A few rules of thumb from hosting pros Claire and Mac Burt, Wanda and Ty Cobb, Tricia and Gary Babick:
* If you're sending invitations, give your guests at least 3 weeks' notice.
* Serve appetizers with cocktails--some of your guests may have skipped lunch and will need edibles to go with their potables.
* Keep the cocktail hour brief. A "common mistake," reports one host, is an overly long cocktail hour, which results in guests too tipsy to fully appreciate the food and too bleary to make interesting conversation.
* If you have one outstanding feature in your meal--be it an appetizer, soup, salad, entree or dessert--you can get away with other courses that are mediocre. Your guests will remember the special dish and forget the rest.