Sure, there's a ton of *Don't do this!* lists out there that say to never start a YA story with description, but in this particular case, the setting is extremely important... not only because it isn't *our world* but because of a main character's arc in the story (so, subtext), and because the world/setting is one of the main characters.
So, here was my original (written May 5th, 2010):
In the city of glass, there was one stone tower. No one knew how long ago it had been built, for the city garden had encroached on the odd building, throwing long arms of ivy and morning glory up its walls, their tiny fingers finding holds in the give of the stone that they could not find in walls of glass. No one remembered who had built the tower, or why, or how, for the people knew only of melting sand and minerals to pour moulds of glass and iron upon which to raise their city. Very few went near the garden. The erratic roots and branches of the plants terrified them, that the irregular leaves and flower petals that grew in oddly regular spirals would somehow invade and corrupt their safe, easily measured life.
...I made almost no changes to this over the last year because I was still writing the story (on and off) up until January 2011. Then I set the whole thing aside so I could look at it with fresh eyes. Here's the updated version from this morning (May 3rd, 2011):
In the city of glass, there was one stone tower in a garden grown wild. Abandoned and feral, long tongues of ivy and morning glory were devouring the walls, their hungry roots finding holds in the stone that glass could not provide.
No one remembered who had built the tower, or why, or how, for the people only knew how to pour moulds of glass and iron upon which to raise their city. Very few went near the garden, and those that did hurried past it, their eyes averted from the erratic maze of roots and branches. They feared that the irregular leaves and flower petals that grew in oddly regular spirals would somehow invade and corrupt their short, easily measured lives.
Is this a little better, or not? ...I hope it is, but I know it still needs work ;)
I'm going to skip over my first two reasons for beginning this story with description and just talk about how the *world* is a character... or to be more precise, how I am attempting to show the world as a character.
This takes place in a very stagnant society, a once great civilization sliding backwards. The garden and tower are important to the story (plot-wise) but also as a metaphor for the city itself. Abandonment. Starvation. Feral, unchecked growth overtaking lost knowledge. Citizens displaying superstition and willful ignorance. I also wanted a slightly lyrical beginning, like you would see at the start of a fairy tale, for that is a lighter side of superstition, a dangerous setting and childhood fear.
I want this particular atmosphere to hang over the story, to cast a shadow over every scene, every new character, every piece of dialogue uttered. I don't want the reader to forget, even for a moment, the world in which the main characters inhabit. That is why I introduced the setting before the characters.
Now, while that's all well and good, there's something you can't see in this example. In my first version, the next two paragraphs were also description. This morning I deleted these two paragraphs and littered the information throughout the next three scenes.
It was important for my writing process to get all the description down at once because having it in a big block at the beginning made it easy for me to flip back and remind myself where my characters were living. Once the first draft is done it's no longer necessary and it is highly detrimental to keep long paragraphs like that right up front. I mean seriously, the first 350 words were description... there is no way a reader would have turned the page to see what kind of characters lived in this world...
In the new version, the description is 122 words, then in the very next line/paragraph two characters are introduced. If there are approximately 250 words/page, I've used up half my quota on the world. That leaves me with 128 words for the characters. Since this story is written in third person rather than first, I'll need to work even harder on those 128 words to keep the reader's interest because they are not immediately jumping inside the head of a character.
I find breaking it down to numbers (very analytically) helps me step away and assess it from a much more objective viewpoint.
How much do you think about your first page? Are there tricks or techniques you use or think about when writing a first draft or re-writing?