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What is self-reference, and is it good, bad, or indifferent to the vagaries of moral indignation?

Self-reference is when a sentence, idea, or formula refers to itself.  It can happen when a film, novel, etc, talks about itself, such as, for example, when Bastian finds a book called “The Neverending Story” and starts reading it to discover that it is a book about a boy called Bastian who finds a book.

Also Monty Python – The Quest for the Holy Grail contains this line:

“Oh look, it’s the old man from scene 24.”

and many other similar references.

So is it a good thing?  It can definitely be used for comic effect, very effectively.

To give an example of where self-reference has been taken to the extreme (I really hope for comic effect), consider this story, by David Moser, which includes such delights as:

This is the first sentence of this story. This is the second sentence. This is the title of this story, which is also found several times in the story itself. This sentence is questioning the intrinsic value of the first two sentences. This sentence is to inform you, in case you haven’t already realized it, that this is a self-referential story, that is, a story containing sentences that refer to their own structure and function. This is a sentence that provides an ending to the first paragraph.


This sentence comments on the awkward nature of the self- referential narrative form while recognizing the strange and playful detachment it affords the writer.


This sentence raises a serious objection to the entire class of self-referential sentences that merely comment on their own function or placement within the story e.g., the preceding four sentences), on the grounds that they are monotonously predictable, unforgivably self- indulgent, and merely serve to distract the reader from the real subject of this story, which at this point seems to concern strangulation and incest and who knows what other delightful topics.

I suggest you go and read the full story for a better idea of what the story is about.

On the other hand, when it occurs in more serious work it is harder to do well.  I am probably not alone in finding that too many self-references jolt me out of the fantasy world and back into the one where I am sitting on a sofa reading.

It can work, though.  It’s just difficult.  So difficult that I can’t think of a book I’ve read that did it well.  Does anybody else have any suggestions?

In general, I find that having goals is a Good Thing.  It’s useful to know what you intend to do in a day, in a week, or in a month.  Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, but underestimate what they can achieve in a year.

I’ve been running some experiments and discovered that I can usually write 400-500 words in a day, given my other commitments.  Not all of them are good words, in fact many of them are not, but that’s not the point.  The point is that if I do that, every day, I could have the first draft of a novel written in half a year.  That actually boggles my mind, because I was expecting it to take several years.  Half a year?  That’s a goal I could get behind.

But here’s the thing.

Goals should not take over your life.

When I was away camping last week, I didn’t write anything.  Not one word, for six days.  I know there will be other weeks this year when similar things happen.  So maybe my novel will take a little longer.  And that’s ok, because writing a novel in half a year is not the be-all and end-all of my life.

Some people would say that this means I am not a “proper writer”, or not “passionate enough” or some such.  I laugh in their general direction.  Their mother was a hamster and their father smelled of elderberries.  If they don’t go away I shall taunt them a second time.  Or something.  This post is not written for them.

This post is written for those people who love writing, who want to write, but who also have a life outside, in the real world.  To them I want to say: You Are Not Alone.  Set goals if you want; write when you can; but do not worry if you don’t write every day.

Dragging myself back to the point, writing a novel is too much of a long term goal for me.  Things change, new oportunities come up and steal my time, and I find it difficult to maintain interest if the end of the project is in many months time.  That’s why I have decided not to set the goal of writing a novel in half a year.  Or even writing a novel.

That isn’t to say that I won’t be writing a novel, of course, but writing the novel is not my main goal – writing is.

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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