Ferrett Steinmetz: Five Things I Learned Writing The Sol Majestic

Kenna, an aspirational teen guru, wanders destitute across the stars as he tries to achieve his parents’ ambition to advise the celestial elite.

Everything changes when Kenna wins a free dinner at The Sol Majestic, the galaxy’s most renowned restaurant, giving him access to the cosmos’s one-percent. His dream is jeopardized, however, when he learns his highly-publicized “free meal” risks putting The Sol Majestic into financial ruin. Kenna and a motley gang of newfound friends—including a teleporting celebrity chef, a trust-fund adrenaline junkie, an inept apprentice, and a brilliant mistress of disguise—must concoct an extravagant scheme to save everything they cherish. In doing so, Kenna may sacrifice his ideals—or learn even greater lessons about wisdom, friendship, and love.

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If You’re Thinking About Giving Into Despair: Don’t

I have a memory with an Etch-a-Sketch permanency; I forget everything in one shake of the head.  I can barely remember my wife’s birthday, let alone what day I started a novel.

But I remember the exact day I started writing The Sol Majestic: it was the worst day of my writing career.

See, I’d been trying to land an agent for almost twenty years.  But I’d honed my skills, and finally written a novel I could be proud to call my own – it was a weirdo little book about magical drug dealing and donuts, but it popped bright and I loved the characters.

The good news: I’d had an agent who’d been sniffing around my door, expressing interest in my fiction.  He’d asked me about that weird drug-dealing novel – have you finished that one yet, Ferrett? I’d love to see it when you’re done.  And he asked not once but twice, so I knew his interest was true.  Naturally, I sent it off to him the second I’d applied the final veneer of polish to my oddball fiction, and waited.

I waited for a month.

Then two months.

Then three months.

Well, that agent was very busy (as all good agents are), and he told me it might take a while to get back to me, so I figured waiting around for him solo was foolish – so I sent this magical donut drug-crime novel to other agents, all of whom summarily rejected it.

By nine months, it was apparent that my first agent was the only one still willing to look at it.

And on month ten, I got the reply from that agent that started with words you never want to hear from a professional:

“I’m sorry, but….”

Turns out this agent really liked the characters, but he felt the plot was broken.  And he’d been thinking about it on and off for almost six months now, truly wanting to give me some advice that would provide me with a rewrite so he could take me on as a client.  But after a long time, he’d decided that any of his plot-fixes would destroy the book, forcing me to tell a story I didn’t want to tell, and so, well…

Better luck next time.

And I broke.

I curled up in my basement, crying, because that had been my last chance at publication.  If I wanted to have a publisher print my book, I’d have to first write the book, which would take me a year, and then spend another ten months shopping it around, and then maybe it would sell – maybe – and I’d get it published, what? Four years from now?

It seemed like a long goddamned slog for no good reason.

And I looked at whether I wanted to be a writer.

And I knew that if I didn’t start a novel right then, that day, in that hour, I would set down the pen and never write again.

So I wrote the start of a simple novel.  I didn’t have a setting in mind, so I copped a universe from my Nebula-nominated novella “Sauerkraut Station.”  I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, but I’d been reading a lot of Anthony Bourdain lately, so fuck it – kitchen drama in space.  And my protagonist….

Well, he was in despair.  Just like me.  Searching for a way out.

Now, you may note that this novel got published.  And as it turned out, due to some dumb luck, that magical drug-dealing novel got published as well – that was my debut novel “Flex.”

But if I’d given into despair, well, none of that would have happened.

Look: the road to publishing is pretty much designed to drive people mad.  It’s a whole lot of subjective opinions, and judgy strangers deciding whether your worth has any external value, and long waits while someone else determines if your words are good enough today.  And some days you’re NOT good enough, and you have to go back to examine your writings with blunt truth and honesty, finding ways to level up your skills so you can perform this imperfect ink-smeared telepathy we humans call “writing.”

But if you’re having a hard day, let me tell you:

DO NOT GIVE UP.

I got there.

Maybe you can, too.

When You Got No Time For Research, Seek Out Your Trashy Loves

Sci-fi author Mary Robinette Kowal is infamously meticulous in her research; at one point, she went through every word in her 19th-century Regency England fantasy to ensure that every word in the book was period-accurate.  Was no one in the 1820s describing eyes as “baby blue”? Well, out that phrase went.

Me?  I get tired reading half a Wikipedia page.

So when I was writing a book, I chose something I had an innate love of – which is to say, every food network show ever.  I have an unholy love of Gordon Ramsay in all his incarnations from Hell’s Kitchen monster to adoring MasterChef Junior pseudo-dad.  I’ve watched every Iron Chef and worship at the altar of hometown hottie Michael Symon.  I’ve read tons of chef’s biographies.

So did I do a lot of research for my book The Sol Majestic?  Not entirely.  I didn’t research for the book, exactly, but every time I’d sat riveted in front of the Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary, every book I’d read on legendary restaurant El Bulli, every time I’d thumbed through Kitchen Confidential, well…

Let’s just say I was an expert through fandom.

And this book I was writing because, shit, I was about to throw in the towel?  It needed to be pure comfort reading.  Yeah, I could put a character in dire straits, but I was in no headspace to write a horror novel.

I needed to build a fictional home I could escape to – someplace wonderful I could retreat to when the world got to be too much.

So I wrote a story about the most beautiful restaurant in all the stars – a place where they served miraculous foods only made possible through science-fictional technology, using everything I’d ever loved about fine dining to create a kitchen with chefs I adored.  That knowledge I’d picked up on how Michelin-starred restaurants planned their meals using only the freshest cuisine?  I figured out the supply lines from locally-sourced produce all the way to a kitchen that was light-years away from habitable ecosystems with a mixture of “How It’s Made” and old Planet Money episodes.  I recreated the working environment of a functioning, jovial kitchen by sifting my memories of endless Netflix food documentaries.

And that’s the weird thing: they tell you that you should do research for your book.  But in a sense, if you write about the stuff you already love, you’ll not only have done the research, but you’ll also have a more unique research.  Because sure, you can write a science fiction book that’s got the same old physics equations as anyone else – or you can create a book that’s got time-travelling soup battles (which, y’know, The Sol Majestic does), which is something that only other Food Network junkies will truly appreciate.

There Are Three Rules For Creating Science-Fictional Food

I spent a lot of time crafting the foods made in The Sol Majestic because, well, the Sol Majestic is theoretically one of the greatest restaurants in the known universe.  If the food falls short, so does the book.  And so a little experimentation showed it had to hit three axes consistently:

  • Delicious Food.  Because if I don’t make your mouth water by describing the crunch of the skin on the lacquered duck breast as you bite into it, that sensation of the oily mouthful of perfectly-seared duck melting into the spicy molasses-and-citrus infused skin, then I’ve failed at making this a restaurant you’d want to eat at.
  • Experimental Food. …but if I only describe everyday foods, then you’ll risk thinking The Sol Majestic is not a very cutting-edge restaurant – the equivalent of a starbound Olive Garden.  So I had to devise wild takes on traditional meals to make The Sol Majestic seem like they were worth the trip there: things like using artificial gravity to compress foods so tight they’d cook themselves, scented rose petals that dissolve on your tongue to leave wisps of flavor permeating your mouth, and of course wild mosses harvested from rare asteroids.
  • Unknown Food. Yet if all The Sol Majestic serves is chicken and fish variants, that doesn’t feel very science-fictiony, does it? So I had to bring in a bunch of both imaginary and rare foods – at one point, my protagonist Kenna rattles off a list of foods that others have told him about (blubber, siopao, Silulian black-udder, p’tcha, vacuum flanks), and it was interesting to see who could identify the real-life foods and who just went with it.

The three of them combine to make The Sol Majestic seem like a real restaurant you’d want to hang at.  But honestly?  The back room doesn’t eat that stuff all the time.  They eat grilled cheeses, like an actual goddamned working kitchen – it’s just they use great bread and cheese.

(Cue that $1 grilled cheese food cart everyone’s talking about.  I’d eat there.  So would everyone at the Sol Majestic.)

When Your Back’s Against The Wall, Steal A Plot… But Make It Yours

So we had a restaurant, but a restaurant does not a novel make.  And I was, if you’ll recall, writing largely to give myself hope, so I wasn’t sure I was up to an elaborate plot.

But if Ready Player One had taught me anything, it’s that the plot to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is pretty much bulletproof.  So yes, I had a starving young prince walk in and win a free meal from a genius – a genius chef who becomes intensely invested in helping Kenna’s abandoned philosophies regain the lustre they once had.

Yet at the same time, I also wanted to explore what that ragged genius meant.  Because society is hard-wired to sympathize with the jerky white dude who creates amazing art – and while I’m obviously in favor of great art, I wanted to explore some of the cost those great projects take upon the Oompa Loompas.  So I made a mad genius, yes, but I also thought about the culture that had to evolve around that fragile creativity, and the money it took to fund it, and the accountants that made all that possible… All to ask the question, “Is it worth it?”

That all formed a book that, while it shares plot elements with the Chocolate Factory, eventually grew into a musing on class struggles, and power, and religion.  Because food, and how food is harvested, ultimately defines and creates culture.  Which is pretty good considering I was writing like a motorcycle speeding down a narrow night road – one curve at a time, dimly lit.

Restrictions Breed Creativity

Aaaaaand finally, when I sat down to write this novel, I gave myself some rules.  Clearly what I’d been doing before hadn’t been working, so I gave myself a self-imposed challenge: I could not say how anyone felt, aside from my protagonist Kenna.  I could only relate what Kenna thought of someone’s reactions by describing their body language.

And I had to do it creatively.

Which was a huge change for me.  I came from a pulp fiction background where people were always snorting in disgust or smirking in amusement – which aren’t “body language” so much as “literary shorthands for classic emotions.”  Every long-term writer has a few go-to shorthands for expressing common reactions – when I write on autopilot, characters will ball their fists in rage forty or fifty times in a row unless I edit that happy crappy out.

But I determined that I wouldn’t just say that Kenna liked someone – I had to break down *why* he liked that person, what specific aspects of their expressed character that appealed to Kenna.  Gone were the old shortcuts of “She looked friendly” – I had to decide what this character was doing with her body that made her look friendly to Kenna, which in turn led me to investigate what sorts of things Kenna would be searching for.

All of which rooted the book MUCH more deeply in character.  Because sure, everyone narrows their eyes in anger.  But when you take that away, you’re left trying to determine how a specific character shows anger – whether it’s the flighty artist Paulius batting Kenna’s objections aside like he’s swatting mosquitos, or the imperious nostril-flares of Scrimshaw the cold business manager, or the way Montgomery clasps her precious barrel of alien yeast to her chest in preparation to bash you over the head with it.

And then, in turn, that reaction is a dance – because I’d frequently figure out a way that a character would express anger, then discover that Kenna, my protagonist, wasn’t observant enough to recognize these gestures as anger.  But that was okay!  Because the point wasn’t “Kenna the super-psychiatrist deftly avoids an argument,” but rather “Kenna discovers who these characters are in an organic way.”

And sometimes, I discovered these characters in an organic way.  Because I wasn’t just churning out quippy dialogue – I was stage-blocking these people, wandering around my basement like a marionette, acting.  And sometimes when I stumbled about in my writing-room stageacting, I discovered hidden depths – a character who seemed merciless had a tremor in their hands that revealed a hidden regret to me, which in turn fuelled a turn in the plot.

All that worked because I took a risk.  And why not?  I wasn’t getting a novel published any time soon.

…I thought.

But if you’ve read all the way here, you’re probably aware that The Sol Majestic got published – my little gift to you.  Because a lot of folks have described The Sol Majestic as “hopepunk”: a book that is brutally aware of the injustices in the universe, and still believes in the triumph of love, hope, and beauty.

Because I was neck-deep in despair.  I wrote my way out.

I hope my book can lend you a hand.

Or at least a delicious grilled cheese.

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FERRETT STEINMETZ is a graduate of both the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and Viable Paradise, and was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2012, for his novelette Sauerkraut Station. He is the author of the ‘Mancer trilogy, The Uploaded, and he has written for Asimov’s Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Ferrett lives in Cleveland with his wife.

Ferrett Steinmetz: Website

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