I have written both professionally and on an amateur level for several years. A lot of it basically fell into my lap, and it hasn't been my primary profession for a couple of years now. I have some projects now that I'm interested in and working on in my off time, but I've noticed that a lot of my side projects quickly descend into metafiction. That's something I love when used by great writers, but I find it pretty off-putting in texts on the level I'm producing. It's certainly not something I'm interested in doing nearly as often as I do. Most of it just ends up in the bin on the first editing pass. The issue is that it sucks up valuable writing time.

I've been trying to stop it and redirect but that can derail me and make me lose momentum. Writing through it occasionally helps, but it can also end up just kind of spiraling. Does anyone has any advice for working on reducing or mitigating this sort of self-indulgent tendency?

  • 1
    Self-discipline. Jan 12, 2017 at 5:42
  • 1
    Thanks, but the actual acts that comprise self-discipline vary in effectiveness. There are many specific practices that can be used to strengthen willpower or mitigate certain temptations.
    – aga
    Jan 12, 2017 at 17:40

7 Answers 7


There is writing and there is storytelling. Writing is about the words. Storytelling is about the event, the people, the sights, sounds, smells, tragedies, joys, births, deaths, surprises, victories, and defeats. Writing does not matter except as a vehicle for telling the story.

It is very easy to feel productive by sitting down and churning out words. There are many writers who will tell you to just sit down and let the words flow and edit out all the bits that are not story later. I think that may work for the natural storytellers, the ones that don't have to work much on story because it just naturally flows out of them. But I'm guessing that if you find yourself descending into metafiction, you are not one of those, you are someone like me who needs to work harder on story. Metafiction is all about playing with the words and the conventions and the mechanisms of storytelling, rather than with story itself. It is a symptom of focusing on words rather than story.

So I would suggest focusing on story, on fully imagining a scene before you write it down. This is still about working in a disciplined fashion, about applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. But it is not about producing words. It is about inventing stories. So sit down and invent stories. Work your imagination till each scene is fully formed, until you can see each character's eyes move and feel their breath on your cheek. Then write down what you see.

No one can say for sure what discipline will work for you. But it is pretty clear to me that for wordy types, sitting down and simply spinning out words is a way to fool yourself into thinking you are working while really avoiding the hard works of invention. An accumulation of useless words, particularly clever words, seem to me a sure sign of a mind focused on the wrong objective. (And I have produced a lot of them.)

Let go of the words. Live the story. Then write what you have seen.

  • I think you nailed it. I'm probably trying to scratch a word count itch when I do that, too. On the other hand, I did have some reluctance to take those moments to sit back and imagine the details of a scene more thoroughly without writing. I'll try to work on revaluing those two things.
    – aga
    Jan 12, 2017 at 17:33
  • What's wrong with metafiction? Charlie Kaufman's film Adaptation is about himself trying to write the film. It's one of the most original and praised movies out there.
    – alex
    Jan 13, 2017 at 2:15
  • Nothing's wrong with it. I love Kaufman's work, and you probably won't find a bigger DFW fan. But I think that metafiction takes real polish, skill, and attention. When poorly done, trite, or just not appropriate for the text, it really drags a text down in a way that other pulpier elements don't. That's obviously a matter of a taste, though.
    – aga
    Jan 13, 2017 at 5:24
  • Metafiction is a cry of anguish. It is, I would suggest, and expression of the anguish of being unable to enter fully into story. All prior civilizations have seen the world as an unfolding story. The modern world sees it as a cosmic accident. Thus metafiction is a uniquely modern phenomena. But we are still creatures of story even if some of us don't believe the universe is a story anymore. In metafiction we confront that anguish, but our hearts still want story. Metafiction cannot satisfy, it can only express our anguish at our inability for achieve satisfaction in story.
    – user16226
    Jan 13, 2017 at 14:45
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    @MarkBaker I thought expressing anguish was the core of storytelling.
    – wyc
    Jan 14, 2017 at 4:04

If you are in the flow, don't stop the flow.

Obviously this kind of writing is part of your imagination, and blocking it will block your imagination and leave you unable to write at all becauee your mind is busy with this thought and will try to "help" you not to forget it. So just write it out of your system.

Maybe you can bring yourself to do the deviations in a more quick and sketchy manner and not tidy them up so thoroughly, or even just note them down in a few words so you "don't forget them and can work them out later". This will give your mind a feeling that this thought was taken care of, so you can let it go and turn to other things.

When I write I always have a separate file open into which I write everything that has nothing to do with the story I am writing. Later, when I'm done for the day, I sort through this file. What I actually need to take care of (like notes about who I want to call) is extracted onto my to-do list, and ideas and general thoughts go into my archive (a folder with plain text files). Sometimes I browse this archive on the search for inspiration, but mostly it just gets deleted every few years.

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    This is called a slush file, and it's an excellent idea. It's also the place you can put the darlings you kill so you don't have to feel so bad about removing them. Jan 12, 2017 at 10:43
  • Thanks! This is a practice I already engage in, but I like the idea of switching into the "quick and sketchy" mode when this urge arises.
    – aga
    Jan 12, 2017 at 17:31
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    Thanks for the comment, @LaurenIpsum, I didn't know there was a name for that. Cool.
    – user5645
    Jan 12, 2017 at 20:16

If you are writing and producing something, it's best not to squelch the process (as @what has stated). What I will say is it may be something which is not easily overcome and you may not want to overcome it. You will, however, want to limit it (which I guess is the basis of your question).

My suggestion to you is to set yourself either a certain time of the day for this or perhaps one single day out of the week. This will let the creativeness continue without stopping things up. If an hour in the morning will get it out of your system, then set that time aside to have at it. This may help get all of your creative juices flowing while still being able to follow it up with a very productive rest of the day. This would require a lot of discipline, but is very doable.

My alternative to this is to set an entire day in the week aside. It may be a little easier of a stop point in the writing to transition from being self-indulgent to getting proper work done. You are limited by your own biological rhythms. Sleep tends to do its thing!

In either case, I would highly suggest you not throw these episodes in the trash. Keep them around in the slush file (as @LaurenIpsum so aptly called it) to be reviewed later. You may find useful parts/pieces which can provide great story lines or ideas for later on. I often find when going over previous work new ideas come to mind. I usually think the work I'm reading is crap, but new ideas can still flow from it.

Work is work, whether self-indulgent or not. You've spent the time on it already. Hard drive storage (or even a thumb drive) is very cheap. Keeping these episodes on hand is never a bad thing. At the very least it can show your future self what not to be doing. Throwing work away is throwing your valuable time away. Not keeping it, whether the work is good or bad, is a complete waste.

  • "Storage is cheap" is definitely important to remember. I usually use versioned backups anyway, but you're right that there's no point in not keeping this stuff indefinitely.
    – aga
    Jan 12, 2017 at 17:45

Not that this is a huge issue ('containing multitudes' and all that...) but I couldn't help but notice that your question seems to contradict itself.

You say:

"I have some projects now that I'm interested in and working on in my off time, but I've noticed that a lot of my side projects quickly descend into metafiction.

But then continue with:

It's certainly not something I'm interested in doing nearly as often as I do."

Like some other answers on here have suggested, if you are interested in what you are producing then just go for it. When you find yourself "spiraling out" it may be a sign to take a break and reevaluate or work on something else. Notably, you seem very aware of your creative state while writing which is a major strength. Naturally, you will want to Listen to those thoughts.

You may also want to consider reframing your concept of 'worthwhile writing' versus writing that "sucks up valuable writing time". I am of the school of thought that all writing that you find interesting in the moment is 'worthwhile'.

I get the sense that you think this type of writing is not worthwhile because it is not at the level that you would like, but it also sounds like you are writing in a different vein than you have in the past and, ostensibly, you are learning. Much like how a professional basketball player who suddenly starts playing baseball on the side will not immediately be playing at a professional level, they may enjoy it more than playing basketball and will likely advance quickly in skill.

I would posit that your anxiety is partly due to being in a 'discovery process', i.e. where you are working in unfamiliar territory and cannot immediately see where you will end up. We can't always tell where something is going to lead, and that can be anxiety provoking.

But writing at its best is an intellectual activity and thus fraught with trial, error and failure. You seem worried about failing, but failure is an important part of the process and can often be a precursor to some of the best work. Surely you have experienced this in your work before and only you can determine whether this is the case or not. If it is then there is one more argument for sticking with it.

One work that comes to mind and may have some bearing on your question is something like James Joyce's 'Finnegan's Wake' which is about the most self-indulgent work imaginable (and one that ate up seventeen years of the man's writing career...). It is also considered by some to be one of the most important works' of the twentieth century. YMMV

N.B. I would argue for erring on the side of sticking with it and seeing where it takes you. Inevitably you will find your level of skill in writing metafiction improving.


At some point, all fiction becomes self-conscious; not a big deal.

The most important question is: does the narrative and story flow well and easily? Is it lively? Are you getting your point across?

You can delete the self-indulgent stuff during edit. Or you may decide during editing that it is the most important part of the story! Don't worry about that; just be entertaining/witty/profound...

I typically find that the break-the-form/reflexive fiction/self-consciousness drops out naturally during edit stage of its own heaviness.

As far as wasting time, it's all a matter of degree and perspective. I tend to wonder if every time I sit to write something I am wasting my time. Nothing new about that! I sometimes do clean rough drafts, but sometimes my rough drafts contain a lot of wild stuff that I know is not going to remain. (I just don't know until I've finished the rough draft which wild stuff belongs in the final version).


You mention that you don't enjoy metafiction on the level you write at, but that you love it when "used by great writers".

I think the first thing to consider is what you think makes these "great writers" so great. What is it about the way they do metafiction that makes it work so well, where other writers' attempts fall flat for you? This is a very personal thing, I suppose, and requires introspection on your part, but to help you along, here's what I think:

I think all great works of metafiction have three key features in common:

1 - They have some kind of more straighforward (i.e. non-meta) idea at their core which comes - or else is so expertly crafted that it appears to come - from a place of sincere passion and interest on the part of the author.

2 - This idea, or the author's particular angle on it, is best expressed in a self-referential way, wherein the structure of the story takes on aspects of the theme and embodies them. I like to think of this like a hall of mirrors, wherein the narrative self-reference allows the reader to become completely immersed in the ideas (for example, the narrator's obsession in Pale Fire, the themes of painful self awareness and media addiction in Infinite Jest).

3 - Some kind of emotional or thematic progression throughout (as, I think, should be expected of any fiction, and no amount of formal experimentation, stylistic flair or technical brillance can replace it).

Now, of course you don't have to write metafiction of this or any other sort, but I feel like identifying the things that really appeal to you about certain kinds of writing can help you to understand why you're struggling.

I suspect you haven't quite worked out what it is you want your writing to be (or to be about), and you're using the techniques of metafiction as a way to get around that fact. Solve that problem, and the appropriate form will stem naturally from it.


I find your post very interesting, but see two possible questions in it. For convenience let me call them a question of willpower vs. discrimination.

As to willpower, the question may go:

I know primary fiction (for the lack of any better word), and I know metafiction. I want the one and not the other. The trouble is that I get distracted, lured away by the meta thing. My problem can be assimilated to wanting to do the homework, but ending up at a nightclub.

Your word self-indulgent suggests this question. To this general thought on motivation, discipline etc. may be highly relevant.

As to discrimination, the question may go:

I want the one, not the other. I am on my guard and would never willingly give way to temptation. But by and by I find myself doing metafiction. My problem may be assimilated to wanting to practice classical piano, but sliding into jazz.

The expression descend into metafiction suggests this. To this, writing-specific ideas may be relevant, e.g. on what makes something primary or meta.

No doubt, there may be elements of both in your situation?

Be that as it may, I like your question very much. I think making it concrete with an example may be very productive. That is, you would show us (describe) one of your projects in its original conception and after its "descent"--with any intervening stages you'd like.

I can imagine a number of responses to that. For example:

  • The project stayed primary.

  • The project started out meta.

  • The thing went meta, but thus became a distinct second project, with its own promises.

  • Indeed, going meta was bad for it.

Your question assumes this fourth outcome? Well maybe not; you simply want the one thing, and not the other, and there is no arguing with that.

Anyway thanks for your post, and if you amend it with an example please leave a comment to my answer so I may know to come back.

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