So what's a gal to do?
Read, of course. Pick up books published relatively recently and concentrate on the first couple of pages. Is there a catchy hook? Can I see the setting? Can I see the character? Can I feel the tension? And was this all accomplished without data dumping? I thought you might like to explore with me. Today's opener is from The Light of Eidon by Karen Hancock, Bethany House, 2003:
"Why do we serve the Flames?"
"To ward the realm from Shadow."
"Why must we guard our purity?"
"To keep the Flames strong and bright."
They sat cross-legged on the barge cabin's single, narrow bunk, facing each other--Novice and discipler--their voices alternating in a steady rhythm of question and answer that had gone unbroken for nearly an hour. Since the noon prayer service they had been reviewing the six codices of the First Guardian Station, codices Eldrin must know tomorrow for the final test of his novitiate. He had long since learned them so well he could answer without hesitation, but he didn't mind the repetition. Right now it was just the sort of superficial mental occupation he needed to keep his thoughts of...other things.
"What is the source of the Shadow?" asked his discipler, one bony, ink-stained finger pressed to the page of the open catechism in his lap.
"The arrogance of Moroq conceived it," Eldrin replied. "The passions of the flesh sustain it."
"Who is Moroq?"
"The dark son of Eidon and Lord Ruler of the rhu'ema. The Adversary. No man can stand against him, save One."
"And that One is?"
"Eidon, Lord of Light, Creator of All, Defender of Man. Soon may he come, and swift be his judgment."
The rhythm ended, and the silence that filled the void after it made Eldrin's ears ring. He noticed the heat again, the sweat trickling down his chest beneath his wool tunic, the stifling mantle of his long, unbound hair weighing on his back. A fitful breeze danced through the high, open portal of the bulkhead, carrying the river's dank odor and a disharmonious chorus of voices from the crowds on its bank. Thunder rumbled out of the distance.
Anxiety, held at bay by the long recitation, came oozing back. Soon they would be docking, disembarking, and marching up to the temple to begin the long ritual that would end with his initiation as a Guardian of the Holy Flames. Or not, if things went badly.
This takes up less than a page of text. Does it work for you? What sense do you get out of this opening? What are you expecting out of the story? Can you see Eldrin, see where he is? Does anything feel data-dumped?