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.