The principle that you must grab your reader (or agent or editor) with the very first paragraph bears repeating. There's nothing I rewrite more than the opening paragraph and first pages of a book or a story, but I still need reminding--as we all do--that you can hardly spend too much time on them. If editor Lou Anders has it right, and I think he does (see http://redroom.com/blog/louise-marley/first-paragraphs-first-impressions) we have about thirty seconds of a reader's time to get them to buy a book. And that includes perusing the cover and the back matter!
One of my favorite bloggers, Agent Kristen, wrote on Friday about opening pages that seized her attention on submission. A lovely example is from Janet Hardy's The Shifter, which I've copied-and-pasted from http://pubrants.blogspot.com/:
Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible.
Isn't that charming? Kristen has more, and more detailed examples, on her blog. What works about this is the voice, the pace, the clean prose, of course, and the intimation of a narrative with a touch of humor.
So now that I've been through the copyedit stage with Mozart's Blood, my chance to polish up my opening is gone. It's a very different opening, of course, implying a very different and much darker story. Here it is, and I hope it holds up. I'm still arguing with myself over the sentence fragment in the second paragraph!
The old woman hummed to herself as she crumbled bits of black paste into a little clay pot and added wine and water. “Good Roman wine,” she said, as she stirred it with a wooden spoon. “And honey,” she added, smiling, showing blackened teeth. “To cover the taste.”
She had told Ughetto and the other boys to call her Nonna. But she was nothing like Ughetto’s nonna. Ughetto’s nonna was plump and easy, with soft arms and warm fingers. This crone, this vecchia, was scrawny and dry and twisted, like a dead olive tree.
Ughetto knew what the black paste was. He had seen it often in his mother’s tavern in Trapani. The sailors carried it in their pockets, wrapped in bits of Chinese silk or Indian cotton. Their eyes gleamed with anticipation as they unwrapped their little bundles, opening them carefully on the wooden tables. They shaved the paste into clay pipes with small, sharp knives, and when they smoked it, the tavern filled with the pungent scent of poppies.
Ughetto’s mother always drove him out then, him and all six of his sisters. She shooed them down to the beach to search for mussels, or over to the docks to drum up trade for the tavern. They went running down the twisting streets, laughing, shouting, a horde of ragged girls with Ughetto, the baby, the only boy, struggling to keep up.