|Grab their attention right away|
The first page of your manuscript is critical for more than just grabbing an agent's attention. When readers go to the bookstore, a book catches their eye, they read the cover blurb, and if they're still interested, they'll often read the first page or so. If those pages grab them, they'll buy the book. If not, they'll put it back on the shelf.
This is why agents and editors are so hard on those opening pages. They know this is how a lot of readers buy books. Those first 250 words need to grab the reader. As a professional writer, you need to be able to do that.
And you do that by giving readers questions they want answers to. Why are the characters doing X? Who is following them? What's the deal with these two people? It can be anything as long as it's not "What's going on?" A vague opening that confuses is not the type of question you want readers asking.
The adage is "start with action" but that doesn't mean blow up a car or rob a bank. It means start with something in the process of X. X can be something going wrong, (my personal favorite), something revealed, something denied, etc. But there's a sense that something is about to happen, and that it won't be good for somebody.
Let's look at four common opening killers. Agent Kristin Nelson said 90% of submissions don't get beyond the first two pages for these reasons.
1. Opening pages that are nothing but backstory and explanation.
This is an easy fix. Cut out the backstory and explanation. "But the reader needs to know that to get the story!" you say? No, the really don't. Until they care about what's happening, they don't care about the history of the people it's happening to.
2. Opening pages with scenes that only do one thing (like have action but no character development or any other components that are essential to strong writing).
This is why "action" scenes often fail. Action (in the movie-action sense) is pretty much a bunch of description. Stuff is going on, but there's no story yet because there's no character with a goal who's in trouble. If your opening is a lot of this kind of action, add in why the action matters and give readers a character with a clear problem they can care about and connect with. If there's no action, then give your character something to do that could go wrong or cause a problem at any moment.
3. Problems with sentence structure, misuse or overuse of description, and basic grammar snafus.
If you haven't developed your writing skills yet, dig in and learn your craft. You might be a great writer in the making, but we all have to know how to write at a professional level to make it in this biz. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by trying to publish before you're ready.
4. Prologues (or chapter one) that sets up a faux conflict to “hook” the reader but then has very little connection to the following chapter—in tone, in the characters that are then introduced, in plot that unfolds immediately in the next chapter.
I see this all the time on the forums. "What of I start with something cool to hook the reader, then go back to my story?" Often this includes a fast forward to an "exciting" scene later in the book. This isn't as effective as you'd think. (usually for reason #2) Readers buy your book because they liked what they saw in the opening. If you lie to them, or trick them and change the book on them, there's a good chance you'll just piss them off. They might finish the book because they bought it, but the odds of them picking up another of your books, or recommending you to their friends is low.
Start with the story. Have enough faith in that story to trust it can stand on its own (and if it can't, make it so it can) and hook a reader. It takes just as much effort to fake an "exciting" opening as it does to fix a real opening. And since a fake opening is bound to be flat anyway, and only seem exciting to someone who already knows the story, it's often a wasted effort.
Because I know examples are worth more than explanations, below are the first 250-ish words of The Shifter. This opening didn't change much from first draft to final book. You'll notice there is zero backstory or explanation. More than one thing is going on and it dives right into a problem with no tricks and no prologue to set it up. Something is happening, things are going wrong, but there's no actual "action" until right at the end. Most of this opening is internalization from the protagonist.
What it does most, is give readers a character they can like, connect with, and hopefully care about to see what happens next.
The First 250 Words (okay, 264) of The Shifter
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. Right away something is happening. A girl is stealing eggs, and there's a risk if the chicken wakes and starts pecking and fussing. This seems like a minor stake, but for someone committing a robbery, anything that calls attention to that can get them in a lot of trouble. Readers also aren't asking for the world to end on page one. Give them a hint of risk, and they're happy to see where it goes. Just give a sense that it's going somewhere.
The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out. She's self-depreciating here, which hopefully makes her likable. You also might be wondering why she's stealing eggs and not the whole chicken. You might even be curious what happened those other times before she learned this trick. All good things to make you want to read on.
“Good morning little hen,” I sang softly. The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. She didn’t get to squawking, just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, and she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week. Adding in the unloading fish detail gives a sense that the protagonist doesn't always steal, which should increase curiosity about why she's stealing now. It's also something she overheard, not was told, which should give a small insight into her character. She wasn't friends or coworkers with these boys, she was just there with them. How might a girl find herself in that situation?
A voice came from beside me. “Don’t move.” Now things have gone wrong. This is 161 words into the book and already I've thrown Nya into trouble. If I've done my job well, you already like my egg-stealing protagonist and are worried about her getting away. Do you care about where she grew up? Is not knowing her past interfering at all with what's going on in this scene and keeping you from enjoying it? Do you care about her past in any other way than maybe how she came to be stealing eggs this night? Probably not.
Two words I didn’t want to hear with someone else’s chicken under my arm. Again, more humor and a sense of who this girl is. I need you to like her so you want to read about her, and getting to know her a little is a great way to do that.
I froze. The chicken didn’t. Her scaly feet flailed toward the eggs that should have been my breakfast. Now we finally get some motivation, small as it is. She's there to steal eggs for breakfast. But I don't go into why she has to steal. I don't explain how she's an orphan living on the streets, that her parents were killed in a civil war. I don't even mention that she has a magical ability yet, because none of that matters right now. It's all about making readers like her enough to care about a situation that's about to go very badly. I looked up at a cute night guard not much older than me, perhaps sixteen. The night was more humid than usual, but a slight breeze blew his sand-pale hair. A soldier’s cut, but a month or two grown out. Here I actually do a little description, and you'll notice aside from a word here and there (like scaly feet and said softly) it's the first time I describe anything. I didn't describe the setting, didn't do any setup. I waited until I (hopefully) had the reader hooked with my protagonist's problem. But this boy is important and she needs to notice him. It's also a way to show more about her by what she notices about this boy.
Stay calm, stay alert. As Grannyma used to say, if you’re caught with the cake, you might as well offer them a piece. Not sure how that applied to chickens though. And here she immediately has a plan (such as it is). She's acting, not being passive and waiting for other characters to do something. The story is moving ahead, even if those moves are small and subtle. There's no "big action" here, but stuff is happening. You can probably make a few assumptions about Nya and her situation, you feel you know her a little and might even get a sense of the world she's living in. All in 264 words.
Openings are vital to getting someone to read your book, especially agents. A reader might give you some time since they paid for the book (I usually read three chapters to hook me if it starts slow, but if you haven't grabbed me by then, it goes back on the shelf no matter how much I may love that author's past works), but an agent has hundreds of other books on their desk that might grab from page one. Their job is to find books they can sell. Your job is to give them a book they can sell, and that means a great opening that hooks readers right away.
Don't waste those 250 chances. Use them to show how good a writer you really are.