Helping Writers Become Authors

How to Spot and Avoid Self-Indulgent Writing

As 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.

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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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