Balancing Id in Your Writing

I’ve been struggling to write this year in a way I haven’t experienced in almost two decades. I’ve started many projects, but I haven’t gotten very far with anything because everything feels flat. When I was deciding on my NaNoWriMo project, I had many options plotted, and every one of them appealed on some level, but I felt like I needed to go after something that would appeal to my id—that would allow me to really let go.

I’m going to tell you straight up, that’s a dangerous thing to do. Id fic can be a hot mess. Your id is like the four-year-old kid throwing random stuff in their parent’s shopping cart while said parent isn’t paying attention. When they get home, the parents are going, “why did we get six containers of star anise?” (True story. The star anise was on the bottom shelf, and many other spices were purchased anyway. The excess star anise was overlooked when my friend was checking out, but she had caught all the extra cookies and Captain Crunch the kid had tossed in the cart!)

It’s practically your id’s job to toss things in the cart, but it’s the part of your brain that understands good craft to decide what will make a cogent story.

To stretch an id/ego/superego analogy to the breaking point, the id is everything you could possibly want in your story, your superego is everything you know about craft, but the ego is you, the writer, who has to decide how to apply what you know to what you want. You have to marry skill to wish, and that’s a skill all on its own. It takes practice.

Back to NaNo…

With the goal of really letting go with my last big project of the year, I made a list of my favorite characters and favorite tropes—specifically the characters and tropes that appeal to my id. An example in my catalog of id fic is If Found, Please Return. For a couple of reasons. For starters, I have epic daddy issues. But I think Tony deserves a better family. I believe everyone deserves a good family. Delivering that family for him is profoundly satisfying to me in a way that, say, solving a case isn’t. Not that case fic can’t be great, but it doesn’t make my id pant like an attention-starved puppy.

So, I’ve got my list of id-approved tropes, and I’m trying to decide how many of them I can squeeze into one story without it being a hot mess. And that’s the critical bit… without it being a hot mess. Because throwing everything and the kitchen sink into a single story is likely going to be a very hot mess. Learning how to rein yourself in is part of growing your craft as a writer, but so is knowing when to let yourself loose.

There were a lot of things on my id-approved list that just wouldn’t work. Deciding what to cut out of an idea or a story is one of the harder parts of being a writer.

By the end of November, my story might have a bit too much id. Or possibly not enough. Who knows for sure six weeks in advance? But I have confidence in my ability to make the choices that are in the best interest of telling a compelling story with good craft because it’s something I work at every time I approach a new work. It’s something I’m always aware of.

Around the same time I was up to my id-shenanigans, I was reading a few stories I’d seen rec’d in various fandom spaces and/or I’d stumbled upon while taking my sanity into my hands on AO3. Interestingly, I read two stories in a row in the same fandom that were kind of a hot mess in the same way. Both had good bones, good mechanics, good initial execution, but the authors didn’t ever rein themselves in. They just kept throwing things into that shopping cart and never bothered to check to see if all those ingredients were going to make a viable dish.

They didn’t. It wasn’t.

It was just what you’d expect from too many ingredients—stuff felt like it was tacked on and went nowhere. There were all these plot points or worldbuilding elements that served no useful purpose. In one case, the most exciting aspects of the story were the elements that went nowhere and were completely unresolved. Both stories felt weirdly unfinished, but the story with interesting unresolved aspects felt incomplete and frustrating because you had a resolution on the shit you didn’t care about but nothing on the engaging bits.

This is what happens when you let your id make all your decisions.

Some people will call this their muse and therefore not make any attempt to curb this impulsivity.



I’m not going to belabor the point about how the notion of a muse robs you, because I’ve made that point many a time, but assuming you believe in a muse, and you really want to stick with that, your muse is supposed to be the seat of creativity. The id is an impulsive child. Reining in your inner child is not the same thing as stifling your creativity. If anything, your supposed muse should be reining in your id.

Regardless of how you label what’s going on in your process—id, creativity, inspiration, whatever—good craft demands some kinds of limits.

On the flip side—and this is less of an issue—some authors have so much rigidity in their craft that they need to cut loose. They need to learn to bring in a little id, a little impulsivity into their writing. It’s as if their self-imposed structure screams to be relaxed, and the story almost can’t be enjoyed without some breathing room.

As you move into your next project, ask yourself if you’re someone who needs to give yourself some limits or learn to let go a little. Try to give yourself room for whatever that is when you’re working on your rough draft.

But, remember, the editing process is for cleaning everything up—even if that means cleaning up after your own id.

* * * * *

Now, sing along to The Gambler with me…

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run…

Happy National Novel Writing Month! And you’re very welcome for the earworm!

-Jilly James


  1. I really enjoyed this article, Jilly. And I couldn’t resist singing along with the Gambler at the end. A sincere thanks for dislodging an earworm I didn’t care for with a song I like but don’t listen to much these days. lol

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