How to Spot and Avoid Self-Indulgent Writing:

How to Spot and Avoid Self-Indulgent Writing

How to Spot and Avoid Self-Indulgent WritingAs writers, we have the opportunity to live lives of creativity, in which we get to craft whole worlds that conform to our every whim. Whether you’re writing your first book or your thirtieth, it’s always going to be a heady experience. But this comes with certain inherent pitfalls. Sometimes all this power can go to our heads and lead us into the dark waters of self-indulgent writing.

A few weeks ago, we talked about how you need to be writing to an audience of one: yourself. The idea is that you should be writing to yourself as your ideal reader. Write the kind of stories, characters, themes, and narrative you like to read, rather than trying to anticipate the preferences of a marketful of blank-faced readers.

There is, however, a problem with this mindset. Writers sometimes forget they’re supposed to be writing to themselves as readers (smart, critical, objective, well-read readers, right?), and instead end up writing for themselves as writers. And let’s face it, as writers, we don’t always enjoy the same thing we do as readers.

What Is Self-Indulgent Writing?

As readers, we spend a few hours reading what we hope will be a tight, logically-constructed narrative that mates intellect and emotion in an effortlessly entertaining, perhaps even transformative experience.

But that’s not exactly the writing experience, is it?

As writers, we spend months, sometimes years, playing with words, characters, and scenes on the meta-est of meta levels. For us, the experience doesn’t always seem tight and cohesive, or even logical. Sometimes we don’t want it to. Sometimes, we just want to glory in these characters we’ve created. We want to sit around and listen to our broody hero internally monologue for pages and pages about life problems and philosophy. We want to put our two adorable leads on a porch swing together and let them chat about sweet nothings for at least a couple chapters. We want to explore every square inch of this fantabulous fantasy world we dreamed up.

In short, as surprising as it may be (or not), the thing writers want most from the writing experience isn’t always what’s going to create the best reading experience.

This is where self-indulgent writing can rear its sneakily malevolent head.

Put simply, self-indulgent writing is writing that doesn’t work. It is writing that doesn’t serve the story. Self-indulgent writing is made up the of the “darlings” you’re always being told you’re supposed to kill. It’s stuff you might love as a writer, but that, were you an objective reader of your own stuff, you probably would not.

The Two Major Problems With Self-Indulgent Writing

Ultimately, self-indulgent writing is really nothing more or less than poor editing.

As writers, we have every right to be as self-indulgent as we want in our first drafts. That’s our playground. That’s a space made just for us. We get to be ridiculous there. We get to create stuff meant just for us, stuff that doesn’t ever have to please another person.

But remember that old bit of advice:

The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the reader.

If, at some point in the process, you are not taking control of any self-indulgent impulses that detract from the overall purity of a story’s vision, then you’re likely to end up with two results.

1. Your Story Won’t Live Up to Its Potential

If your goal is just to have fun with a story, don’t worry about cutting your darlings. But if your goal is to create something cohesive and resonant, at some point you must settle down to the discipline of writing. This means first identifying the core of your story’s vision and potential, and then doing all the darling-killing necessary to make it a lean, mean narrative machine.

2. You’re Being Disrespectful to Readers

A book is a contract between writer and reader. If you want to be read, and if you want to create something accessible, you have to respect your readers. Respect their time, respect their expectations, and respect their own relationship with your story. They’re paying you the respect of opening their lives and minds to you. They deserve only your best in return.

7 Signs of Self-Indulgent Writing

Today, let’s kick self-indulgent writing “out da door or tru da window” (*does best Sheldon Leonard impression*). Here are the seven signs of self-indulgent writing I see most often.

It’s telling that I see these most frequently in works that either haven’t been well-edited or that are the later productions of big-name authors who are assured of successfully publishing pretty much whatever they want regardless of quality.

If you can learn to spot, objectively analyze, and appropriately eliminate the following from your story, you will have taken a huge step toward streamlining your story into a powerfully-focused piece of art.

1. Extra Length

This is the gimme of the group. There’s a reason we so often see books in a series growing longer and longer with each entry—and it’s usually not because the quality is growing accordingly. Rather, it’s because the longer an author spends with a story and the more commercially successful it becomes, the less pressure there is to weigh the necessity of every word and scene. (Plus, there’s, you know, the little fact that the more entries there are in a series, the longer it lasts and the more money everybody makes. Every TV series ever: I’m looking at you.)

I harp a lot on long books. It’s not because I don’t like them. Almost all of my favorite books are doorstops. Indeed, most of my own books tend toward long word counts. But there’s a huge difference between books that need to be long and books that do not. Most books do not.

The Test: So is your long book the good kind of long—or the self-indulgent writing kind of long? I always say a book needs to be exactly as long as it needs to be. And the only way know to know the optimal length is to examine first your story’s structure (especially the structural timing) and then every scene, every element, even every word.

If you can pull anything without endangering or confusing the throughline of the plot (and therefore the throughlines of character and theme—because they’re all so perfectly intertwined, right?), then pull it. No matter how cute it is, or how fun it was to write, it’s ultimately dead weight. A story can support a few “extras,” but when a sizable amount of its word count fails to advance the story (and believe me, I’ve seen whole entries in series that qualify), then the entire foundation of the story is in danger—and readers are likely to feel frustrated because the author hasn’t respected their time enough to give them only the very best.

2. Extra POVs

Authors love POVs. The more POVs we can cram in a story, the more of our characters we get to explore from the inside out. Sometimes this is a good thing. Sometimes multiple POVs are indispensable to a story’s vision. But often, it’s a very bad thing.

Not only do extra POVs inevitably jack up the word count, they can also contribute to scattering the narrative. Every added POV makes a statement about what this story is supposed to be about. When POVs are added willy-nilly, for no other reason than the author liked this character or because it was convenient to show a scene from a certain perspective, the story suffers.

The Test: This may surprise some writers, but adding a POV simply because this character is the only person present in an important scene is not a good enough reason to include it. POV shapes your entire narrative. Masterful writers choose their POVs because of how they influence the story, and they use those POVs consistently from beginning to end.

By the same token, choosing to include a POV just because you like the character is not a good reason. Rather, you should be examining why this character’s POV contributes inimitably to the plot and theme. If you pull this character’s POV, what do you lose—what do you really lose? Unless you have a deliberate, conscious reason for including this POV, don’t. When in doubt, cut it out.

3. Unnecessary Philosophical Discussions

Most writers fall somewhere on the spectrum of viewing their writing as either entertainment or an intellectual contribution to the world. Both are valid. But within the latter lies the pitfall of turning your story into a pulpit for your own views. Even if you do this skillfully by sowing philosophical conversations into witty or conflict-laden dialogue, it can be tempting to spend too much time commentating on society, religion, philosophy, science, etc.

There’s a tremendous difference between using the inherent drama of a story to explore the realities of certain world views versus shoehorning in lengthy discussions of said world views. This becomes even more egregious when the world views being discussed aren’t even the point of the story.

The Test: Is there a subject you’re particularly passionate about? One you could talk about (or argue about) for hours? One you feel a burning desire to share with everyone you meet? If so, you already know your danger point. There’s no reason whatsoever you shouldn’t be sharing this passion with your readers (indeed, you should), but you must exercise extra discipline in sharing it in a way that advances your story.

If at any point, any reference to this subject could be removed without altering the protagonist’s journey to the Climactic Moment, then that’s a good sign it’s extraneous. Even if the information is necessary, make sure you’re sharing it in the most entertaining and unexpected way possible. Avoid being on-the-nose at all costs.

4. Worldbuilding That Doesn’t Move the Plot

Anyone who has invested in lengthy research or worldbuilding can fall prey to the temptation of exploring their settings at length—without moving the plot. Fantasy writers seem more notoriously guilty of this than any other type of writer. In part, this is because of the amount of time they spend creating their worlds, but, also, because they often discover their worlds through the writing. And then once all these delicious setting details or magic rules have been written, why on earth would you not want to share them with readers??? Of course, they’ll be just as enthusiastic about ever little detail as you.

The Test: It’s true many fantasy readers are passionate about the details of worldbuilding. But that’s what wikis are for. The moment lengthy worldbuilding moves beyond orienting readers in the setting and fails to advance the plot, that’s the moment when it’s time to start cutting. All those training scenes where your characters learn how to use their magic powers? Yes, sometimes they’re necessary for dramatizing character development. But sometimes they’re just filler while the author explores all the possibilities of this cool world.

5. “Teacher’s Pet” Characters

Like parents, writers aren’t supposed to have favorites among their children. But sometimes (a lot of times), we do. And sometimes the characters who end up becoming “teacher’s pets” are not the optimal characters for advancing the story.

This happens when authors fixate on minor characters (especially minor POV characters) who do not advance the plot or contribute to the overall cohesive vision for the story’s narrative and thematic premise. Again, this is a common problem in sequels. Readers enter a sequel expecting more of the same, only better. Adding new characters or shifting focus onto previously minor characters can alter the entire story experience as presented to readers in the first book.

The Test: As with POVs, question yourself every time you put the spotlight on a new character. Why are you looking at this person? Because she fascinates you? That’s a good reason for starters. But if it’s the only reason, it’s not good enough. If this character is truly important, it’s because she’s important to the story and to the forward progression of the thematic whole. If not, save her for a standalone book.

6. Experiments That Don’t Work

There’s only one rule in writing:

Follow all the rules—unless you can break them brilliantly. Then break them.

But let’s be honest. Most of us aren’t that brilliant. If you’re going to break the rules of narrative form, you first need to know what rules you’re breaking, why you want to break them, and if the result is actually better than if you hadn’t broken anything. If you can’t objectively answer those questions, then you’re likely to end up with a story that doesn’t work, disgruntles readers, or both.

The Test: Experimental fiction is fun, fine, and even, in its place, important. But you need to know why you’re thinking outside the box. If it’s just because you want to be different or brilliant, that’s probably a short road to disaster. Successful experiments are what happen when authors have a firm understanding of what they’re doing and why. But if you’re just playing with readers to prove you’re smarter than them or better than the rules they’ve learned to expect, then that’s just ego.

7. Jerking Readers Around With Poor Plot Twists

It’s always a dangerous thing to assume you’re smarter than your readers. Remember, after all, you are your ideal reader. Can’t be smarter than yourself, right? As a reader, you, like all the rest of us, probably love a good plot twist. But I bet what you don’t love is when authors try to fool you for no other reason than getting to yell, Gotcha!

Sometimes poor plot twists are the result simply of poor writing. Rather than intending to jerk the reader around, the writer just failed to properly set up the story’s foreshadowing. But sometimes as a writer, it can be tempting to pull outrageous plot twists just because we want an emotional reaction from readers. As much as readers want you to evoke their emotions, they never want you to do it unfairly or without good reason.

The Test: First question is always: “Does this twist advance the plot?” You know the drill by now: If you can yank it, yank it.

Second question is: “Have you set this up in a way that will satisfy readers by giving them what they wanted all along, if only on a subconscious level?” If you’ve set up a romance and led readers to anticipate it working out, they’re probably not going to appreciate it when it turns out one of the leads is pranking the other for a reality show.

Don’t jerk readers around. It’s not nice. Respect them, and they’ll respect you.

***

Avoiding most of these symptoms of self-indulgent writing comes down to practicing common sense. Know your vision for your story and adhere to it with discipline. It’s fine to play around with the shiny fun stuff, but don’t get sidetracked from what’s best for your story. Just realizing we all have a tendency to be self-indulgent will help you stay on top of the temptation and keep your writing as crisp and powerful as possible.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of some self-indulgent writing you’ve encountered recently? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Definitely a quality checklist.

    I think when a problem’s found, the answer is often to split it, push it ahead, or push it to the side:

    Splitting it could help if a decent scene was getting longer than it needed. That “adorable couple on the swing” could show their sweetness for a limited time, and then the rest of their dialogue could be moved to make another scene after they’ve been through more trouble and we want to renew how we root for them. Some world-building or philosophical logic could have more kick if one scene was brief (and relevant!) and then the point came back later. Touching a base more often with more scenes can make a stronger impression than lingering on it.

    Pushing it ahead could mean saving it for a later story. One book might have enough Sweet Scenes already, so one scene too many could be material for the future. Or if an “important discussion” just doesn’t fit, it may mean there’s a whole book that goes into the subject properly so the reader appreciates it… if you’re sure it’s worth that much effort, anyway.

    Pushing it to the side is a variation on that. Like you said, “that’s what wikis are for”– and short stories and other related material, that focuses on a scene or character or fact that’s too appealing to ignore but doesn’t deserve the Next Full Book being about them. And all of those side stories and writeups are promotional gold because they give an interested reader a way to dig deeper and convince themselves they’ll absolutely wait for the next book.

    Not all darlings need killing. Some just need a transplant.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. This is a great gut-check list. Anytime you can add layers of complexity to a scene by making it do double- or triple-duty in the plot, good things happen.

  2. I will pin those 7 points to my screen (only metaphorically, otherwise, with all the other stuff that would be hanging there, I would not be able to see anything anymore).
    To quote from Philip Pullman’s “Daemon Voices” again: In his Essay “The Path through the Wood” he defines the whole story-world as the “wood”, where the author can play and explore endlessly. BUT: the story-line should be the “path” through the wood, and only things that advance the story should be there. He says: “The reason for this is simple: if you leave the path, the readers put down the book. (…) Never leave the path.” So his test if something belongs in a book is the question: “Is it of the wood, or is it of the path?” Obviously, if it is part of the wood, not the path, you have to cut it out. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Aw, that’s beautiful. A lovely analogy! I’m definitely going to remember that one (or metaphorically pin it to my screen!).

  3. One of my favourite fantasy authors uses the one world to write trilogies. An entire trilogy was self-indulgent. There was too many POVs, too much world building, too many conversations. I usually re-read my favourite authors but I couldn’t force myself to finish. Even now it is a by-word for self indulgent writing. It felt like too many characters (none of whom generated much empathy from me) and too little theme or even plot. It tarnished this author’s reputation for me and undermined her final trilogy when she included characters from this series in it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, stories/series like this are a caution for the rest of us, encouraging us to keep rigorously questioning our writing even after we’ve become successful.

  4. KM, excellent piece! My primary reaction is that this writer needs several tools for writing.. Have a nice journal for the deep thinking. Spring for a small pad or exotic planner to keep appts straight. For philosophical discussions, check out a site near your interest… for example, I love Concerned Scientists, which is practically begging for ideas, or Bioethics website, which goes well with my teaching of bioethics. Several thoughts from me… @LatelaMary (Mary Latela)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great idea! I’m all about organizing thoughts–having different mental boxes for different topics. This is a good physical extension of that.

  5. Nice list. I never really thought about too many POV characters as a problem, but I can see where you’re coming from. I know I’ve been guilty of giving a secondary character a point of view simply for one (and only one) scene just to convey a message to a reader. It’s something to think about.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Poorly chosen POV characters are one of my pet peeves. I have seen so many otherwise great stories weakened by sloppy POV choices.

  6. Super list! We can all get carried away at times, but some of these we just “gadda kick tada coib.”

  7. Respect your readers, i like that perspective, using a gift with the aim of blessing others.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As writers, we rely on empathy to help us create realistic characters. Ideally, that empathy should extend to our readers as well. 🙂

  8. This is a great reminder! I often self-indulge on my first draft, and that leads to a lot of cutting later. Excellent list of what to look for- that helps a lot!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I tend to do most of my self-indulging in the outlining. It’s a fun dry-eraser board where I can play without causing myself too much work later on.

  9. A very meaningful reminder!
    Just what I needed before completing my first draft. I was thinking over a huge twist at the end that could have changed the whole structure and now I feel it’s better to continue with the natural ending that’s more resonant to my readers.
    Thanks K.M 👌

  10. Totally guilty of #4 and #5 at times (okay, alot of the time). Its good to be aware of pitfalls like this, great post as usual.

  11. I love this post. I read it both as an author and as a reader and as an editor!- nodding my head and going “uh hub, mmm mmm ….”

    There were some of my pet peeves in there (as a reader and editor). There were some familiar things in there (as an author).

    Always good information in here, thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I know from own experience that being an editor provides an excellent mirror for being a writer!

  12. Perfect timing! Just last night I made an impulsive decision to start writing some scenes from the perspective of the male love interest (of sorts). It’s a recipe for wild self-indulgence: I’m slightly in love with the character (I’m afraid I would literally date him, nay, marry him, imprudent as it would be); he is himself prone to self-indulgent philosophical and theological ramblings and impulsive, irresponsible behavior; his resume builds on some of my own pet adventures and travels; and I’m way too fascinated with the gap between his ebullient chattering and tortured, analytical interior. And, really, this is not the stage to worry about it too much, but if I don’t rein it in at some point, this will be a story with no potential readers but me. Which is not necessarily a pointless thing, but it would be a shame if the story could be something better than that!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just have fun with it! Sounds like you’re aware of the potential pitfalls.

      • The more immediate problem is translating what seems to be the clear idea of a character into concrete scenes and dialogue, which, no matter how much I practice, is always harder than I think it’s going to be! Planning is easy; real writing is hard. At this stage, I think I had better not filter too much, as I’m more likely to think I’ve gotten the character onto the page when I really haven’t. It’s much harder than it looks!!

  13. I’m late to comment as always, sorry! It’s a great list, and I find myself guilty of #3: Unnecessary philosophical discussions. Well, kind of a derivative of that one. While hardly the only measure of great writing, one way in which critics often term writing “great” is an author’s ability to make witty observations, clever analogies or similes, or otherwise connect two seemingly unrelated topics (thinking John Green, the king of witty philosophical writing). Comedians also do this well. It’s easy to get caught up chasing metaphors that don’t really work or fit, or going off on tangents to try to show how smart you are, because you (I) might worry people won’t think your writing is “great” unless you can offer up a steady diet of wit. You’re far more likely to end up with cliches or totally unnecessary passages. I”m not talking about purple prose with 3 similes in one sentence, but trying to force them to show how clever you are. This is my particular self-indulgent writing trap. Like you said, I’ll allow it in the first draft because every so often I actually will come up with something good and I don’t want to stifle the possibility, but usually it’s garbage that needs to be cut later. Thanks for the great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I hear you. But the good news is that in admiring clever writers it’s a sign, at least, of our own good taste and perhaps even our own blooming cleverness. 🙂

  14. As soon as I read this title, I thought of the Stephen King quote I have stuck to my monitor: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” So true, and so unfortunate. The parts of our writing we love most are not always necessary, or even good.

    Item three reminds me uncomfortably of my first novel. I feel like most of the book was an unnecessary philosophical discussion. XD And I have a couple characters in my WIP who are borderline teacher’s pets… but their subplot, while separate from the main plot, is important thematically, so they’re safe for now.

  15. April Michel says:

    Great list (instant bookmark, and now I fear to open my old work), but, if we use the analogy from Philip Pullman about the path and the woods, where would a chronicle fit?

  16. sam steidel says:

    Some where I read, “Write the book you wish to read”. I take that to heart, deeply since I have read so many books that frustrate and put off. Short stories that I wish were miles longer, trilogies full of meandering wanderers who would do better with a map than an Angel’s Gem of direction, wondrous secondary characters who have no voice and I am stuck in the head of some dolt who can not figure out there be dragons down that trail.
    As you may have surmised I prefer many POVs and If I must spend a few pages on the rules of magic so be it to understand the motivations of other world characters. If all books must now follow a pattern of 25% there and 45% to this critical point, best maybe I write my own stories and be self indulgent as possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Indeed, figure out what it is about your favorite stories’ breaking the rules that makes you love them more than other stories. Or whether they’re actually breaking the rules after all. Striving for a conscious understanding of why we enjoy or don’t enjoy certain stories–and how to replicate or avoid the techniques in our own fiction–is one of our greatest learning opportunities.

  17. Thanks for this!

    I’ve been writing for a long time – I’d guess a good chunk of my life. But every time I come over here, I learn something I didn’t know before. And I end up clicking through the related links and ending up with enough tabs to make my browser look like Christmas. Worth it, though. Learning is always good!

  18. Love this! I’m definitely going to bookmark this

  19. Christy M. says:

    Lovely article. I learned the POV lesson the hard way when I wrote a love story with four POVs. I really didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but my Editor in Chief (husband) told me I had to decide what the story was about and axe all those scenes. So I did. And it was a lot of painful rewriting. The story is stronger for it, as it’s now abundantly clear that it is about a relationship between two people.

    As for self-indulgent philosophizing, I was really disappointed by the ending of Sinclair’s classic “The Jungle.” He wove this heart-rending tale about the immigrant experience in the Chicago packing district in the early 1900s, and then he abandoned his characters in favor of 20 pages of long-winded academic proselytizing on the subject of socialism. My feelings about the book had nothing to do with my feelings about socialism, but rather a sense of betrayal as a reader, investing so much time into a character only to see him sacrificed on the altar of ideology.

    I have deeply held social values myself. It made me think more critically about my own writing and not betraying my readers in an attempt to moralize. I don’t know how to put it, but sometimes as a writer you have to be honest about humanity in a way that undermines your own arguments. You have to show that (to use personal examples I found difficult) sometimes poverty really is the result of poor decisions, that some women do use manipulation to secure power, or that even the oppressed can be oppressive in their approach to securing freedom. Stephen King said readers can smell a liar a mile away, and I think it’s true. For all the literary value and influential power of the Jungle, Sinclair lied about the world being divided between saintly, hapless victims and narcissistic evildoers, and then he lied about the power of a single ideology to solve every human problem. He lied perhaps because he was insecure about the transformative power of good storytelling. It’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.

  20. Great concise advice.
    I received a critique at a writer’s workshop. The instructor said “trust your reader”.
    Your post explained what she meant in an easy to understand way.
    I am bookmarking this.
    Thanks, K.M.

  21. I am itching to read an example of what you think would be a sloppy character POV. Do you offer this anywhere? I am still on my first draft of my novel but want to learn as much as I can along the way.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There are many different types of sloppy POV–some of which are just poorly executed and some of which are poorly chosen. I did a critique of what I felt was a very poorly chosen POV(s) here. I’ll mull on doing a post about this.

Trackbacks

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