One of the most interesting (and terrifying) parts of the recent Las Vegas Writers Conference was a panel they did during Friday lunch. Before the conference, attendees could send in an anonymous first page to be read during the panel. The agents would listen and then raise their hand at the point where they would stop reading. Then they would give feedback.
You can see how this would be invaluable.
Of course I submitted a first page, and it went over decently well. Only half the agents raised their hands, which is good, and the other half all raised their hands at the exact same spot. Which, of course, meant I really, really needed to take a close look at that spot.
That spot was a descriptive paragraph.
It wasn't just a descriptive paragraph, though. It was a descriptive paragraph after a descriptive paragraph. The agents said the writing and characterization was good, but there was too much description and not enough action. I went back and trimmed and rearranged, and I do think that feedback made the opening passages much better.
As I listened to some of the other entries, and saw which pages made all the agents raise their hands, and which kept all their attention, I noticed a few things. Often when I thought the writing was a little poor, the agents kept their hands down. When I thought something was weird, they kept their hands down.
Here's the key--the most important lesson I took from this panel. In your very first paragraph, a character must be doing something.
The stories that kept the agents reading had action. Sometimes it was all action, and very little characterization, and the agents commented on that and said it needed work, but that they would read a little more. They told almost everyone to pair down the overwriting and focus on the action. There were even stories with as much description as mine, but it was more evenly spaced out and involved action.
To borrow terminology from Writing Excuses, one of my all-time favorite podcasts, your first paragraph--even your first sentence--does best when it features a protagonist who protags.
Right, now write!