On those rare but rewarding occasions when I teach, the most common error I see is beginning a story with three-to-seven pages of exposition of everything the writer thinks the reader needs to know before the story can actually start. They're invariably shocked when I cross out all of that and somewhere deep within the text write "Begin Here."
This comes to mind because I've been reading an Advance Reader Copy of Patrickia A. McKillip's new collection Wonders of the Invisible World. (Forthcoming from Tachyon Publications). The title story of which opens as follows:
I am the angel sent to Cotton Mather. It took me some time to get his attention. He lay on the floor with his eyes closed; he prayed fervently, sometimes murmuring, sometimes shouting. Apparently the household was used to it. I heard footsteps pass his study door; a woman -- his wife Abigail? -- called to someone: "If your throat is no better tomorrow, we'll have Phillip pee in a cup for you to gargle." From the way the house smelled, Phillip didn't bother much with cups. Cotton Mather smelled of smoke and sweat and wet wool. Winter had come early. The sky was black, the ground was white, the wind pinched like a witch and whined like a starving dog. There was no color in the landscape and no mercy. Cotton Mather prayed to see the invisible world.
He wanted an angel.
That is a terrific opening. It's solid as an oak plank and as simple as a Shaker broom. You could rap your knuckles on it. It evokes all the senses. It has wit and rhythm. It sets the scene beautifully. Most importantly, it gets you right into the story.
And McKillip hasn't wasted a word telling you how the protagonist got there in the first place, who the woman is (for she is no angel after all, which is why the language is so unangelic), what issues she suffers from, how she feels about her employer and he about her, or the history of the technology that makes the situation in the first paragraph possible. All these things, except for the last, you'll learn over the course of the story. Which is the right place for them.
And how does one write an opening that good? By working long and hard to learn one's craft and then writing the very best one can. It's as simple -- and as hard -- as that.