densewords is what I call my literary and language services. I'm Harry Dewulf, a freelance editor and writer. I specialize in story editing (literary / content editing) for indie writers who are publishing their work electronically for reading devices like Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook.


The Head: why the first paragraph of a chapter deserves a name.

Chapters are a convention that we have inherited. I don't know when they first became formalized. We find episodes where distinct events take place and specific objectives are achieved in some of the earliest stories. The first example out of my head is the Iliad of Homer, which is divided into 24 books, whose distinguishing features are much the same as what we use to define chapters: differences in time and place, characters, and completed events, each of which contributes to a larger story.

Whether it is simply the practical convenience of having a point where you can put down the book and turn out the light, to pick up again easily the following evening, or whether there is something cognitive, or rhythmic, or otherwise mysterious about the nature of this structure, it is one that is used in most modern novels.

Indeed, many modern writers subdivide their chapters into scenes. Usually this subdivision allows the author to avoid wasting time with narrative taxis*. Sometimes this subdivision shows that the author can't write long scenes.

A new chapter, therefore, begins something new in the story. A chapter has to have a goal or objective; something has to be achieved, so that the chapter can come to an end, and a new chapter begin.

The first paragraph of the chapter, therefore, has a very specific job of work to do. This is why I don't call it a paragraph at all. I call it a chapter head.

My reasons for not calling it a paragraph are partly because of objectives, partly because of conventions, and partly because it is a place where normal narrative rules are broken good and hard for solid practical reasons.

Consider this as the first line of a chapter:

It seemed to Inspector Bodkin that the carriage door was not properly shut.

In any other paragraph, you would be rebuked by saying that something seemed. Using "seem" is a crime I call 'touching the mask' which I will probably have to explain in a lot more detail in another post, but which is, in brief: calling attention to the process of narration within the narration.

But in a chapter head, the fragment 'It seemed to Inspector Bodkin that...' gives the reader vital practical information; it tells the reader that this chapter will be, either broadly or narrowly, from the point-of-view of Inspector Bodkin.

It also gives us "carriage door". The broader context of the book will tell you whether this is a train or a coach, and whether the Inspector is on it, in it or beside it you would expect to know from the next line:

Despite his badge, or perhaps because of it, the inspector had had a hard time getting a ticket, but now that he was on the train he was having a hard time finding the conductor.

In modern novels it's very common to place the character mid action in the first couple of lines (in medias res), and then use the next couple of paragraphs, in the pluperfect, to explain how he got there. I like things to be a little more efficient, so I'm limiting my pluperfect to hinting at the inspector's possible state of mind - someone was being difficult at the ticket office, and now he can't find the conductor, so he may be feeling impatient or frustrated.

As he bumped through the crowded carriage, he wondered where the hell sergeant Baxter had got to.

'Where the hell' (rather than just 'where') signposts the fact that the POV is narrow enough that Bodkin's thoughts can be heard in the narration. This line achieves three more objectives: the train is crowded; it's probably moving (though at this stage, bumped might just be referring to people in his way); there is another character who is expected to be present in this chapter. The reader will probably expect some clarification about the nature of Baxter's absence in the next line or two.

The chapter head, then, is doing a number of jobs, other than just setting the scene. Whether or not it uses the in medias res>>flashback convention that is so popular right now, or some other narrative device, the purpose is not only to place the reader in the location and with the characters, but also to remind the reader of the type of story, the type and style of narration. It's purpose is of orientation. The very best chapter heads also hint at a story objective. Sometimes through foreshadowing or irony. Sometimes they state them explicitly:

Wherever Baxter had got to, Inspector Bodkin couldn't hang about. He had to locate Forstner before the train reached the next station.

That is a really bold statement of narrative intent, of a kind that (again) would usually earn a scolding. It's almost as bad as little did he know. But in a chapter head, a statement like that reads like a sort of challenge. It's like the writer has said the the reader "I'm daring myself to resolve this plot point by the end of this chapter."

Chapter heads, then, are special places. Time, and tense need not follow their usual rules; rules of subtlety can be ignored, boundaries between narrator, character and reader can be weakened. Often, the chapter head is the best candidate of all for the trick of moving the sentence you wrote last to the beginning. Unconventional order of narrative is the convention.

A chapter head has to say: a new chapter has begun. It has to say: this is who and what it is about, and: this is how I will be telling it.

When editing, I spend about ten times as long on the chapter head as I do on every other paragraph in the chapter, including the last. As a writer, you should spend at least as long.

* A narrative taxi is a passage, often no more than a short paragraph, that moves a story from one scene to another. The name comes from the analogy that I usually give to explain it, where characters have some meaningful event in the restaurant, and then go on to a nightclub, where something else meaningful occurs. Nothing meaningful occurs between the two locations. So a narrative taxi is when the whole process of calling a cab (or hailing a taxi), the trip, the arrival, and so on, are narrated. Most modern writers will skip all of this, by beginning the nightclub scene with the characters getting out of the taxi. This provides a bridge for those readers that need it, with out taxing, boring or insulting those that don't need it.


Weird Words: Recovery

Having taken some time off for ill health...

Actually, that common turn of phrase is itself rather daft. It sounds like I took some time off in order to be unwell.
 Be that as it may, I was wondering about a small group of words whose meanings and derivations overlap, but which are not all that close, after all. Usually, on a post like this, I would start with the research into derivation and past usage, but I want to be clear first on what I think are the usual modern meanings of this small group of words, to whit:

  • recover
  • regain
  • recuperate
  • recoup
Recover - the most commonly used, with the widest variety of meanings, all of which orbit around notions of getting back something lost, to which you have title or ownership or otherwise deserve. In my case, recovery from ill health is the recovery of good health. But you can also recover your investment, your stolen goods and your long lost sister.

Regain - seems to be more specific and more abstract than recover at the same time, since you can regain both the shore having been blown adrift, and also regain consciousness having been knocked out. Soldiers can regain ground that was lost, and also regain their former glory after being dishonoured. Some of these things can also be recovered, but unlike recover, regain has not yet made the leap to intransitivity. You always have to regain something.

Recuperate - almost exclusively used in the expression R&R - rest and recuperation. It seems to mean something very similar to recovery - to restore a depleted state - but suggests a more active, concerted and/or directed approach.Whereas I have been languishing in my bed, passively awaiting recovery, soldiers on leave seem to have a whole host of things they do in order to recuperate their physical and mental good condition. Some of those things seem quite strenuous and even risky.

Recoup - used almost exclusively in the expression recoup your losses, it seems to imply in most modern usage some sort of damage limitation, often after a risky investment.

NOW I'm going to visit my lexicography shelf. Back in a mo.


Recover - I have not been surprised to discover that this is etymologically the same word as recuperate - with the latter coming direct from Latin and recover coming via medieval Latin and French, which explains the small vowel shift and transformation of 'p' to 'v' (transformations between p, b, v, l and r are commonplace). Has a acquired a wide range of uses across the ESW but in all cases about getting back something lost - generally quite recently, and often figurative or abstract.

Regain - same root as again - which is 'gain' - being profit, or more specifically (in ancient usage) yield of crops. Regain is complicated, though. The modern (if ancient) French word regain refers to hay collected a second or third time from the same field - the sense of yield being very strong, but illustrates well the sense of profiting more than once from the same endeavour, which was the sense of regain for a long time. However in English the sense of getting back something lost has almost completely eclipsed this sense. We seem to prefer regain over recover in certain situations, and many writers prefer if for the spurious virtue of being "less Latin".

Recuperate - Etymologically, this means to recapture. Usage seems to be largely interchangeable with "recover" though the Latin haters hate this even more. Most usage centres around physical condition or loss of assets or investments. A telling distinction is that you can recover a lost cargo, but you can't recuperate a lost cargo. However freight can be recuperated. Heh...

Recoup - by far the most interesting of the bunch, the "coup" is to cut. It was a legal term, meaning to recover or redress a loss, such as by deducting expenses. As such the most common usage is to indemnify or otherwise make up losses, typically in investments.


Fixed Price Content Edit AND Royalty Split

From July 2014, my minimum price for a full content edit has crept up just a little, from 0.0115 EUR per word to 0.0121, or approx. 660 USD for 40k words (~0.0165 USD per word).

In addition, I am formally adding a new service and a new payment arrangement:

One Shot Read and Comment

This is a content edit, where I read and analyse your manuscript and focus my analysis on a few critical factors. More details on my website. This is offered at a fixed rate of 0.005 USD per word.

Payment by Royalty Split

Subject to my accepting your manuscript, I am offering four of these per year, and the next one available will be Q4 2014. The split is an "earn out + bonus" arrangement. On seeing your manuscript, I will set a fee for my edit. Once your book is launched, royalties are split 50/50 until my fee is paid, then 10% (the 'bonus') until the first anniversary of the book launch. If my fee is not paid by the first anniversary, then I will write it off. In other words, you have nothing further to pay. To be absolutely explicit: if the book sells zero copies in the first year, you don't pay me anything, ever for that book.

This arrangement is intended both to encourage new writers to take a more businesslike approach to selling their books, and to defray the costs of free edits, which I want to be able to continue to give. As such it isn't really suitable for authors who are already making a steady income - you will probably lose out.