Question: I have purchased your book, The First Five Pages, and found it to be very valuable. I wonder, however, how likely it is that an over-worked literary agent (or editor) would have the time to read those first five pages. I would like to know what you think of making the first five sentences (or paragraphs, if need be) as vital and as impossible to ignore as those five pages?
This is a good question and shows that you are thinking in the right way, since you already realize that an author does not have the luxury of time or space in catching an agent's or editor's attention. Ten years ago, I wrote in the introduction of my book, The First Five Pages, that the title should have really been The First Five Sentences, since most agents will make a determination based upon these. This still holds true. An experienced literary agent can, in most cases, determine an author's writing ability within just a few sentences. Agents have to: if they don't have this ability, there is simply no way they will be able to survive, to sift through the thousands of manuscripts that cross their desk every year.
So, yes, it is vital that your first five sentences be as well written as your first five pages. But don't let this become an excuse to labor over the first five sentences (and the first five pages) and then let the rest of your manuscript fall apart. My point all throughout The First Five Pages was never for an author to merely labor over the first five pages, but rather that these first five pages serve as a microcosm for the rest of the book: if, for example, you overuse adjectives and adverbs in the opening pages, then you likely overuse them throughout the rest of your manuscript. The point was to take a step back, examine and revise your first five pages intensively, then take what you've learned and apply this throughout the rest of your work. The most important lesson you will walk away with is the one of craftsmanship: if you spend an entire month on your opening page, an entire week on your opening paragraph, this will change your work ethic and raise your standards dramatically. You can then apply these standards throughout the rest of your manuscript.
That is the value of your first five pages.