It's probably not fair that people judge whether or not to buy a novel based on the cover, the back cover, and the first sentence, but that's how it works much of the time. Now that more people are buying books online, the back cover doesn't matter as much, but the cover image and the first sentence or two (as reached by the "look inside" feature) still carry most of the weight.
That's why the first sentence is so important. I belong to Bookbub.com, which offers ebooks free or at a reduced price, and I find a lot of times I don't opt to take even the free books if the first few lines don't grab my attention. I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at a few openings. Let me hasten to say that these books may be excellent, I'm just sharing my personal response to their first lines.
The stocky man pumped his flannel-covered arms around the steering wheel as the white box truck he called Bessie rounded the corner.
The first problem I have is with the word "pumped." The motion I associate with pumping (as in working the handle of a pump) is up and down, which is not easy to link with a steering wheel. If I stop and think about it I can imagine the turning motion as pumping, but ideally a first sentence doesn't make you stop to figure out an image. Next we have his flannel-covered arms. I assume he's wearing a flannel shirt, but again the image makes me stop for a split-second to figure that out (rather than imagining it's only his arms that are flannel-covered). Then we have the information that he calls his box truck Bessie, which doesn't pull me into the story nor is it essential information at this point.
If the job of the first sentence is to effortlessly carry you on to the second sentence, that example isn't great. Let's look at another one.
Years ago, Once Upon a Time was Right Now.
OK, that's an interesting enough variation of the classic fairy tale opening to keep me reading. It goes on:
And eventually, Right Now will become Once Upon a Time. In fact, it just did. Time is funny like that. In most stories time is very important. Not in this one. The story may have horses and not cars, but really it could happen now like it did then. Then Being Once Upon a Time, years and years ago.
I'm starting to lose interest but let's see give it a few more lines.
The story is one of passion, and last time I checked, passion was still around. It exists in love, hate, obsession. For instance, I have a passion for pickled herring. I can't live without it...
Nothing is happening and I have no idea who the "I" is who checked whether or not passion is still around and loves pickled herring. Next!
My daddy once called me a cockroach, because when I was a kid I dug in the trash for food scraps and drank from the dog's water to survive. He said he meant it as a compliment.
We have a winner! Why is this one better? Because it raises a question. It makes us curious why the character dug in the trash and drank from the dog's water to survive, and what kind of father would consider calling a child a cockroach a compliment.
Contrast that to the first example, which doesn't make me wonder anything about the man driving the truck, and the second, which doesn't make us wonder about much of anything until it gets to pickled herring. By then, following a consideration of the nature of time and passion, pickled herring feels a bit of a let-down.
I don't know if you feel the same way about these particular examples, but looking at these has sent me back for a closer look at the first lines of the projects I'm working on; maybe it'll prompt you to look at yours as well.
(Want friendly guidance on writing your novel? You'll find it in Your Writing Coach, published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)