First chapters are hard, you guys. First chapters of sequels – doubly so.
And first chapters for a ‘verse where you’ve built in complicated linguistics and alien cultures with questionable morality? Well… you still have to start somewhere.
There’s a balance with sequels. You don’t want to bore the reader who just finished the previous book, and you don’t want to stall getting started telling the story to re-cap what is now backstory. But you don’t want to people to feel like they walked into the “middle of the movie” either.
I’ve been a writing instructor for UT Arlington for the past eleven years, so I’m sure if some of my students read this, they’ll get a kick out of seeing me pick apart my own work instead of theirs.
Some of what I’m about to say will be bordering spoiler territory, but I’ll try to keep it vague.
“Where’s Kayla?” Mertex asks, his polite smile showing a wide mouth full of razor-sharp shark-like teeth.
First lines are important. This one contains a bit of foreshadowing – “Where’s Kayla?” is going to become an important questions later on.
Also, the contrast between Mertex’s “polite smile” and the danger implied by his teeth gets us started with one of the biggest questions in the book – are the Zantite views on violence as justice justified.
The bald lemon-yellow alien is wearing a brightly-colored collared shirt and long shorts combo, casual beachwear that contrasts the crisp black uniform he’d had on the last time we met. Mertex is small for a Zantite. He’s still big enough to have once picked me up, carried me under his arm, and forced me to my knees so his superior officer could try to eat me. It was not his best day, nor mine, pero, we’ve moved past that, no?
This description gives a nod to the first book and the prior conflict without pulling us too far out of the current scene. It also gives SO much about the atmosphere, and helps sell the fact that we’re currently on an island here.
In fact, we’re having dinner together, eating just-caught seafood at a restaurant overlooking one of his home island’s many beaches. Sí. I lived up to my promise and made it to Zant. Bo Benitez on her glitzarazzi tour of the Major Fourteen. The whole galaxy is watching.
This book is going to contain a TON of made up words. I start introducing them on the first page, so the reader is fairly warned. If you just went and Googled the difference between glitterazzi and glitzarazzi, hang on to your hat!
“Kayla and Kaliel are coming in a couple of weeks. After Kayla’s graduation.”
Everyone at the table looks at me with sympathy. Kayla was my roommate at culinary school. We were supposed to be graduating together – if I hadn’t spent the last few months on Earth trying to sort my legal problems.
Showing how much time has passed since the end of Book 1.
My stylist, my publicist, and my assistant chef are all still staring, like I might shatter from the disappointment.
I shrug. “Que? I’m just happy to still be alive. I could easily have gotten shaved, no?”
Shaved, as in public execution by guillotine.
I have no illusions. Nada. Nunca. If HGB hadn’t needed me to come here to Zant, my head would no longer be connected to my body.
There’s going to be a lot of Spanglish in this book, as opposed to sections of consecutive Spanish sentences. When my editor and I were discussing how to include this aspect of the linguistics for the first book in the series, he told me to imagine that Bo, a fluent Spanish speaker is telling her story to an English speaking audience. Every time I have her say something entirely in Spanish, I then have to have her explain it en inglés. So I try to save that for the areas where it will have the most emotional impact for a Spanish speaker getting to see Bo share things in the language of her heart.
This is one of those aspects of writing where no matter how you do it, you aren’t going to make everyone happy. Fluent bilingual speakers may find the explanations annoying. I tried to minimize this by not explaining things that can be seen from individual words in a sentence (even if you don’t know that nunca means never, you can kind of figure it out). Where I do give you a definition for a short phrase, I only define it the first time, and then you’re responsible for remembering it.
Pero, the fate of Earth hangs in the balance. This alien race is in the process of filing paperwork with the Galactic Court to legally invade my planet. Earth needed to send a diplomat. They needed a persuasive powerhouse.
I try to use certain Spanish words repeatedly in the text, so that the reader starts to recognize them without thinking. I do the same thing with Brill’s speech in the Krom invented language. I gave them each a conjunction that comes to mind more easily in their native language. Real bilingual speakers tend to do this – there are certain little words that slip out when you’re trying to remember the important vocabulary for the rest of the sentence. And if you’re learning more than one language – oye! I’ve slipped a Japanese connector particle into a Spanish sentence before.
Bo gets “pero” meaning “but.” Brill gets “uan” meaning “for,” “because,” “it follows that,” etc. This linguistic habit is one of the things that shows the reader they are in some ways similar.
They got me. A washed up never-quite-was holostar turned culinary academy dropout and her entourage.
So why exactly are wehere? It’s because of chocolate.
Chocolate is the only unique commodity Earth has left that other species in the galaxy want. HGB, the company on Earth that controls cacao, will sell the aliens all the chocolate bricks and cocoa powder they produce. Just not the unfermented beans.
All of this was described in detail in Book 1. But it’s important enough that it has to be explained front and center for the plot of this book to make any sense.
I’d stolen a pod worth of beans and given them to the Nilka and the Krom, in an attempt to forestall war. I’d been naïve, thinking it would be that simple, no?
Again a nod to the past – and here’s the kicker. She thought she’d solved the series plot problem at the end of book 1. And here, she’s admitting that her perspective had to change. Which shows new readers right away that this is a character who’s going to arc.
A number of planets that didn’t get cacao still want to force open earth’s borders at railgun point. Pero, they can’t say it’s to rip away our commodities. They have to claim it’s because we’re acting aggressive towards the rest of the galaxy. Which, given our closed borders and outward-pointing planetary defenses, is kinda true.
I had been guilty of treason against Earth for selling chocolate to the aliens. But the Zantite’s King, Garfex, had liked me, had actually danced with me aboard a Zantite warship – long story – and challenged me to prove my objections to him invading my world. Minda’s on our side in this. She’s also one of King Garfex’s favorites. He’s capricious, and changes the law to suit himself. He’s already changed his mind once, when it was Minda doing the asking.
I know. There’s a lot of plot problem here to remember. Did I mention that before this chapter there was a prologue, told from a different viewpoint, with lots of action to get the reader intrigued enough to make it through this? Do something once in your writing, and it is a mistake. Do it three times, and it is an intentional pattern. So each Chocoverse book opens with a prologue showing a scene of violence that happened in the past, but that ties into the events Bo’s dealing with in the present. It’s my one opportunity to slide in facts the reader needs that I have no way for Bo to know. In Free Chocolate, the prologue details her Father’s death, and gives the reader the subtle hint that in Ch.1, Bo and her boyfriend are on a double date with her mother – and the assassin who just murdered her father. In this book, we just found out about a mind-altering disease and a woman who got frozen so scientists could study it.
If we can sway Zant to back out, by proving we’re not dangerous monsters, then the rest of the coalition loses half their warships and mucho momentum. We’re here to convince Zant that Earth deserves a spot in the galaxy. And we’re going to do it with a cooking show.
Pero, no pressure, right?
I can’t complain, though. I’d put myself in this position the minute I left school and committed treason by freeing chocolate. And I’d capped it by volunteering to tour with Minda Frou, Zandywood’s most popular star.
You guys are going to love Minda. I promise!
When I’d been in cooking school, I’d had amigos, a goal, una vida.
All that is gone, and for what? I may have shared chocolate with a few other planets, pero those cacao beans have barely sprouted into seedlings, and HGB intends on keeping the supply of unfermented beans as limited as possible. I’m sure they’re already planning to sabotage the off-Earth plantations. That way, chocolate stays expensive – and with such a galactic commodity they still have a reason to be the most powerful corporation on Earth.
Mi hermoso Brill catches hazy reflection in the wall’s polished black rock surface. Most of the buildings on Letekka – the only Island-continent I’ve seen so far of Zant — are made of the same stone, inside and out. Brill runs his hand across the damaged skin on his cheek and across his nose, where it’s rough and tinted orange.
The only time you are allowed to use mirrors/reflections in your writing is if the character is actually worried or curious about what he’s seeing there. Character’s should never look in a mirror as an excuse to provide a base physical description for the reader. And having the character look even if they are worried or curious says something about them. I specifically wanted to highlight how vain Brill is about his looks – which makes it odd that he hasn’t had this injury corrected by a cosmetic surgeon.
Brill’s from Krom, a planet that’s still not on the best of terms with Earth, despite being one of the ones to wind up with a nascent cacao grove.
So many of the tiny vessels carrying his iron-rich blood had burst when Mertex had thrown him into a blast freezer, inside a muy grande chocolate mold, not so long ago. Again, not Mertex’s best day. Pero, it had been Brill’s, when he’d stopped thinking about himself first and become un verdadero héroe. Him stepping in front of Mertex had saved my life.
And that there’s something more to Brill than JUST being vain.
Mertex notices, and his yellow skin blushes green.
Sliding in more worldbuilding.
“It’s not done healing.” It’s hard to tell exactly who Brill is talking to. Is he acknowledging the history between him and Mertex? He looks over at me, “Don’t worry, Babe. It probably won’t even scar.”
It probably will, pero I keep that thought to myself. Let him hold on to his hope and his vanity, and who knows, maybe that healing balm he keeps slathering on every time he thinks I’m not looking will do the trick.
Even if it doesn’t, I still think we make un bien encarado couple. He’s tall and built and strawberry-blonde, with a chiseled jaw and those distinctive Krom chromashifting irises. I’m slim and dark-haired, with a wide smile and a slightly hooked nose that highlight my Mexican ancestry, and just tall enough to fit perfectly in his arms.
Yeah… you gotta get the physical descriptions in somehow. Especially when the reader doesn’t know yet who looks like a human and who looks like a giant yellow shark crossed with Mr. Clean. (In one of the early drafts of Free Chocolate, a couple of beta readers assumed Bo was an alien, because she was at school on an alien planet, and were then surprised later by her physical description.) I tried to at least give her a motivation here for describing herself. Not my most brilliant paragraph ever, but it gets the needed information across.
Mertex bites at his lip and looks from me to Brill. Then he changes the subject, gracias a Dios. He asks Brill, “Are you sure you don’t want to try the lenmakf?”
“Nah, Su. I’m good with the soup.” Brill’s okay with eating some kinds of fish when he’s in a group where others are eating it, pero today he’s gone strict vegetarian. It’s a Krom thing, especially on un nuevo planeta. It makes sense, given their fragile cardio systems, combined with their do-no-harm explorer nature. While there are limits to the foods I will try, I am more open to exploring local proteins. Still, it’s never been an issue between us.
One way I tried to make the Spanish easier to deal with is to sometimes use words that sound similar to their English counterparts. I find it fascinating how many words flow between languages, especially in today’s global society. Imagine in the future of this ‘verse, when first contact has changed everything, and the center of the world’s economy shifts towards countries located along the Earth’s equator.
A Zantite at another table waves at Mertex. Murry smiles even bigger, and my stylist Valeria lets out a muffled, unhappy noise. Which tugs at mi corazón. I can remember being that terrified of a Zantite grin. Zantites are capable of unhinging their jaw to fit something larger than they should be able to into their mouths – and once that something was me.
I flash back to being in the mouth of a Zantite, a single breath away from having my spine severed with razor-sharp teeth. I put my fork down to hide the trembling in my hands as the remembered fear battles with the permanent side effects of my unwanted drug addiction. Which had been forced on me by that same Zantite.
Bo’s addiction to the Invincible Heart was one of the things I wrote into the first book without really considering the implications it would have for her throughout the rest of the series. But coming into this book knowing I’d have to deal with it somehow, I leaned into it, and let it be one of the challenges she has to face on both a physical level – and as another layer of shame she has to overcome. And it became something powerful that ties several of the plot threads together.
Mi publicist Tawny’s staring out the window, her ice blue eyes intent. Down on the sand, the leaves of some of the plants and the curving edge of the ocean are lit with a phosphorescent glow. This place is muy bonito. I follow her gaze to a dark cliff, level with the restaurant, where shadowy shapes, their hands and faces outlined with fuchsia, are leaping one at a time into the water, then running back up a path to get in line again.
Introducing a setting that will come back up later. Always better to do that than to have to drop the initial description of a place into the middle of an action scene.
“I used to do that,” Tawny says. She has pixie-cut brown hair and warm-toned brown skin. She’s mixed race, part of it Hawaiian. “When I was a kid, we used to do back-flips off Black Rock all day long, then at sunset, a guy would dress up like an old-time Polynesian warrior, and they’d tell all the tourists that it was going to be dangerous when he leapt from the rock into the sea. We’d never do it at night, though. That wasdangerous.”
Mertex looks confused, and I’m sure I’m about to have to explain human cultural history, pero he says, “Weren’t you with your pod? Would they not have cast light-buoys on the water to keep you safe?”
“So those are children,” Brill says. He’s been quiet tonight. I can’t tell if something’s bothering him, or if he’s just trying to appraise the situation. “Learning pods only last until you guys are what, sixteen?”
“Roughly that, though years are longer here than on Krom.”
No lo sé what that means in terms of years on Earth.
Having two aliens comparing time scales on their planets helps sell the idea of a ‘verse where Earth isn’t the center of everything – or even a particularly powerful player.
What would it have been like for Mertex to have been a child here? I study the kids out on the rock, and suddenly, the line of moving hands becomes a circle, and in the middle, there are two pairs of hand-outlines, grappling with each other, waving wildly. Then one of the hands disappears.
Oi! Shock knifes cold through my stomach. “En serio? Did one of the kids bite that one’s hand off?”
One thing people forget is that Spanish is regional, perhaps even more so than English. Bo is from Mexico, and Mexican Spanish (itself a vast oversimplification) is very different from the Spanish spoken in Spain or Cuba. This makes Bo’s vocabulary very specific. However, she uses phrases like “Oi!” a lot – even though that feels very generic. Words commonly used to express shock and dismay in one part of the Spanish Speaking world can annoy or offend people from another part of the globe. It seemed safer to stick with words that don’t have a range of translations when dealing with high emotions.
Brill stands up from his chair so fast that he knocks it over backwards. “We have to get down there!”
“No,” Mertex says. “You’d get hurt trying to break up brakks.”
“But those are kids,” Brill protests.
This thought is going to be important later – and we will already know that Brill is protective of children when it becomes relevant.
Mertex pulls aside the neck of the tunic to expose his right shoulder, where a thick scar runs over the outside, outlining a shiny patch where a graft was once required to keep the arm. “And I was a shy kid, Brill. But don’t worry. No one will die out there tonight. Their lives are all bound to each other, and if one of them comes up missing, it would be… bad… for the rest. Executions here are swift, and our justice is without mercy.”
I look down at my plate, not hungry anymore. I sneak a look over at Mertex. He’d said his life is bound to mine and Brill’s, that he is our protector on this planet. It’s suddenly a chilling thought.
Brill slowly sits back down.
Tawny looks over at him. “I never realized you were so protective of children, Mr. Cray. Do you have any of your own?”
“Of course not! Ga!” Brill looks from Tawny over to me, and I can’t read his face. It’s always seemed that even asking Brill if he wants niños would be pushing our relationship too far. Most Krom see humans as an inferior species, and a Krom/Human crisscross is bound to be an outsider everywhere.
Subtly defining “ga” as “no,” which he’s going to use a lot. Brill says “no” a lot more often than he says “yes”.
Heat floods my face, and suddenly I need to get out of this room, surrounded as I am by a hundred giants who would be so quick to dispense justicia against niños, but even more by one man, whom I love more than anything, but still don’t completely trust with my heart, or my future.
I need to get Bo separated from the rest for this scene to play out – but this also says so much about her and Brill’s relationship, which is going to be an important component in the book. Whenever possible, each piece of your writing should be doing more than one thing.
“Let’s go down to the beach,” I’m on my feet, headed for the door before anyone has a chance to respond.
I don’t want to get too far ahead, so I sit down on a bench by the doors. After a minute, this Zantite guy sits down next to me, keeping his hands in his pockets. I guess he figures it’s non-threatening. He’s wearing the beachwear, pero his pants are long.
“You’re Bo Benitez, aren’t you?” He’s speaking Universal, but with an accent that sounds a bit like he’s gargling rocks.
Universal! It’s what keeps this book from being so much longer than it is. HOWEVER, not everyone speaks it, and when they do, sometimes it’s as a regional dialect. It’s another level of linguistics I’m playing with.
Everyone writing about people from more than one planet will have to find a way to deal with multiple languages.
I don’t deny it. “It is an honor to make an initial impression of you . . .”
I gave the Zantites a whole slew of formalized language. Which has some interesting linguistic effects. When one of them says a canned phrase later in and actually means it, I feel like it hits a specific chord in the reader’s brain.
“Rex. I apologize thoroughly. Where are my manners?” He falls into the proscribed language. “And I also, Bo, bearer of the Invincible Heart.”
I make solid eye contact. “I also cook, and do things I actually have control over, mi amigo.”
And that tells you so much about Bo.
I’ll never understand the Zantite fascination with me for having taken the rage drug that they give to suicide soldiers – taken it and survived. Which is yet another reason I am here, instead of a more traditional diplomat. Even if, back home, hardly anyone knows about my addiction. It’s been kept out of the Earth feeds, and the Zantites have shown enough respect to do the same. But that doesn’t stop their rumor mill.
“Shame about you and the IH. I understand Earthlings never get over it, that the need to feel that power again just keeps getting stronger and stronger, no matter how long it’s been. How bad is it for you?”
I shrug. “It’s manageable.”
Which is a lie. Him just talking about it has me sweating, has my hands itching to reach for something that isn’t there. I never wanted IH in the first place, had been forcibly injected with it aboard a Zantite warship. It’s not fair – but then addiction never is.
The fact that Bo just lied in the first chapter is significant. So much of this series is about truth and lies, and deciding if it is ever okay to lie for the greater good. She got very upset about the very fact that Brill COULD lie in the first book – and here she’s lying easily to a stranger because she believes he doesn’t deserve the truth.
“I suppose it must be manageable, if you have no choice.” He leans back, and the bench creaks under both of us. The Invincible Heart is a controlled substance – one that even the Krom, with their mission of “discovering” commodities to trade throughout the galaxy, consider too much of a menace to touch.
I hold up a hand, letting Rex see the tremors. “Coffee helps control some of the symptoms, pero I haven’t found a place to get any since we landed.”
“There’s an excellent coffee shop just a few streets that way.” He points inland, then leans towards me, the scale of him intimidating, the hints of teeth revealed when he smiles down at me feartastic. “But how much would it be worth to you to have another dose of what you really need?”
The idea that coffee was spread across the galaxy was introduced in Book 1. The fact that it’s a given on this planet, so far away from Earth, helps sell the idea of an interconnected ‘verse.
I blink. “You have military grade rage drugs on you right now?”
He shrugs. All Zantites are bald, and the moonlight glints off his head. “I can get it. I’m a doctor’s assistant aboard the Infinite Destruction, and I’ve had to hand it out to the guys going on those missions before. Twice. Hard to do, you know.” Because IH is lethal to Zantites after the effects wear off, no exceptions. Having to administer the drug is exceedingly rare – unless the ship’s captain is loco. Pero, the fact that they will do it at all makes the thought of them invading Earth even more terrifying. The guy looks down at me. “At least it wouldn’t kill you.”
“Shows what you know.” I hop down off the bench. “That stuff keeps building up in the Earthling liver. Takes longer, and more doses, but it kills us just as dead.”
I really want the worlbuilding to flow off the page, so that the reader really imagines the ‘verse continues past this story. The fact that these two both think they understand things about the other’s cultures/biology that they really don’t helps sell that.
I head away from the guy, down the path toward the beach, sure mis amigos will follow. And in the meantime, it’s nice to be alone.
As in Tawny-free.
HGB doesn’t trust me. They’ve bugged my dorm, my phone, my jail cell – and now my person. Not that I can blame them. After all, I did commit theft/treason when I stole a cacao pod out of one of their facilities. Pero, they’d had me bugged well before that, just for consorting with a Krom.
They’d have chosen someone else for this diplomatic mission, if they’d had any choice. Pero, I had volunteered aboard a Zantite warship, where I had just risked my life to find out that the Zantites were looking at colonizing a planet at the edge of Earth’s solar system – and that they were holding a conference to discuss whether or not it made sense to invade mi planet. Minda chose me. King Garfex approved her choice.
It would have been awkward for HGB to say I’d been executed and they were sending someone else. Tawny’s here officially as my publicist. She’s really my babysitter.
I ditch my jacket – along with Tawny’s camera, which she doesn’t know I spotted – in a nearby trash bin.
I’m wearing a sleeveless blouse underneath, and I’m enjoying the feel of the cool night air against my skin as I walk down the path towards the sand – right up until an oversized hand grabs my arm.
This leads into the idea that a scene represents a change of state. (See Robert McKee’s Story for an excellent explanation of this.) Bo stared this chapter intimidated, but okay, got upset and changed physical locations, and now she’s going from relieved to terrified.
At first I think the Zantite I’d been talking to on the bench followed me, pero he hasn’t moved, and this guy had been standing so still I’d mistaken him for a tree in the dark. He pulls me off the path, into the shadows cast by the real trees. There’s still enough moonlight to get a look at him. It’s the tall Zantite with the concave area on the right side of his skull that I’d met at the spaceport, the one who had come in the same welcoming party with Mertex. Murry and Dent Head had seemed to be on the verge of a fight.
When he leans down close to me, this guy’s breath smells like fish and rum – pero mostly rum. That can’t be bueno. Mi corazon’s hammering.
Always good to check in with the viewpoint character’s internal physical sensations to help sell the emotion in a scene.
Brill comes out the restaurant door, looking around to see if I waited for him.
If I shout, this Zantite might panic. He hasn’t done anything overtly violent, hasn’t even said anything yet. I’ve had a sublingual installed in my head since I was a teenager. The device is wired to both my brain and my vocal chords. More than just a phone, it helps me process and remember languages. Pero, the handiest feature is that I can use it without needing to speak. I open my channel and make a sublingual call to Brill’s handheld.
I just infodumped about the sublingual tech, but because it’s in the middle of a tense scene – where it is relevant – it feels like info the reader needs and they absorb it while worrying more about Bo’s physical wellbeing.
He answers immediately, his voice warm and concerned inside my head. You okay, Babe? You seemed upset.
Half way down the path to the beach, I bubblechatter at him. I’m in trouble, but I’d rather not cause a galactic incident.
Bubblechatter is one of my favorite future smashedwords.
So no guns, Brill says, starting to wander towards me. The pitch of his voice doesn’t even change.
“Say,” the dripsy Zantite slurs in passable universal, “Is it true that you that you shot that brat Crosskiss with his own vapgun?”
“I did.” I try to slide my arm out of the guy’s fist, but he’s not quite alchafuzzed enough.
Alchafuzzed is another.
“That makes you a hero. Good thing I don’t have to kill you to give Mertex the fright of his life.”
When we’d landed, Mertex had met us at the spaceport, pulled me aside and said he’d vowed to Minda to keep me and Brill safe, which somehow links our lives to his. So whatever’s about to happen to me should leave the poor muchacho terrified.
Dent Head brings my hand up, closer to his mouth.
I squeak. He might not realize humans bleed a lot more than Zantites when we get bitten. And I’m rather attached to that arm. “Wait! There’s still enough IH in my system to make you sick.” I speak slowly, in Zantite, in case he’s drunker than I thought – and to give Brill, who’s hearing all of this over my sublingual, time to do something. “You know – Noble Race — suicide drug – Crosskiss tried to use me as a murder weapon.”
The Zantite laughs. He raises my arm higher, till he can get a good look at my wrist, which he touches with a device that was concealed in his other hand. There’s no pain, pero the world goes dark, and the last thing I hear as my consciousness falls away is Brill, both over the sublingual and in the darkness, saying, “Babe?”
There’s a minor cliffhanger here. The reader might expect to switch into Brill’s viewpoint here, if they didn’t read Free Chocolate before this one. I made the intentional decision to write an entire space opera series in the first person POV. There are a few near-cheats I’ve used – holographic tech that allows Bo to have conversations with people who are on different planets that feel as though they are taking place in the same room, feedcasts that allow Bo to watch events she wasn’t present for, people who tell stories as flashbacks, so the reader gets to feel like they were present. It is a limiting challenge – but at the same time, it allows for a deeper understanding of Bo as a protag, and helps this to stay solidly her story, when she’s the character protagging on heart and justice, but surrounded by cops and warriors and pirates and manipulators. So the next chapter opens with Bo waking up in a tree, out over the water, which she is about to fall into, so she can discover a clue that will lead deeper into the plot problem.