Mr. Fitch shrugged. “I haven’t got fifty.”

“Well, what else do you have? Got any ammo?”

Mr. Fitch stiffened. “I don’t deal in weaponry.”

“Okay, okay. How ‘bout software? And printers. How about them?”

Mr. Fitch and Bobby started dickering. I was impressed by how forceful Bobby was, considering that his entire future was on the line, and a girl stood ten feet away holding a shotgun she was clearly prepared to use. He obviously knew what he was doing, at any rate, because after a few tough minutes they had struck a deal, and I found myself lugging the precious equipment out to the van.

“Nice work,” I said to Bobby when he came to inspect.

“Thanks. He’s weird, but he’s a Yankee, and that means you can do business with him. Jesus, I could use a drink. Let’s go inside.”

I followed him back into the house, carefully wiping my feet before I entered.

Our merchandise had been cleared from the table. One of the Rose Medallion plates was piled high with pieces of cake. A solidly built woman with gray hair was pouring cups of tea, using the sterling silver tea set. I sat down next to Mickey, who was eyeing the cake with considerable interest.

“Can I get you anything else?” the woman asked when the tea had been poured.

Bobby cleared his throat. “I was wondering if there might be anything stronger than tea in the house. To celebrate our new business relationship, you understand.”

The woman looked at Mr. Fitch. He paused a moment, then banged his fist on the table. “‘What?'” he thundered. “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?'”

She smiled and left the room. In a moment she returned with a green bottle, which Bobby gazed at with something approaching religious ecstasy. She poured an inch of the amber liquid into a glass and gave it to Bobby, then did the same for Mr. Fitch. She offered the bottle to Mickey and me next, but we refused. We were tea people.

Bobby toasted Mr. Fitch. “Here’s to many more nights like this,” he said.

Mr. Fitch nodded his agreement.

The cake was delicious. Bobby drank half his whiskey. “You must come to Boston and let me return your hospitality,” he said.

Mr. Fitch’s face darkened. He set his glass down. “I will not go to Boston, Mr. Gallagher. I lost a child there once. Killed by the brigands who inhabit that place.”

“Well, it’s really a lot better than it used to be,” Bobby said, a little uneasily.

“‘Dost thou not perceive that it is a wilderness of tigers?'” Mr. Fitch roared. “Tigers must prey, and Boston offers no prey but me and mine.”

Tigers? Bobby scratched his head, for once at a loss for words. I reached for another piece of cake. “‘How happy are thou, then,'” I remarked, “‘from these devourers to be banished.'”

Mr. Fitch stared at me. “You know Titus Andronicus?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t everyone?”

He smiled and drank his whiskey. “Maybe this world has a future after all,” he murmured.

Bobby looked at me as if I had just caused the blind to see and the dumb to speak.

Mickey poured himself another cup of tea.

Rules for writing — Rule 3: Rewrite

This is another in my random series of rules for writing, designed for for those among us who aren’t geniuses and therefore don’t get to make our own rules.  This means you.  And me.

Let’s distinguish rewriting from revising.  Revising is when you tinker with stuff you’ve already written.  That’s fun!  Rewriting is when you throw away what you’ve written and start over again.  Start a new computer file.  Go through the whole story or novel again, typing it from scratch.  That can be intimidating.  It can be overwhelming.  It can feel like a complete waste of time, when you encounter paragraph after paragraph that, as far as you can tell, doesn’t need to change.  Why bother?  There are more novels to be written.  The Red Sox are on TV.

In my post about outlining, I stole an image from E. L. Doctorow of writing as a car journey in the darkness, with only your headlights to guide you as you make your way towards your destination.  What happens when you reach that destination?  Do you really want to start the journey all over again?

Well, yes, you do.  If you’re like me, you accumulate notes during your journey — should have made a left turn here, should have driven a little faster in this stretch, should have taken a shortcut to totally eliminate that stretch. Some of these notes may be the basis for revisions, but often they call for much more.  Generally, for me, they accumulate to the point that I need to start from the beginning.

The most obvious example of this was when I figured out that I had come up with the wrong murderer in Senator.  That required rejiggering the whole novel.  Everything needed to be recalibrated, from the opening sentence to the ending.  I’m currently rereading my novel Dover Beach, and I recall one ultimate plot twist that I figured out only when I had finished the first draft.  Without the twist, something basic about the book was out of whack.  The twist occurs at the very end, but I needed to prepare for it throughout the plot.  I can no longer tell exactly where I made the changes, but I figure that’s a good thing — everything in the final product needs to be seamless.

Rewriting is less fun than revision, because it’s more work.  But I find it deeply satisfying.  And it goes much faster than the first draft, which is what causes me to sweat blood.  I have never done more than three drafts — but maybe my work would be better if I had!  At some point I’m content to take the latest draft and revise it.  And revise it, and revise it.

And still I can look at it later and see where the thing has still fallen short.  Here is the famous quotation from Paul Valéry:

A poem is never finished, only abandoned.

This applies to novels, as well, except you have a hundred thousand words to tinker with instead of a hundred.  You can tinker forever, so at some point you have to stop.  But if you stop too soon, you’re not doing your story, or yourself, justice.

In which the narrator of Dover Beach comes up with a title for the book — and it isn’t “Dover Beach”

Here is our first exciting excerpt from Dover Beach, and it’s apropos of this discussion of titles.

It’s early in the novel.  The narrator, Walter Sands, has a strange desire to become a private eye — strange, because he lives in a world that has been devastated by some kind of catastrophe.  At this point, we’re not quite sure what that catastrophe was, but it’s beginning to look like some kind of limited nuclear war.  Walter has a job offer to become a hired gun for a black-market operation, but prefers to pursue his  dream–no longer entirely a dream, however, since he has gotten his first case.  A man has come to him believing he is the cloned offspring of a scientist from MIT, back before the catastrophe.  He wants to track down his “father” and find out why someone is trying to murder him.

Walter is a bookish sort, we are learning, and so he feels the need to come up with a name for his case.  The name, it turns out, is based on an old mystery–Trent’s Last Case.  You probably haven’t heard of it.  But you can download it for free thanks to the nice folks at Project Gutenberg.  (There’s an obscure movie version starring Orson Welles that I have never seen.)  Walter likes the first line of the novel.  So do I; so much so that I made it the epigraph for Dover Beach:

Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?

Not that Walter knows it just yet, but this is whatDover Beachturns out to be all about.

Anyway, here he is, back from a trip to the wilds of New Hampshire with his black-market friend Bobby, where they traded scavenged antiques for computer parts.  He lives with his girlfriend Gwen and a couple of other people, holding onto each other in the darkness of their fallen world.  He helps Gwen sleep, but he is unable to sleep much himself.

***********

Gwen was waiting for me in the front parlor when I arrived. She was wearing her patched blue robe and a couple pairs of woolen socks. “How did it go?” she asked.

“Oh, fine.”

“No problems?”

I shook my head. “I think I’ll have a glass of cider.” We went out to the kitchen. With Gwen, I was never sure if my lies were successful. I always had the feeling that she understood everything, and that sometimes she just decided to let me get away with one.

She poured us each some cider, and we sat at the table. I told her all about the farm and Lavinia and Mr. Fitch and the electric lights and the tapestries on the wall. And then I remembered something. “I brought you a present.” I reached into my pocket and took out a piece of cake I had grabbed from the Rose Medallion plate.

“Oh, Walter. Thank you.”

“It was either this or a hard disk, and I figured you had more use for cake.”

She smiled and ate the cake.

“Bobby wants me to go to work for him full-time,” I said.

I waited for a response, but none came. She looked at me and sipped her cider.

“I told him to forget it. I’m a private eye now. No time for stuff like that. ”

She nodded, “You must feel good about getting that case.”

“Yeah. Well.” No sense going into it. She knew how good I felt. I finished my cider and stood up. “You should get some sleep,” I said.

Gwen stood up too. She took the lamp in one hand, and my hand in the other, and we went upstairs. We paused as we passed Linc’s bedroom. He was breathing heavily; he muttered something unintelligible in his sleep. Gwen’s hand squeezed mine. We went into our bedroom.

She set the lamp on the night table and pulled the bedcovers down. I took off my shoes. We got into bed, and she put out the lamp.

The darkness was total. We pulled up the covers. I put my arm around Gwen, and she snuggled into the crook of my shoulder. “Do you feel like it?” I asked.

“I guess not,” she said.

“Okay.”

We were silent for a while. The darkness became less total. I could make out the looming bulk of the dresser, the elegant curves of the escritoire, the useless outline of the useless radiator.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” Gwen said.

“So am I,” I said. Glad to see the dresser and the escritoire for another day. Glad to see her. Across the hall, Linc snorted and groaned.

“Someday,” I murmured, “sleep will come easy.”

“And dreams will come true,” Gwen replied.

“Someday.”

We didn’t say anything then. I stroked her hair, and we breathed together, and eventually her breathing became deep and regular. I listened to it for a long while, and then carefully pulled my arm from beneath her head. She settled herself onto the pillow, still asleep. I got out of bed, groped for the lamp, found it, and made my way out into the hall. I was an old hand at this. I lit the lamp in the darkness and walked slowly up the creaking stairs to the third floor. The lamp threw spooky shadows against the walls. I wasn’t afraid of spooks, though; there was too much else to be afraid of in this world. At the top of the stairs, I turned right. More shadows, more spooks, beckoning to me in the dim light, writhing in their lust for life, for freedom. The room reeked of the past, overpowered me with the musty odor of lives lived, of genius spent. It was an odor as exciting as any perfume. I entered the room.

Too many books, Bobby had said. An accusation.

Guilty. I stared at them:

Confess, Fletch

The Dreadful Lemon Sky

The Good-bye Look

Ten Little Indians

The Case of the Amorous Aunt

Green with mildew, brown and brittle with age, dying but not dead yet. Not dead yet.

It occurred to me that I needed a title. What good was a case without a title? Confess, Clone. The Case of the Confused Clone. I was new at this.

The Godwulf Manuscript

God Save the Child

Early Autumn

In those books Spenser was still alive. Still working out at the health club, drinking beer, listening to the Red Sox. Ah, would that it were not fiction. That way madness lies, as Mr. Fitch would say. But maybe you had to be mad to stay alive nowadays. God Save the Clone. Early Winter. No, try again.

Farewell, My Lovely

The Maltese Falcon

Penance for Jerry Kennedy

The Big Sleep

Trent‘s Last Case

Trent’s Last Case. An old, old British mystery with a couple of twists at the end. I took it off the shelf and glanced through it. Private eyes were nowhere to be found, although I liked the first sentence.

Sands’s First Case. The possessive sounded ugly.

Sandman. That was Linc’s nickname for me. I didn’t like it. The Sandman went around putting people to sleep, and I—I only did that for Gwen.

I smiled.

The Sandman’s First Case.

It would have to do, until I came up with something better.

I rummaged through a rotting carton of textbooks until I found one on cellular biology. I took it out, sat in my old, overstuffed armchair, and read by lamplight until dawn. Then I tiptoed back downstairs and got back into the warm bed beside Gwen.

I shut my eyes and snuggled up to Gwen, and after a while sleep came for the Sandman—short and troubled as always, but enough to let him make it through another day.

Why “Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies” is a better title than “Dover Beach”

I’m not the best guy to offer advice on titles, so I won’t.  Most of my titles are single-word descriptive titles: Senator is about a senator; Pontiff is about a pontiff.  Shorter is, I think, better than longer, but then again, I really like the title The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  The problem with shorter titles is that they can tend to mislead.  Pontiff is about more than a pontiff; Summit is about more than a summit.  But, when combined with the cover, they do the trick.

Titles get easier if the book is part of a series, like A is for Alibi.  Funny books should have funny titles.  The best title I’ve ever been involved with is Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies by the great Craig Shaw Gardner.  I recall a good bit of discussion about just what adjective should be applied to those bunnies.  Having arrived at fluffy, I can’t imagine what other words could possibly have been considered.

Titles serve two purposes. The obvious purpose is to make a reader want to buy the book (or read the story, or click on the blog post).  Like the cover, they’re part of the way you market the thing. Who wouldn’t want to read a book called Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies? (Well, if that’s not the kind of book you want to read, the title will do a great job of steering you away from it.)

But titles are also part of the aesthetic experience of the text, if I can get high-falutin’ for a minute.  The title Gravity’s Rainbow means nothing by itself; its significance grows out of the novel to which it’s attached.  Same with Ulysses.  Same with A Canticle for Leibowitz. You don’t come up with titles like that to sell books.  You come up with them because they grow organically out of the story you’re telling.

This brings us to Dover Beach, which is going to show up as an ebook before very long.  The title was suggested by my editor at Bantam, and I loved it.  The novel is about love and loyalty in a grim world after a limited nuclear war, and I liked the way the title brought out the connections with the themes of Matthew Arnold’s famous poem.

Which is to say, the title works really well in the “part of the aesthetic experience” department.  But Dover Beach was a mass-market science fiction paperback.  The title also needed to move product, as they say.  And that product didn’t move–at least, not compared to its predecessor Replica.  I think the title must have had something to do with it.  If the average science fiction reader read Arnold’s poem at all, it was probably because he was forced to in sophomore English class, and who wants to be reminded of sophomore English class?

For good or ill, the title is Dover Beach, and I’m sticking with it.

Here is the last stanza of “Dover Beach”, which is still moving a hundred and fifty years after first publication:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

What should Dover Beach’s cover look like?

Dover Beach is a private eye novel set in Boston and England in the aftermath of a limited nuclear war.  (Yeah, I don’t know why I wrote it either.  But it’s good!  Read the review excerpts at the link!)

Here’s the American cover.  The mushroom cloud suggests that it takes place during a nuclear war, maybe.  The man and the woman look appropriately solemn, I guess.  The guy is the private eye, presumably, and the girl is his girl.  I don’t think the cover makes you want to race out and buy the book.

Here is the Japanese cover.  Surprisingly, the Japanese publisher didn’t opt for a mushroom cloud! I don’t know that the cover gives you any sense that the novel takes place after a nuclear war; maybe that’s for the best.  Dover Beach means nothing to Japanese readers, so it has a different title — but I forget what it is.  The private eye is named Walter Sands, and he calls himself the Sandman sometimes, so that explains the signs on the doors.  I have no idea why there are palm trees.

Anyone got any ideas what the ebook cover should look like?