Over at Compuserve the writing exercise has been about beginnings. Beth, who is presenting the exercise this month, posted some fabulous thoughts about book beginnings. I'll copy it here. I hope you find it useful.
Nancy Kress, in her book Beginnings, Middles, and Endings, says that compelling openings show character, conflict, specificity, and credibility. "Begin with an indication--subtle or overt--that something is not going as expected, or someone is experiencing disturbing emotions, or something is about to change."
In light of that--
1) Open with a character in action. This will probably be the main character, though it doesn't absolutely have to be.
2) Give him a problem to solve, a goal to attain, a danger to avoid.
3) Include specific, interesting details of setting, character, and situation. This is crucial for bringing the story to life.
4) To make the reader fall into the world of your story, it has to be credible. If the reader can't buy into the situation or has no empathy for the character in the opening pages, then she won't keep reading.
5) Good openings also require good writing. At its most basic, that means no grammar issues, no clumsy sentences, no misused words or poor word choices, and no misplaced punctuation. But good writing is more than that. Good writing has voice and style. Good writing is smooth--every word, every sentence, every paragraph in the right order, which is key to employing the line-by-line tension that pulls the reader through the story.
6) And finally, good openings establish the tone of the story (dark? comedic? lush and romantic?) and possibly foreshadow the ending in some way.
By contrast, learning writers will often employ one or more of the following:
--unattributed dialogue in the opening line
--contextless and/or boring dialogue
--opening in a trough. I.e., the character is reacting to some event that took place prior to the opening, and has not yet begun to take new action.
--opening on a journey, unless the journey is the story. This frequently goes hand-in-hand with the trough opening.
--character alone, thinking
--character is dreaming
--character waking up
--mismatched tone. Funny one minute, tragic the next.
--too much backstory
--unlikeable protagonist: self-pitying, whining, boring, heartless, evil
--vague, generic writing, descriptions, characterizations
--too many characters or character names
--POV changes too often (head-hopping)
Now, there are always exceptions. For instance, I listed "unattributed and contextless dialogue" above, but then I remember the opening to Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Pure dialogue. You don't know who's speaking, or where they are, or who they're talking about. But it's brilliant, and it works because what they're talking about is so intriguing.
All the rules can be, and probably have been, successfully broken. But the items on that list are what agents and editors most frequently see in submissions they reject, and I've noticed the same things occurring in fiction posted on critique sites around the web.