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Black Ice

I’ve been in an analogy kick lately, so here’s yet another one for everyone to ponder.

Anyone from a predominantly cold climate is intimately familiar with the term Black Ice. For those of you lucky enough to claim ignorance, it refers to a type of hazardous road condition that occurs when ice with few air bubbles cover the throughways, making it virtually transparent. Many an accident has been caused by drivers cruising along until they hit a patch of the slick coating and find themselves suddenly fighting to maintain control of their vehicle.

What you may not be aware of, we as writers have our own sort of Black Ice to guard against. Moreover, this is a peril of our own making.

There’s your reader, traveling down the road you’ve paved for him with your eloquent prose, losing themselves within the world you’ve created, when suddenly it happens. Their attention wavers and they lose traction. They begin to do something universally feared by writers of all content, they begin to skim. Forced to jump ahead, searching for stable footing, an attempt to re-connect with the story line that had become abruptly burdensome. Why? What happened? The author failed to detect the Black Ice he unknowingly allowed to creep into his work. It’s the material that bogs down exposition by including too much descriptive detail, mundane character interactions, or a plot contrivance that over-stretches the limits of believability. It could even be the result of sagging momentum (see The Scooter Method). Consequently, the reader becomes distracted, or even worse, annoyed because they find themselves slipping through paragraphs or even whole pages. Whatever the reason, the reader goes on the alert and the author’s reputation has taken a hit.

So how can we as writers prevent Black Ice from sabotaging our own work? By its very definition, it’s extremely hard to detect by ourselves. We re-read our stuff so many times its hard not to skim. This is an area where our beta readers and critique groups are so crucial. Consider them the salt or sand preventing the ice from taking hold in the final draft. Used properly they can highlight sections where they feel themselves being taken out of the flow of the story, especially useful for first time authors.

To be fair, skimming is just as much about the make-up of the reader as it is the intent of the writer. That is why we have to work twice as hard to make sure we don’t give them any reason to slip. Glue them to the page. Clear away anything where ice can form. Some of our most prolific authors would do well to remember this particular hazard. It is our responsibility and shouldn’t be shirked in the name of we can’t please everyone.

Let’s face it, no matter how hard we try and the measures we employ, some amount of Black Ice will probably sneak in anyway. The occasional slip and slide can be forgiven. But continually turning a blind eye to the problem will eventually impact readership, and status.

What about you? Do you have a method for spotting Black Ice? Care to share?


  1. Nice analogy. This is something that I've noticed as a reader (the skimming point) but I haven't thought much about in terms of my writing. Sometimes it is so frustrating that there are SO MANY things for me to think about with my writing. I'm hoping that the more I write, the better I'll get at doing it all unconsciously.

  2. Great analogy DL, this is really important advice and I love the way you equated it to the danger of the frozen highway.

    I know I have sections of it in my WIP (I tend to be long winded and overly descriptive) but as you pointed out sometimes it take a fresh pair of eyes to know for sure which sections have to go.

  3. it's funny because i skim both when i'm bored, but also at times of high tension and pace.
    WHICH is why io prefer books to have not so manic a pace so i can enjoy it more

  4. Well said. And I'm sure professional editors would agree with you 100%, else become useless.

  5. GREAT analogy. Just yestrday my beta reader gave me back a chapter and she circled a paragraph that had a duplicate word in it. I re-red it over and over and then had to ask her which word it was b/c I kept skimming over it!!

  6. I love this analogy. My best spot-check for black ice is my hubby - he's brutal about such things. :-)

  7. I've a couple test readers who really helped me tighten up my story. They saw things I didn't.
    Plus I'm not overly descriptive!

  8. I skim when I'm bored and over keen too. Sometimes I'm so fascinated by a character (and it can be the main or a supporting type) I will scan to see what happens to a plot line I like best.
    I edited three times in WORD - the last one I print and sift sentence by sentence. I also involve Beata readers from the moment I have anything to share.

  9. My fiction is not fast-paced, so I'm sure there's black ice present.

    And I hate black ice. I spun off a overpass due to black ice when I still lived in Arkansas.

  10. Nice DL, nice. Gotta love that Black Ice.

    I usually skim when I read the sex parts in my romance novels. Been there, done it, don't want to be a voyeur.

    As to my own work, I skim when I revise but then have to go back when I line edit. UGH!

  11. Nice work.

    I cannot claim ignorance on the issue of black ice - in fact or in fiction. A good indicator for me is that, if I find my own attention slipping, something's wrong. I am a very distractable person and I have a pretty short attention span. This method won't eliminate black ice but it's a good way for me to get started.

  12. Love this. Black ice, to me, means BORING. As long as every one of your scenes has conflict, this shoudln't be a problem. But black ice lurks in one-dimensional characters, dialogue, and backstory, too.

    It's why pacing is an important thing to critique on. Let the writer know whether their story moves along at an interesting pace or not.

  13. I just wanted to stop by and say Happy Monday!!

  14. I thought this sounded familiar!! :) As I told you, I think this is an excellent analogy and worded well as I have come to expect from you! I definitely need to keep an eye out for black ice in my writing. I don't want the reading experience to be fatal.

  15. Conflict on every page. *puts hand up* I know, I know. Easier said than done, but that is my goal. Conflict. On. Every. Page. Nice analogy. Pretty slick. *snickers* Pardon me, my pun is showing.

  16. Love the analogy. I tend to skim when I'm bored by description or too much exposition - just get back to the story.

    I think beta readers are great in pointing this out.

  17. Pacing, pacing, pacing.

    The solution is having quality beta readers/critique groups.

    And being willing to kill our darlings in the name of pacing.

    Great post, as per usual.

  18. Wonderful post DL, I'm not ashamed to say that I rely on my crit. group to spot dangerous things in my manuscripts. Those ladies have eagle eyes and can catch anything!

    P.S. You have an award over at my place DL.

  19. Really like the black ice metaphor. Slipping and falling unawares...losing the train of thought.

  20. Love the analogy! My hubby Trevor is awesome at helping with black ice when I can't see it!

  21. Oh very nice analogy. I generally find this sort of thing in the editing process. One thing to consider is the word count. Is it higher than it should be? Also pacing. It it feels like a scene is moving too slowly then you know you've bogged down, likely with too many details. And when all else fails, rely on your critique partners ;) They're really good at catching this stuff.

  22. Tiana ~ I'm so conscious of it because of my reading. It frustrates me when an author gets so bogged down in detail that it forces me to skim.

    Matthew ~ It's funny how you never recognize it when its flowing out of you onto the paper.

    Falen ~ I know exactly what you mean. I have to fight my urge to not leap ahead!

    Wendy ~ And I am receiving no kick-backs from them either. :)

    Christina ~ Great story!

    Shannon ~ And mine is my wife. :)

    Alex ~ Being overly descriptive is ideal conditions for black ice.

    Elaine ~ My last edit is always from a printed version as well.

    Diane ~ Speaking for all of Arkansas...we're sorry! :)

    Anne ~ Skim sex parts?!? :)

    Elle ~ I think I have tat too! LOL

    Sierra ~ Exactly. Don't pay so much to dangling participles and read for pacing issues!

    Kimberly ~ *Waving* Hi Kim!

    Julie ~ I hardly think you have anything to worry about.

    Tina ~ LOL And such a cute *pun* it is. :)

    Jaydee ~ God Bless the Beta Readers...unless they're skimming!

    Lola ~ Kill our darlings!! sacrilege!!!!!!

    Dawn ~ Ditto...and aren't you a sweetheart (and a southern one at that). :)

    Paul C ~ Thank you!!

    Jen ~ Yay Trevor! A hubby to the rescue. :)

  23. Carol ~ Great advice! Thank you!

  24. When I start to skim while reading, I try to stop and pinpoint why. Sometimes it's because the passage is boring-- description overload, or maybe too much inner monologue.

    But sometimes I skip because it's a tension filled moment that's being dragged on too long. I skim ahead to find out what happens, passing up all the dialogue and action bits that are probably there to increase tension, but mostly they just distract and pull me out of the moment.

    I'm sure I have some Black Ice moments in my manuscript, but the whole thing feels Black Ice to me because I'm living and breathing the story right now. I can't wait to get it out to my betas though! They can point out the Black Ice and pacing issues I can't see.

  25. What a killer analogy! I loved your suggestions for how to spot it/deal with it. I hope that I can eliminate my patches of black ice. ;)

  26. Good analogy! Yes, I've been guilty of this. Usually I begin to skim if I stumble on long paragraphs of description without action.

    This is awful to admit, but occasionally I skim because the author has done such a great job. I want to jump ahead and find the answer to the question the writer posed. But I (usually) go back and read more thoroughly once I've reassured myself about the outcome.

  27. Perfect analogy! I never skim through books I've bought (I'm going to get my money's worth and read every word), but I do skim when shopping and Black Ice keeps me from buying.

  28. I really enjoyed your analogy of black ice. I too live in a climate where I have to be very careful of the dangerous, unseen ice on the road. I find stepping away from my WIP for at least a few days helps me see the 'black ice.'

  29. You really do have the best analogy's DL :) I've come into contact with both types of black ice you refer to and neither is very fun. Thanks for reminding us what we should work on in our WIP!

  30. This is a GREAT post. And I think you are right in that black ice is just as much a part of the reader as it is the writer. We can't control timing, what else is going on in the reader's life when they take on our book.

    I think the best way to avoid black ice is to CUT. Cut those extra paragraphs that seem important to us but, really, don't add anything to the plot. THAT'S when I skim--the chaff.


  31. Kat ~ I do the same thing now that I'm writing more. It happens to the best of them!

    L.T. ~ Thank you! Glad I could help, even a little bit.

    Portia ~ A lot of commentors have said the same thing...they'll skim ahead when things get tense or fast-paced. I never considered this, but I'm probably guilty also.

    Lorel ~ That's I believe its VITAL that Black Ice be eliminated in early chapters!

    Lynn ~ Agreed. Stepping away helps uncover a great many faux pax's. :)

    Jade ~ Your most welcome! :)

    Michele ~ Chaff! I like that word. :)

  32. DL, remind me to check with you on your posts before I go ahead with mine.

    Superior topic and post, my dear. The analogy is amazing and really helps to put things into perspective for the editing process.

    You're the coolest, DL. When I grow up, I want to be just like you.

  33. Great post! Thanks so much for the little bits of sunshine you bring to my blog.

    You rock!

  34. Black ice! Great analogy!

    This is something I find very hard to do. It's so hard to read your own objectively. This is when I rely in my readers - they'll tell me if they're bored!

  35. Oh, yes. I've skimmed over some black ice. I usually find it about 2/3 - 3/4 of the way through the book when I'm simply ready for the climax. I don't care about the prom, the school activity or the dress shopping that takes place before I can get to the climax. So I skim those sections. And I'm pretty sure I don't miss anything.

    So I watch for that in my novels. Where am I at 2/3? At 3/4? Why am I there? Have I prolonged the climax too much?

    And then I cut.

  36. I think black ice sneaks most easily into a writer's descriptive voice. Also, back story paragraphs are prone to black ice because info dumping is such an easy pit to slip into.

    Great post!

  37. Gina ~ What are you talking about? Your post totally rocked and actually each of our topics perfectly complimented the other! :)

    Jamie ~ Awwww...thank you.

    Talli ~ I am clueless when it comes to spotting my own Black Ice.

    Elana ~ I do that as well! Shorter sentences, less description, not as much inner-dialogue.

    Nicole ~ You are right. Backstory = Black Ice, most of the time.

  38. Great analogy. Living in the Arctic Tundra that is Chicago, I am quite familiar with black ice.

    I'll have to ponder your thought provoking post.

    I just recently started skimming. I never used to do that because I was always so afraid that it would pick up as soon as I decided to skip a little and I would, of course miss the most important part of the story. And it really never occurred to me that that was allowed. I can be a little slow sometimes.

  39. Oh I like this. I've done it myself when reading a book. Then, I feel guilty, because I wonder how I'd feel if someone skipped over my own writing, so I go back to be sure I didn't miss anything important.

    And get frustrated all over again when nothing of interest happens.


  40. So right! It is almost impossible sometimes to spot the black ice we have created--takes an outside eye. C

  41. I absolutely have to send my stuff over to a couple of friends. They can be honest and I trust them. They are not writers, but since most of my work is related to weddings, they know the biz.

  42. I find myself skimming when I'm bored as well as when I am impatient for the end. I can spot Black Ice in others works when I do skip over but am completely clueless when it comes to my own work. It'll come with time and that's what my writing group is for.

    Great topic!

  43. I pretty much do what Kat O'Keeffe does. The problem usually varies with every instance of skimming, so I always have to analyze.

    I work closely with a crit group & they're great about catching what I miss.

    Great analogy, btw!

  44. I also like that analogy. In my own experience, seeing outside opinion is often the most helpful course of action, but doesn't mean we shouldn't try to avoid or fix this kinda thing on our own. I just know sometimes it is very difficult.

  45. G ~ You're not slow...just meticulous! :)

    Donna ~ And probable well know authors I right??

    C ~ No doubt about it!

    Holly ~ I wonder if I could find a private detective to be a beta reader for me. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

    Palindrome ~ Thank you!!

    Kirsten ~ Critique groups catch-all sorts of evil, don't they!

    VW ~ Exactly my point. Don't get lazy and leave it for the beta's to point it out, do your due diligence and do what you can to not write it in the first place.

  46. I have an award waiting for you on my blog!

  47. If black ice means something different to each person, how will we ever get rid of it all? Personally, I love description,if done well. Others hate it and skip over it. It seems to me, each reader will skip over what they don't like, no matter what editing we do.

  48. LOVE that analogy. Thanks! I'll refer others to this post.

  49. Oy. When I lived in CO I did 360d across the highway because of black ice. Not a black ice fan.

    I hope my CPs would tell me if they came across black ice in my story. They're pretty good at spotting hazards. ;)

  50. In my case I think skimming is more about the me, the reader than the often I have skimmed, but not because of the lack on the writers part but more because of myself, where I may be at a certain time...many times I have skimmed only to find out that a friend thoroughly enjoyed it all..great post though and really makes me think...

  51. Jamie ~ Awwwwww...thanks bunches!

    Peggy ~ That may be true, but unless you're writing literary fiction, I believe things can always be tightened up.

    Rosslyn ~ Gee...thanks!!

    Karen ~ I did the same in Atlanta. Bad stuff all-around!

    Robin ~ Thank you. I was reading a book just last night that I was doing fine with until I hit one too many ill-logical twists, and then the skimming started.

  52. You know you're brilliant, right? Great analogy...

  53. Excellent analogy. It is almost impossible to read every word once you've reached the 50th draft. Thank goodness for beta readers.

  54. This was brilliant! I try to read my story more as a reader, not a writer, but since tht is virtually impossible, I rely a lot on my critiques group.

  55. Sharon ~ Awwwwww...shucks! *Blushing*

    Natalie ~ Beta Readers = Life Savers!

    Clara ~ Thank you so much!!

  56. Love the analogy. We get plenty of black ice up here in the Great White North...and I know I've been beyond guilty of throwing readers onto that slippery area as well. Your analogy is perfect and I will always remember it. Thank you!!




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