After having read a good number of the first chapters at the New Voices competition ,both those I liked and those I didn't, I feel like I have learned a lot. Some of the entries that I enjoy start out in a sort of meandering way. It's usually well written, with likable characters, but it doesn't have that spark.
What's missing? Conflict. How do you get conflict on the first few pages without dropping your heroine in the middle of a battlefield? I mean, that's a great way to do it, if you're writing paranormal or suspense, but I'm not.
I think for me, the answer is to keep the story, the thread of conflict in mind. Most importantly at the beginning. I'm glad I took the advice to begin a new work for the competition. It's true my chapter would have benefited from some editing, but the process of building these characters and their story has enabled me to look at the other entries with a more discerning eye. To notice and most importantly, be able to articulate why an entry works for me.
I think all of the top ten, even the genres I don't prefer, have a strong conflict from the outset. This makes the reader wonder about what will happen next. The worrying a reader does about the characters is what makes those characters matter. Then, even if they aren't saving the world, their problems carry more weight and that makes one read on.