Friday 3 October 2014

On Rock Stars, Editing and M&M's

By Iola Goulton

I’m a reader, reviewer and freelance fiction editor, but that isn’t my whole life. I’m also a human resources consultant specialising in remuneration systems. One remuneration blog recently had an article that got me thinking about writing and editing. Have you heard those stories about rock divas with ridiculous demands in their contracts about what must be provided at live performances? Yes, so have I.

The blog quoted a story about the rock band Van Halen. Buried in the middle of their contract was a clause requiring a bowl of M&Ms be placed backstage at each concert venue, with all the brown sweets removed. Apparently, David Lee Roth “freaked” if he found a brown M&M in the bowl.

Typical rock star diva.

Well, no.

Setting up a new venue for Van Halen concert takes a huge amount of work, a lot of had to be done before the band arrived. An extensive contract detailed the work to be completed.

Buried in that contract, along with clauses requiring “fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes..." was the M&M clause. A brown M&M in the bowl meant the contractors hadn’t followed (or hadn’t read) the contract.

One brown M&M meant David Lee Roth, Van Halen, and their own road crew had to check everything for themselves to find what else hadn’t been done to specifications—and there would always be a mistake, possibly something that would destroy the whole show. That one brown M&M was the tripwire, the observable indicator of a deeper issue.

I’ve heard a similar story from a manager who used to work for a major international airline. Their tripwire was the tray tables in the cabin. Customers can’t see if an airline has met all the required safety standards or completed all the necessary pre-flight checks, but they can tell if the cabin looks tidy and if their tray table is clean on both sides. A dirty tray table is the tripwire which makes the customer wonder what else has been overlooked.

There are tripwires in fiction as well—things that tell me, as a reader, as a reviewer and as an editor, that the author hasn’t studied the craft of writing, and isn’t ready to publish in the contemporary market. I was recently asked to review a book that fell in this category. Only the blurb was available when I signed up for the blog tour, but I agreed to participate and review anyway (my mistake). Anyway, I struggled to read the first 10%, and then gave up. There were so many tripwires, like:

It started with a dream

There’s a lot of debate in writing circles about whether novels should have prologues or not. The chief argument against the prologue is that it forces the reader to start the story twice, and can make it difficult for the reader to identify the main character. Staring with a dream sequence is like a prologue on steroids. Not only is it forcing the reader to start the story twice, but the first part of the story isn’t even real. As a reader, it feels like I’ve been cheated.

Think about it. A potential reader picks up your book and scans the first few pages, which describe a supernatural battle, angels and demons fighting over a human. The reader doesn’t like speculative fiction, so they put the book down and move onto something else—and you’ve lost a sale. Or, worse, they DO like speculative fiction, so they buy it—and are disappointed when they reach Chapter One and find the book is actually contemporary drama. You’ve made the sale, but have picked up a stinking review.

It needed to join Adverbs Anonymous

I don’t know if there’s an AA-type support group for authors who overuse adverbs, but there should be. You don’t have to read many books on writing craft to discover that adverbs are evil and should be eradicated on sight. They are telling when the writer should be showing. They are often passive when writing should be active. And when used in dialogue tags, they are either propping up weak dialogue—or they are repeating what is already in the dialogue.

I understand that adverbs are easy to write. So write them—in your first draft. Then revise. Use Word’s Find feature (Ctrl-F) to find and highlight every word ending in ly (as well as ly, ly— ly; and ly.). Take that adverb and find a strong verb, or an original verb-adjective combination that says the same thing, and use that instead.

It read like high school creative writing

Good writing is about letting your voice come through, not the voice of your high school English teacher. Ignore everything they said about not using said when there are dozens of more creative tags you can use. Forget about using oodles of exciting adjectives ensure you populate your prose with copious quantities of exceptional adjectives (even better if you can slip in words like scrim, penumbra, symbiosis, nadir, sagacious and palliate). Disregard the injunction to utilise your Thesaurus to add spice, interest, excitement, zing, and zest.

The best dialogue tag is ‘said’. One adjective is usually enough. And I agree with Stephen King on the use of a thesaurus:

Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

I’ve no doubt there were a host of other issues with this novel. But I’d stopped reading by the end of the first chapter, because the tripwires had already told me reading it was going to be a chore, not a pleasure. After all, the job of the first chapter is to hook the reader, not repel them).

As a reader or reviewer, what tripwires make you stop reading?

As a writer, is there anything in your writing that’s going to trip readers up?

And the most important question of all: plain or peanut?

By Iola Goulton. I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website (, or follow me on Facebook (, Twitter (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog ( I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2500.


  1. Hi Iola - That was a really interesting comment about the M and M tripwire. I never would have thought of that.

    One of the tripwires for me is the back story dump coupled with too much tell rather than show. I read a book by one of my favourite Christian authors earlier in the year and couldn't believe the amount of "telling". It wasn't indicative of her other books (I've read about 20 of hers) and made me wonder whether it was a rush job that hadn't been through enough edit cycles.

    I also love beautiful language, imagery and metaphor, but not if it gets in the way of the story. I tried to read a book by a well-known Australian mainstream author a while ago but only made it up to about p. 90 before giving up. She had metaphors every few sentences, so by the time I got up to p. 90 I was thinking 'You're very clever and have a great grasp of the English language, but I'm just not enjoying the story".

    Thanks for the tips.


  2. LOVE IT. Definitely plain, Iola.

    I still enjoy looking over my first two novels which I never let anyone read, let alone tried to publish. I think I must have done everything in the tripwire book in those stories! Not only does it give me a good laugh but reminds me how much ground I've covered since. And still learning. How I loved all those gorgeous adjectives. And the descriptive passages to die for...that is until I read a well-known novel about supernatural angel wars with each battle dripping with adjectives. So I skipped them.

    BTW congrats on being in that top 1%. You haven't got time for too many adverbs/adjectives... you want to get to the story.

  3. Peanut! Oh, peanut, peanut, peanut!

    I'm with Nola. Big backstory dumbs have me putting a book down straight away. I can survive too many adverbs if the voice is strong and the story compelling but screeds of backstory and I'm gone burger.

  4. Peanut - eaten alongside nice fresh salty popcorn. Ohhhhhh devine....
    Tripwire? The story being unbelievable, but also passive voice. I start to snore.

  5. Thanks for commenting, ladies.

    I'm another peanut person ... but I'm currently on holiday in the US and have discovered a new favourite. Mint M&Ms. Dark chocolate, and a minty coating, a bit like the Sniffers I loved as a child.

    I agree that backstory and info dumps are another tripwire, and they may well have become a problem if I'd managed to get to Chapter Two!

  6. Great post, Iola. What a great way to unpack what can seem like tedious elements in developing the craft of writing. Tripwires. I like that. But once you've learned to spot them, they're like a glow-in-the-dark spider at midnight!


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