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Black Ice

I’m in Chicago again this week, me and the temperatures that can’t seem to find double digits. Something that I’ve heard a lot of on the news and from co-workers who have firsthand experience, is Black Ice. It made me think of one of my older post that is still relevant today (and will always be that way) that bears the same name, so I thought I'd post it for you today.  Hope you enjoy it.


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. Critique partners are the best way to spot it. Excess description causes me to skim, so I try to keep that to a minimum in my own writing.

  2. I remember this post. It's a good one -- this is kind of like a Deja Vu to the Deja Vu blogfest. ;)

    I also agree about the importance of CPs!!!

    Blocks of back-story and explanatory exposition loses my interest very quickly and I start slipping away.

  3. I like this analogy! Yeah, that's a hard one. Critique partners are SO important.

  4. Hi DL - black ice at the best of times is very frightening - but what a great analogy. So often we're following our own route forgetting others might like to tag along, but we've left them no warning, nor road signs ..

    So easily can we miss things and leave them there for years to come ... I just found one of 5 years ago .. not clever! Gosh roll on leaving Chicago .. cheers Hilary

  5. "Black Ice? We demand that you call it 'Ice of Color'! No justice, no peace. Cracker."
    -A. Sharpton

  6. I would say if I'm reading my work outloud and I give a deep, heavy sigh of boredom, it's probably time to look over that scene again. :)

  7. Oo, like this analogy here. It's very true, we build a world but then something unexpected throws it awry and I feel like many times is just as unexpected to writers as readers. So yeah, others said it, crit partners. People with knowledge of the craft who can take things apart, but aren't emotionally invested in a work.

  8. Nice comparison! Black Ice is no fun, on roads or the page. =)

  9. Yep, that's what beta readers and crit partners are for. Really good analysis Don.

  10. I'm from CA, but we get Black Ice on our bridge up in the mountains. I've come across that puppy sideways a few times. And that's a perfect metaphor for my writing, too! Sometimes I just do not see the problems in my ms. I take very good care of my crit partners. Without them I'd be sliding all over the place. Loved your post today.




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