About two years ago, my husband got the idea to start a cotton candy business. We bought a machine, played around with flavors and techniques and materials and during the local Fourth of July parade 2017, we opened for business.
Not quite two years later, and we are merging that in with a soda shack (think Starbucks for sodas and shaved ice — they’re all the rage in Utah). And we are launching a grand opening on Saturday.
There are a lot of things that we have learned over the last two years, most of which tie nicely in with writing (really, you knew this was coming).
To go from “I think we could sell cool cotton candy” to business implementation is a bit of a bizarre journey, but probably not any more than coming up with an idea, and making up people, and seeing what is out there, and what we can do differently. When we were starting, we (aka my husband) spent A LOT of time looking at what other cotton candy makers were doing. We talked about what we liked, what we didn’t like, how we would make our product unique.
There are a lot of writers who think they don’t want to read what they want to write because they might be influenced by it. During drafting, fair enough. There are certain authors I can’t read when I’m in certain parts of my stories, whether that is because the genre is similar or because I’m writing several emotional scenes and I’m hoping to channel a unique, authentic voice. But I also know the only way that a writer can get better is by reading what they want to emulate in their writing. If you write historical fiction, you’d better be reading them, both those that deal with the time period you are playing with and others from times neighboring your desired era. If you dabble in magic, break out the notebooks and jot down how your writing heroes craft theirs. Study, study, study, and then decide what you’d like to emulate and what you’d like to do differently.
As you might imagine, we had a lot of people who were interested in giving us feedback on our products.
We’d set up our machines in our front yard and send some texts out to friends, adults and children alike, to see what they thought of certain flavors, jot down the ones people wanted more of, make notes of those that people tossed away. While my husband and I have diverse palates (he likes the really sweet, me not so much), we needed a broader sense of who thought what. We especially leaned into the feedback from people who said they didn’t like cotton candy.
There are all kinds of theories out there about who should critique what when. I say follow your gut. If you can take a critique when you are drafting, and keep going, do that. If the thought of someone reading your new pages before you’ve had a chance to make them as shiny as possible makes you reach for a brown paper bag, don’t. But realize two things:
It’s the scariest thing, to take something you’ve thought about, worked on, got to a point where you feel good about it. But writers are courageous, and I know you will benefit greatly if you will just let others read and listen to what they are saying.
When we look at some of our first products, we can see things, now, that we would have done differently. We struggled to regulate the temperature of the machines (it needs to be around 400-425 degrees), we weren’t sure the best product to spin them onto, some flavors sounded like a good idea and they just weren’t (looking at you, black licorice).
It is not fair to the writer you are now to look back at when you were beginning, published or not, and berate yourself for the product that it wasn’t. You can’t go back in time. You shouldn’t want to go back in time. Instead, you need to look at what you wrote, what you knew at the time that you wrote it and congratulate yourself for everything you were able to do with what you knew. And then keep learning. Keep practicing. Keep getting better.
During the beginning phases of business building, when we were deciding on a name, we realized that we didn’t want to be committed to just cotton candy forever. My husband has been brainstorming business ideas since we got married almost 20 years ago. We didn’t want a business name that would lock him into just that. And since launching, our little cotton candy business has tried edible helium balloons (super fun and yummy, super inconsistent) and toyed with the idea of custom gummies. We often return to conversations surrounding waffles, and as I’m writing this post, my husband is seeing if he can make shaped, tricolored marshmallows in my kitchen. It costs a bit of time, a small bit of money, and then we know if a thing works, if it could work, or if that idea isn’t sustainable.
Just because you started writing in one era or genre doesn’t mean you have to lock into that forever. It’s one of the reasons all the business professionals suggest authors build a brand around themselves and not a particular book. If you look at your favorite writers, I bet most of them have dabbled in different things, even if they have a particular genre that is their bread and butter (Brandon Sanderson comes to mind – his Alcatraz series is very different from his epic fantasies).
And that’s okay.
Writing the same genre over and over can feel clichéd, the tropes that were once fun might even start feeling like barriers boxing in your creativity. So dabble. I have a folder called My Sandbox, where I just play with ideas, not that are necessarily the serious work that I’m doing, but a place where story ideas can hang out, a place where I can test my prowess on a different kind of thing.
This is how we grow.
And sometimes, when we allow ourselves to grow, a fun little idea can manifest into something that brings us a bit of joy.
What practices have you put in place to help your writing grow?
Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is the current president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and studying in the MFA in Writing Program at Pacific U. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.
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