Writing Around the Edges

(I hope you like marshmallows)

“Where do ideas come from?” is one of those nebulous questions that can be impossible to answer. There’s no one simple solution, although I’ve always loved Neil Gaiman’s response that he was signed up for an Idea-of-the-Month club.

Some people are constantly coming up with wonderful ideas and lack only the time to see them through. I am not one of these people. Wonderful ideas do sometimes come to me, but each time I’m pretty sure that it will be my last one ever.

Unfortunately, to be even mildly productive, I can’t afford to sit and wait for the next wonderful idea to appear; I need to go out and hunt it down. Over the years, I have come up with a basic process that has seen me through a number of short stories, essays, a serial and three novellas. So now, when there is a need or even just a desire to create something completely new, I simply have to convince myself to trust in the process, which is in itself not that easy.

My trick is to break the project into three parts. The first is to brainstorm an idea. If I could just sit down and come up with something, I would, but that’s sadly not how my brain works. Instead, I set a timer and I start writing the requirements for the project: what genre, what I am trying to achieve, cool things that I’d love to include, possible theme songs – anything at all, really, as long as it is on topic. Initially, I do this for just five minutes or 500 words, because in the beginning when I don’t know what I’m writing, forcing myself to write more really doesn’t help.

I write like this every day, usually in the morning. I am not someone who claims that you must write every day to be a writer or that certain rituals are required whatever the circumstance, but for this brainstorming stage, I find that I really do need to write every day in order to keep my back-brain working on the problem. If I keep it up, then the meta-story thoughts slowly start to devolve into specifics: a character sketch, a setting, snippets of dialogue. It’s all a bit nonsensical, so it does require a leap of faith to keep going. It’s just words, there’s no clear path to something useful and every single time, I wonder why I’m wasting my time. But then something changes.

Have you ever made marshmallows, or seen them being made? Initially it’s just this thick syrup (actually sugar syrup and gelatin) with nothing in common whatsoever with marshmallows. It’s the wrong colour and the wrong consistency and you boil it up hot and still nothing about it looks in any way like it could ever be a marshmallow. You need to blend it hot and fast in a standing mixer. Slowly but surely the golden liquid changes and there’s a frothiness to it that turns into a foaminess that turns into something white and sticky which slowly gets fluffy. You can smell the difference at this point, unmistakably marshmallowy. It takes about eight minutes.

This pre-writing is, for me, exactly like that, except for the part about it only taking eight minutes. Each day I’ll start to write a little bit more and it’ll feel a little bit less like pulling teeth. Over the course of a week, I start to see the premise and get a feeling for what it is I am writing. In the second week, I start to see a story-shaped thing in all of that mess of words. My morning writing starts to shift from completely random ideas to filling in the gaps that have started to appear for me. At some point, I find myself longing to take all these words and reshape them into something coherent. The brainstorming becomes a distraction, expanding the story idea begins to appeal to me. At that point, I start to structure things and consider the order in which events should happen and from there, real scenes start to appear.

These words are nothing like a draft, not even a zero draft; they’re really just a mess. But like the way that simple mixing and patience ends up turning syrup into marshmallow, I can see the potential of it. I can smell it.

There is still, of course, the writing to do, the second part of the process. And then there’s the rewriting, which can turn into an endless cycle. But at least now I know what I plan to write. I just need need to make myself do it — an entirely different problem. This generally requires bribery, but luckily, that’s another thing that can also be solved with homemade marshmallows.

Brownie Points Blog’s Basic Vanilla Marshmallows

(via Creative Commons – alas, the original website is no longer available)


4 gelatin envelopes
¾ cup water
1 tbsp vanilla extract
3 cups sugar
1 ¼ cup corn syrup

¾ cup water (for later)
½ tsp salt
rice flour
confectioner’s sugar

MAKES: A LOT OF MARSHMALLOWS. If you prefer, you can use Sylvia’s conversions for a half batch:

  • 14 grams of plain gelatin (or 8 sheets leaf) (about 2-3/4 tsp)
  • 90ml water (about 1/3 cup)
  • 1 ½ teaspoons high quality vanilla extract or paste
  • 200g plain sugar (about 1 cup)
  • 120 ml golden syrup or corn syrup (or even maple syrup) (a little less than 1/2 cup)
  • A pinch of salt
  • Rice flour and icing/powdered sugar to coat

Line a 9” x 13” (8” x 8” if doing Sylvia’s half-batch version) pan and a loaf pan with parchment paper. Coat the paper with vegetable oil or non-stick spray. Fit a stand mixer with the whisk attachment. In the mixer bowl combine the ¾ cup of water with vanilla extract. Sprinkle the gelatin over the liquid to bloom (soften). Add the sugar, salt, corn syrup, and remaining ¾ cup water to a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil with the lid on and without stirring. When this mixture is at a boil, remove the lid and continue to cook without stirring until it reaches the soft-ball stage (234-240 F). With the mixer at medium speed, pour all of the hot syrup slowly down the side of the bowl into the awaiting gelatin mixture. Be careful, as the hot syrup is very liquid and hot at this point and some may splash out of the bowl — use a splashguard if you have one. When all of the syrup is added, bring the mixer up to full speed.

Whip until the mixture is very fluffy and stiff, about 8-10 minutes. Pour marshmallow into the parchment-lined pans and smooth with an oiled offset spatula if necessary. Allow the mixture to sit, uncovered at room temp for 10 to 12 hours.

Mix equal parts rice flour and confectioners sugar and sift generously over the rested marshmallow slab. Turn the slab out onto a cutting board, peel off paper and dust with more sugar/starch mixture. Slice with a pizza cutter into desired shapes. Dip all cut edges in sugar/starch mixture and shake off excess powder.

Marshmallows will keep several weeks at room temp in an air-tight container. Enjoy!

Do ideas come easy for you, or do you have to work at them? What are your strategies for developing ideas? Let us know on the forum!

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley obsessively writes letters to her mother, her adult son, her accountant, as well as to unknown beings in outer space. Only her mother admits to reading them. Born in Heidelberg, Sylvia spent her childhood in California and now lives in Estonia. Her fiction was nominated for a Nebula in 2014 and her short stories have been translated into over a dozen languages. You can find out more about her https://intrigue.co.uk.