Friday, December 16, 2011

"Is All This Cheese Real?"


Happy Holidays!  This morning, Marianne and I went to DiBruno Brothers, the world's best and most crowded cheese shop, to buy cheeses and various olives, and pickled octopus, and cured meats.  We dropped a bundle.  A Christmas tradition, you ask?  Oh, no, no, no.  We were must buying the makings of lunch.

We've been going to DiBruno's for over a third of a century.  When Sean was teething, I carried him in my arms and let him gnaw on the top of the loaf of bread (from Sarcone's, which is to bread what DiBruno's is to cheese).  We've seen a generation of cheesemongers grow old and retire and be replaced by younger relatives.

My best memory of DiBruno's is the time an out-of-stater, gawking wonderingly about her at the astonishing variety of cheeses, asked, "Is all this cheese real?"

"What do you mean real?" one of the guys behind the counter asked.

"I mean, is any of it processed cheese food?"

And everybody in the shop -- everybody! -- laughed.

And speaking of yesterday's advice . . .

On Thursday I wrote about the importance of a strong opening and ending to a story you're hoping to sell.  Chad Hull asked, "Do you think it applies to people who are already established and proven; such as yourself?  Or can the already established writer get away with 3, 5, or 8 pages of setting before something happens?"

Good question.  There are exceptions to every rule.  Gardner Dozois, for example, once started a story (the quite wonderful "Executive Clemency") with a very long description of an idiot watching sunlight move across a floor.  But it was a gripping description of an idiot watching sunlight move across a floor, a compelling description of an idiot watching sunlight move across a floor.  Once you read the first sentence, it was impossible not to read on and on.  And, come to think, it wasn't scene-setting at all but an important part of the story's action. 

If you're a name, you get a smidge more attention, if only because the editor wants to make absolutely positively sure that you're completely lost it before spreading the word to every other editor in the industry.  But if the story is so good that it sells anyway, the editor is going to want you to remove those 3, 5, or 8 pages of scene-setting.  Because readers are every bit as fickle as editors -- and they're not being paid for reading.  They flip through the magazine, read the first couple of paragraphs of your story, and if they're not grabbed, they move on.

In all my thirty-plus years as a published writer, I've only broken the unwritten rules for story openings twice, once deliberately and once by accident.  The deliberate one was "Slow Life," which began with a long description of the chemistry of a raindrop falling through the atmosphere of Titan.  For the New Yorker that would have been a deal-breaker.  But I sold it to Analog, where I felt the memory of Larry Niven's early fiction, which often began with a physics lecture, would linger.

The other was "Wild Minds," which began with the sentence, I met her at a businesspersons' orgy in London.  After I'd sold it to Asimov's, editor Sheila Williams said, "You know, we usually don't buy stories that begin with a sex scene.  That's an almost infallible sign of amateurism."

Um . . . well . . . actually I hadn't know that.  But now I do.

And so, too, do you.



skyknyt said...

On the note of unwritten rules in writing. We had an author lecture at work on the publishing process for his book, and he said at least that he was asked to include at least one semi-explicit sex scene by the publisher before they would pick it up.

Is that common at all?

Michael Swanwick said...

Nope. That would be a HOUSE unwritten rule -- and almost certainly specific to the sub-genre of book the novel was perceived as belonging to.

It's also possible that this was just the individual editor making this demand in the same way that a cook sampling a particular dish might think, "needs a little more spice."

Editors make all sorts of demands, not all of them wise -- but not all of them wrong either.

rjurik said...


What would Gardner be looking for on the last page? I mean, I'm guessing he's reading the first page to see if the story grabs him, if it's well-written, etc. But then to skip to the last page is interesting. Is he looking for surprising endings, predictable ones?

Michael Swanwick said...

He's looking for an ending that sounds like an ending. That isn't trite and obvious. That suggests something meaningful actually happened after the first page.

All of that sounds terribly abstract. But anyone who's read thousands of unpublishable stories will tell you that you can recognize the real thing when you see it.

What he's hoping for, of course, is that there'll be a good story there, once he tells the writer to ditch the first three, five, or nine pages.

rjurik said...

Which gets me thinking. Let's say you have two characters meet at the beginning of a story, what could be the non-cliched ending on the last page which would suggest that something happened in between? Let's say it's a romance. Obvious options might be:

1) They end up together
2) One of them lies dead before the other
3) They both end up dead (Romeo and Juliet)
4) One of them rejects the other

But what else? Is there anything else?

Michael Swanwick said...

They go off with each other's clones.

They get married, take a recording of each other, and never see each other again. (Fred Pohl did this in 'Year Million')

The conservative half of the marriage comes to grips with the fact that his wife is now his husband. (John Varley did this, but not very well, imho)

One lifts the electrodes from the other and says, "There. Now we don't have to worry about that happening ever again." And bursts into tears.

"I knew you were a snake when I married you," the bird-man said. "And now I'm prepared to die."

"Wasn't today nice? You know it was. And tomorrow you won't remember any of it, so we can do it all again. Tomorrow and every day for the rest of our lives."

God smiles, and forgives them, and with a careless gesture wipes both them and all their universe out of existence.

And so on and on and on...