There is a well-known writing tip that advises beginning writers to pick out their favorite passage, dialog, scene, or plotline in their novel – and to delete it. You might wonder why on earth you would want to do this. It is hard enough to write something good. If you find yourself really liking something you have written, why remove it? But your favorite material is not necessarily your best material, and it could be your worst.
Of course you must use your instincts when deciding what parts to cut on the rewrite so that you do not weed out that which makes your writing special and uniquely yours. A good rule of thumb when removing material is to save it in an Outtakes file so that you can add it back in, if you have to, or use it for another project. But the reason that you should view your favorite material with suspicion is because it is often your most self-indulgent material. Self-indulgent writing results from wallowing in your favorite topics and techniques. It is almost an iron-clad guarantee that no one else who reads your work will care about your favorite topics, themes, and writerly tricks as much as you do. In short, you run the risk of boring your readers. At worst case scenario, self-indulgent material can wreak havoc with the story’s credibility.
Self-indulgent material is stuff that a writer insists on forcing into the storyline even if it is not in the best interests of the story. A very common example of this is when a writer does a lot of research on, say, Australian aboriginal folktales or aviation or French cuisine, and then the storyline changes and makes the research unnecessary. A writer who is in touch with her story will put the old research aside to meet the new demands of the story. Or she will have a feel for where to work in a smattering of the research.
Less experienced writers will force huge self-indulgent chunks of research into the story anyway even though it comes across like info-dump. Sometimes they seem to be grimly trying to recoup the time wasted on research that became unnecessary as their plots evolved. Or maybe they have turned themselves into subject-matter experts through their research and cannot resist expounding upon their new interest.
One dead giveaway that you are reading the novel of an inexperienced writer is the self-indulgent tendency for all the supporting characters to force symbolic anecdotes or monologues of info-dump upon the main character often when they are no more than walk-on characters that he must interact with in passing. (For example, someone will accost the viewpoint character and say, my people back in the old country have a charming folktale that pertains to your situation and here it is… or I bet you didn’t know that the Faroe Islands, now a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark, were settled by Norsemen around the year 800…) In real life, people rarely interact with each other in such a loquacious and informative way. It’s more likely that someone would have to work hard to strike up a conversation with a new acquaintance, let alone fish for relevant information to help him solve a mystery or whatever.
Another self-indulgent pitfall that I see way too much in romance novels comes from the writers’ tendency to be obsessed with eye color. When I read, I encounter sentence after sentence referring to the hero’s “cerulean orbs” and the hero’s eyes “blazing blue fire,” and so forth. I like knowing about eye color, too, but I think one striking descriptive sentence when the viewpoint character first sees the hero is good enough. There is no need to keep beating the reader over the head with further descriptions of his eye color throughout the action and dialog. If the initial description of eye color is good enough, the writer will not need to repeat it because the reader will find it unforgettable.
Think back on what you have read lately. How many otherwise good books have been tarnished by the following types of self-indulgent material from authors?
- Distracting typographic tricks that create patterns on a page.
- The writer includes in-jokes and obscure references to things most readers will not understand.
- The writer appears in his or her own book as a character.
- Unnecessary and stereotypical minor characters get their comeuppance so that the writer can vent personal frustration against a group of people such as men, women, young people, lawyers, et cetera.
- One or more characters serve as mouthpieces for the writer’s political beliefs.
- The main character is a Mary Sue character (a too-perfect version of the author).
- The book includes gratuitous violence to manipulate the readers’ emotions.
Probably the two best descriptions to help you recognize self-indulgent writing are unnecessary and heavy handed. When you read back over your work to decide what to cut on the rewrite, look at your favorite material first and ask yourself, “Does this really need to be here?” and “Is this too much? Too sappy? Too unbelievable? Too artificial?” By contrast, the best examples of your writing will serve the story itself rather than your own desires as the author, and it will not call attention to itself. Your best writing will be so simple and clear that it helps to glide the reader into a seamless escapist experience.