Monday, February 6, 2012

Brown M&M: the QA candy of choice

There's a famous (true) story of how David Lee Roth, the singer of Van Halen, would ask for a bowl of M&Ms to be placed in his dressing room before every concert, and would flip out if he walked in and found a single brown M&M in the bowl.

Some people talk about how he had an ego the size of a small planet, but this wasn't about his ego, it was about quality control.

This odd stipulation was smack dab in the middle of Van Halen's extremely long and precise contract which specified weight requirements for equipment, necessary wattage, number and spacing for all the plugs, etc. Van Halen was one of the first bands to have crazy technical setups/shows, their equipment took nine 18 wheeler trucks to haul everything when the usual standard for a band was about three, so you can appreciate that stages built to hold 1/3 of the weight and support 1/3 of the electricity were going to have problems if Van Halen showed up.

For example: in this particular case, the staging actually sunk through the floor and caused $80,000 worth of damage to the building.

The brown M&M clause was to check and see if the technical specifications of the contract had been carefully read and followed. Without fail, if the band saw any brown M&Ms in their dressing room, there were major problems with the setup, so as soon as they looked at the bowl, they knew whether everything had to be re-checked and re-done before a show.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

The first few pages of your book are no different than that bowl of M&Ms.

I read six books this week. In most cases, all the things I liked and didn't like about those books were clearly evident on the first page or within the first chapter.

I think it's a very good exercise for any writer to consider what they like about books they read, but also carefully pay attention to, and consider, things they do not like.

I've fallen prey to this myself. I have unconsciously replicated things I don't like in other stories in my own writing. I don't know why, perhaps it's simply the case of being familiar with the commonly used tropes, so the story direction naturally flows in that direction unless it is consciously diverted onto a new path.

Probably this is more common for pantsers who happily follow the current instead of mapping out all the waterfalls, rapids and jagged rocks before diving in. I honestly don't know.

Any plotters care to weigh in? Do you have this problem?

It's hard to spot the problems within your own writing, so I think it's really valuable to read critically while you're reading for pleasure. And yes, I think this is possible. Whenever my attention starts to lag or I begin to skim, I pause, briefly, and ask myself why, but it doesn't ruin my enjoyment of the story.

Sometimes it's stupid little things like character tags... seriously, two books I read (not this week) had characters 'sighing' up to five times in a single page. And not just one character, like a personal quirk... it was all the characters.

Or one book I did read this week used very easy-to-read language... then suddenly on one page were the words 'essay', 'ablutions' and 'husband' (the verb, not the noun). Don't get me wrong, it's not like I was stumped by the meaning of these words, but it was jarring to have all three of them show up together in such close quarters, and two were actually within the same paragraph. Other than that one page, this book wasn't taxing the reading level of a normal fourteen or fifteen-year-old (the target market).

I've also discovered that certain types of description send my eyes skimming. In particular, descriptions of quick actions where the language is incredibly exact, so it seems to draw out the movement longer than physically possible... like cheesy-Matrix-esque-slow-motion. This shows up often in fighting scenes, which is probably one of the key reasons I've never taken well to the fantasy genre, but until I started reading critically, I could never pinpoint why my eyes would glaze over the moment swords or magic came onto the scene.

Then there are the larger plot-affecting-problems. For me, love triangles are usually a speed-through-the-rest-of-the-book-then-instantly-forget-I-ever-read-it kind of thing. My oldest and dearest friend (we've know each other nearly 20 years) eats them up. For those kinds of books, it's usually pretty clear in the first chapter that the primary problem is choosing between the sweet-boy-next-door and the sexy-dangerous-new-boy.

Yet all of these things I have been guilty of in some form or another.

For example, what is mysteriously rearing its ugly head in Project #5? Yup, a sort-of-love-triangle. But because I know the specifics/tropes that personally annoy me, I am avoiding them like the tupperware container you find in the back of the fridge which seems to be growing a new form of life...

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting a different result.

Knowledge and awareness are two key elements of change.

If I know the over-used elements that bore me to tears and have me counting the word 'sigh' instead of following the storyline, I'm more likely to avoid regurgitating those same elements. If I'm aware of my own writer-quirks/problems before I start tapping madly on the keyboard, there's a higher chance my first-drafts will be cleaner of those kind of unwanted errors that I would otherwise have to hunt and destroy later.

Just like the brown M&M clause, if the contract is read carefully and all the technical details have been checked off, everything is good to go.

I don't want an agent seeing a handful of brown M&Ms in my first five pages and cancelling the show before it even begins because they suspect there are major problems.

Do you?


  1. Quality control using brown M&Ms. Very good

    1. Not only is it a brilliant idea to see if their contract was read, it's a delicious one ;)

  2. :) I loved this analogy... and I agree with you on reading critically. I think it's absolutely possible to be reading for pleasure, but also to be noting the good and the bad for your own personal use as well. I know I do that, and not even consciously.

    1. I find I appreciate the books I read more when I read critically, I'm not just zooming through to see what happens on the next page :) It certainly makes me look at my own writing differently :)

  3. great analogy. On completely unrelated note, did you see the superbowl commercial with the brown m&m? One of the few that made me laugh.

    1. No I didn't! I'm going to have to find that online :) Thanks!

  4. Okay. So I can see where flipping out over a brown M&M would be reasonable. That's some in depth Q&A. I find myself reading something now where I catch myself noting a passive statement that could have been strengthened yet I'm still enjoying the story. Now if I can just do that with my own MS.

    1. Yeah, I think it's easiest to find problems in other stories, then, when you get used to finding them, it's easier to search your own story :)

  5. Yeah I read very critically and I do learn a lot that way. Recently read a book with a subject matter that I did not care about but the writing ...ah it was wonderful. By the way have you read Harry Potter? I'm getting opinions for my paper on JK Rowling - it's an open question by the way. I need as many thoughts on why the series is so fantastic.

    1. Couldn't get through Harry Potter :) I Think I got 1/3 of the way through that first *big* book before I just gave up. I've seen a couple of the movies though, even both parts of the last one, but I had no real investment in the characters at the end when they were all being killed.

  6. I wonder what they'd make of just brown M&Ms in the bowl ...


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)