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This is the beginning of a novel I'm writing (not the final draft):

The hiking trail consisted of pairs of uneven stone steps. On both sides, tall coniferous trees extended tall into the sky, like an army of giants guarding the forest. From between their trunks an ominous mist watched quietly. In the air was the scent of winter, mixed with the smell of soil, dry leaves, moss. If you listened careful enough, you could hear the chirping of birds and insects—a tune so soft, so subtle, you sometimes thought you were humming to yourself.

Watching this scenery, I could see why An-Mei had chosen Alishan for her spiritual retreat. Something about this place made you feel protected, at ease. As though Mother Nature had laid you softly in her arms, and you no longer had to feel suffering or grief. The effect was soothing, almost magical.

But was it enough to heal An-Mei's pain?

It seems like the hooking part comes after the first paragraph. When the narrator starts talking about An-Mei and her spiritual wounds. They haven't met for a long time so this is a very important meeting for them.

How can I convey some of that in the first paragraph, and in a way that connects with the description smoothly? I've tried many options but none of them seem to work.

Or should I just leave it as it is?

I've always been a firm believer that the first sentences ought to grab the attention of the reader.

EDIT

How about this?

As I made my way uphill, I understood why An-Mei had chosen this place to heal her wounds. I inhaled a deep breath and stopped for a moment to absorb the scenery. The hiking trail consisted of pairs of uneven stone steps...

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The edited version is significantly better. –  Seanny123 Oct 28 '13 at 4:25
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each a bit better: (a) As I slowly made my way uphill, I understood ... (qualify) (b) Crawling up the hill, I understood ... (dramatize) (c) Crawling up the Bleak Hill, I understood ... (name) (d) I understood why ... wounds. Crawling up the barren side of the Bleak Hill ... (hook first) [Obviously barren and crawling do not fit your text, but they show the idea more clearly.] Your first sentence must be the hook. To test its power, copy it to a different document and evaluate it on its own. If it needs another sentence or paragraph to explain why the story is interesing, it is not good. –  what Nov 13 '13 at 12:21
    
@what Thanks for the suggestions. After ten revisions, I decided to leave it as: "I still couldn't believe An-Mei had come to a spiritual retreat. She was the last person I could imagine to join one. But as I made my way uphill I could see could see why she had chosen this place..." –  Alexandro Chen Nov 13 '13 at 12:40
    
Hmm, the problem I have with that is that I don't know An-Mei. I can believe anything about her, so the narrator unable to believe she had some to a spiritual retreat leaves me deeply disinterested. The version in CLockeWork's answer on the other hand focusses not on the narrator's disbelief or An-Mei's inconsistency, but on the place where we are being taken. It makes me curious: What is it about this place, that makes it ideal for a spiritual retreat. The hook sentence must grip someone unfamiliar with your story or characters. [contd.] –  what Nov 13 '13 at 20:58
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@what Yes, Spanish. I was born in South America (but my parents are Taiwanese). I read novels in English so I write in English. OK, I'll try that. For the time being, I'm using this: scribophile.com. I get good critiques from there. –  Alexandro Chen Nov 13 '13 at 21:11
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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

More flair and detail.

The mountain trail consisted of pairs of uneven granite steps. On both sides, majestic spruces and wind-torn pines pointed at the sky, like an army of giants guarding the sanctuary. From between their trunks ominous mists watched quietly. The air bore the scent of winter, soil, dry leaves and moss.

Hiking - sport-like activity - clashes with this mood.

If you can solidify abstractions, do so. Stone -> granite. Coniferous trees -> Spruces and pines. Give them some character.

Trees are the forest, so they aren't guarding the forest. This would be a minor point but you are striking a tone of pathos and pathos works only if it's perfect, flawless. Every tiny slip makes it a parody, so you can't afford a forest guarding a forest. If you do anthropomorphize, keep doing so.

Use passive voice only when you need to express the passive position - helplessness, laziness.

Remember, if you aim at "gripping" you can't afford any cheapness. Not a word. If you had time to build up a situation, you might use simple language and still grip the reader's heart, but since this is the beginning, you didn't have the time, so you must use perfection instead.

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I always fall back on a very useful piece of info I once received: many publishers, upon reading a first paragraph that is pure description, will simply discard the piece and move on.

I often use prologues to give the reader a taste of the action, hooking them in before I get into the story proper, but as your story is one of self-discovery I don't think approach would sit well.

The simplest solution I can see is to swap the first and second paragraphs:

I could see why An-Mei had chosen Alishan for her spiritual retreat. Something about the place made you feel protected, at ease. As though Mother Nature had laid you softly in her arms, and you no longer had to feel suffering or grief. The effect was soothing, almost magical.

The hiking trail consisted of pairs of uneven stone steps. On both sides, tall coniferous trees extended tall into the sky, like an army of giants guarding the forest. From between their trunks an ominous mist watched quietly. In the air was the scent of winter, mixed with the smell of soil, dry leaves, moss. If you listened careful enough, you could hear the chirping of birds and insects—a tune so soft, so subtle, you sometimes thought you were humming to yourself.

But was it enough to heal An-Mei's pain?

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Thanks, you gave me a good idea for an opening. –  Alexandro Chen Oct 26 '13 at 2:24
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Ditto on the good advice and rewrites already given. Especially with a short story, you want to establish the main character and the story's central problem in that opening sentence. You might hint at the setting as well. Shifting the description of the hiking trail to the second sentence helps achieve all of that.

To keep readers engaged in that second sentence, you may want to consider a different verb than "consisted of." That's just a fancy way of saying "exists as," so it acts like a passive voice being verb. Instead, infer the steps are uneven by describing how the main character must step over them.

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