The first line of a novel is crucial. It should hook the reader.
Agents and publishers don't have time to read through every manuscript they receive, so they'll look for any excuse to dump your work and move on to the next in the pile.
Background information in the first paragraph starts your story "on pause". No forward momentum will frustrate a reader who wants the story to begin. If you must start with description, then try to keep it short.
Related Articles: Scene by Scene
- The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. - William Gibson, Neuromancer.
- It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. - George Orwell, 1984.
- It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. - Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford.
Orson Scott Card believes the first paragraph is "free".
But what is the "opening"? The first sentence? Having a good first sentence is nice, but it's not the opening. By definition, the first sentence is in the first paragraph, and the first paragraph is free. That is, the first paragraph of a story does not have to be in the same voice or mood or tone as the rest of the work. The first paragraph is important for setting the scene, for giving vital information that allows what follows to make sense. But the real opening is after that first paragraph—when the story starts in earnest.