The second panel I attended on Thursday night at Westercon was on Great Openings. S.M. Stirling was on hand again, along with Barb Geller-Smith, Andrew Foley and David G. Hartwell, a senior editor at Tor Books.
Hartwell rather dominated the panel, mainly because all the would-be authors in the audience were most anxious to hear what someone who actually buys books had to say. And what he said was very interesting: editors, he said, have too much to read, so they’re always looking for reasons to stop reading whatever is in front of them. You don’t want to give them that reason right off the bat with a lousy opening. (Although he said he sometimes will read through a boring beginning because he’s familiar with something else the author has written and expects the book to get better–and, yes, editors do remember the stuff you sent them before; they remember hundreds of names.)
He suggested, once a book is finished, going back and rewriting the opening, in light of everything you’ve learned in the process of writing the book. He also recommended lots of reading–both short stories and novels, especially in the field but also out of it, to see how other writers have solved the “problem” of the opening. By doing so, he said, you build up a mental repository of possible ways to approach the problem, and are better prepared to finding an effective solution to the problem of opening your particular story.
Reading widely gives you a better range of solutions to problems, Hartwell said, even on the sentence level.
Hartwell said there is much too little reading done by novice (and some experienced) writers. You can use something that was used many years before, but you have to transform it. Foley said the same thing holds true for comics. Stirling pointed out that some writers have successfully transformed even Victorian-era prose for modern storytelling purposes.
You can go even further back. Hartwell noted that Poul Anderson was a great master at openings–and Stirling noted that Anderson got some of his techniques from the ancient Scandinavian sagas.
On the question of series books, Hartwell said you should aim for new readers with every book in the series, because there’s a certain amount of loss in readership that’s inevitable.
You not only select your audience with your opening, you deselect a certain element of the audience. William Gibson, Hartwell pointed out, consciously eliminated the adventure audience with the opening to Neuromancer. He thought he was writing for a very small audience (fortunately for him, it turned out he was wrong, although it took more than a year for the book to become a commercial success).
Hartwell also said that lots of books have great openings, then fade. Ultimately, what’s important is not just the way a book is written, but the emotional content.
As Stirling pointed out, L. Sprague de Camp was a better writer in every way than Robert E. Howard (and had the added advantage of not being a “nut,” like Howard), but the material he wrote in the Howard milieu lacks the emotional impact of Howard’s own stories. “He didn’t believe in it the way Howard did, and it shows.”
After the panel, I briefly visiting ConVersion 21.5, the “mini-con” being held by the ConVersion people, ConVersion being on hold due to Westercon, and had a nice chate with James C. Glass and his wife. Then it was into bed. My first panel today: Blasters and Battlestars, all about space opera. Hartwell is on that one, too, so it should be particularly interesting.