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Openings that work

A quiet beginning

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi

at Amazon.com
In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature. They were all women–to teach a mixed class in the privacy of my home was too risky, even if we were discussing harmless works of fiction. One persistent male student, although barred from our class, insisted on his rights. So he, Nima, read the assigned material, and on special days he would come to my house to talk about the books we were reading.

I often teasingly reminded my students of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and asked, Which one of you will finally betray me? For I am a pessimist by nature and I was sure at least one would turn against me. Nassrin once responded mischievously, You yourself told us that in the final analysis we are our own betrayers, playing Judas to our own Christ. Manna pointed out that I was no Miss Brodie, and they, well, they were what they were. She reminded me of a warning I was fond of by repeating: do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth. Yet I suppose that if I were to go against my own recommendation and chose a work of fiction that would most resonate with our lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it would not be The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even 1984 but perhaps Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading or better yet, Lolita.

Openings that work

A Million Little Pieces
by James Frey

at Amazon.com
I wake to the drone of an airplane engine and the feeling of something warm dripping down my chin.

The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls

at Amazon.com
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.

The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini

at Amazon.com
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel
by Lisa See

at Amazon.com
I am what they call in our village “one who has not yet died”-a widow, eighty years old.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
by Mark Haddon

at Amazon.com
It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying in the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.

Famous First Words: Give your work a strong beginning
by Angela Harms

When you sit down to write, anything you can get on the screen (or paper) is a victory. That’s not the time to worry about making sure you have a powerful beginning. Too much of that kind of thinking can keep you from getting anywhere at all.

But when the beginning is so old you can barely remember writing it, it’s a good idea to go back with a fresh eye and hack it to pieces!

The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.
                      —Robert Cromier
(Maybe he'll read this article before he does his re-write.)
Well, it’s true, you may have written something with a riveting first page, first chapter, even first half. But don’t bet on it.

Nothing to be scared of, though. You only have to change things when you have something better to put in their place. So your writing can only improve.

The Hook

A hook is what pulls the reader in. It’s what make the reader stop at the browsing table and keep reading. “Wha? Yeah, uh, I’ll be right there…” When I picked up The Glass Castle, I was immediately drawn in. (See why on the right sidebar of this page.) The first sentence grabbed me, and what followed kept me interested.

A hook is not the same thing as a gimmick. If you take an uninteresting story, or one that is told in a dull way, and try to tack on hook at the beginning, you still won’t pull readers in. Readers are smart; if it doesn’t fit with the story, they won’t buy it.

The Fizzle Beginning

A tacked on, gimmicky hook is going to backfire.

I waited, but it was all I could do to keep from running. I checked my fingernails, fumbled in my purse. Then, a shadow moved to my left, and I stiffened.
“You ready to go?”
It was only David. “Yeah, let’s go.”

The trick is to start with an engaging story, and then find engaging ways to tell it. Concentrate on the first sentence, but also on the first paragraph, the first chapter, and beyond. If you can keep that focus up, you’ll find your writing habits have improved, and you’re crafting each sentence, rather than spitting them out.

The Quiet Beginning

Some beginnings aren’t really bold or exciting. But they’re not lacking in interest, either. It’s not the volume or outrageousness of your beginning that will give your story pizzazz.

Hear that? It’s a car out on the highway. One went by yesterday, too.

Are you curious? I know I am.

A successful opening moves the story along somehow (or kick-starts it). What the reader wants is to be puzzled, to experience a little meaningful stress. Usually that means that your character is experiencing stress as well. If your character seems bored, it’s likely your reader will be too.

“Hey, Hon?”
“Do you think you could pick me up some socks while you’re out today?”

Of course, it isn’t completely hopeless. We can think of ways to make that opening quickly go somewhere interesting. But without heroic efforts, we’ll watch it dissolve into nothing, quickly.

The Irrelevant Beginning

Suppose I write a story about a woman who works with dolphins, falls in love and makes a great discovery, causing her beloved to become jealous of her success and do something horrible. If I start that story with a scene where she gets into her red Lotus and drives very fast to her office, and then don’t ever mention the Lotus again, I leave the reader hanging and dissatisfied. I could make it even more frustrating for the reader by introducing her mother, who we never see again, and mentioning a letter she gets in the mail before taking off for work, without ever saying who it was from or what it has to do with anything.

The Buried Beginning

One of the best ways I know to figure out the right place to start a story is to write whatever you like, then go back and figure out when the story starts happening. In the previous example, I may write all of the things I’ve mentioned, and then cut everything so that the story starts when she opens the door to the office to find…

Wait, I’m not telling!

A story with a good beginning is like a moving escalator. Once you start, it’s easier to keep moving along than to get off (by closing the book). If you let your story start where it starts you’ll be well on your way to having your reader hooked.

Request your free 1000 word sample edit, or just email with questions: Angela Harms