Essential Writing Tool: Totems

National Novel Writing Month is right around the corner.  Literally.  It’s just seven days north and one day east.  Because, of course, the sun rises in the east and next Tuesday morning will find me glassy-eyed, caffeine injected and doggedly working to get my first 1,667 words done on my newest WIP.

I’m as prepared as I usually am for this crazy writing endeavor.  I have a working title, but no genre.  I know I’ll be penning a young adult novel, but I have no clue what, exactly, it will be about.  I also have my totem.

My writing totems act as mascots.  For instance, in 2007, my NaNoTotem was an elephant.  I had never heard of totems before, and my writing buddies all seemed to have one.  Then one day while shopping, a teeny elephant called to me from the grocery store bin.  Ellie, named after the elephant in my novel, Surviving Serengeti, became my first writing cheerleader.

She hung out on my desk in 2008 while I wrote Losing Time, and I believed she would simply be my official writing totem forever and ever, amen.  Imagine my surprise when a tiny carved bear demanded to join Ellie in 2009 while I penned Whispering Minds.

I found him while visiting our National Monument on a research trip for my YA novel.  I knew I needed a solid Native American perspective and found a wonderful stone carver to share his thoughts with me.  While looking for a book to further my research, I saw this bear.  Not a big deal, except I couldn’t seem to leave without purchasing it.  In Indian culture, the bear represents introspection, something I didn’t realize until much later.  Yet, I couldn’t have deliberately bought a more perfect totem for my psychological thriller than him.

And then the plot bunnies came.  A stuffed marshmallow peep joined Ellie and my bear for NaNo10 when my young MC unwittingly unleashed plot bunnies into her very practical world.  Hopefully, The Mixed-up Manuscripts of Martin Niggle will become the first in a chapter book series.

Hopefully, I will win my cheesy NaNo11 certificate with Haarper.  Writing 50,000 cohesive words in thirty days seems like a stretch, but I thrive off the quick deadline.  It seems to boost my adrenaline and my muse.  Which is good, because as of today, I still know very little about this year’s novel.

A giant (in terms of relative size to the real thing) stuffed E.coli will join the ranks of my NaNoTotems.  He was a Christmas present from my little brother and sister last year.  He hung out on my windowsill as a reminder for my kids to wash their hands.  He’s cute in a creepy kind of way and somehow wheedled his way into my novel.

Thanks to my Big Sis for downloading Germs, Genes and Civilization onto our shared kindle account, I got snookered into reading the history of infectious disease and its impact on society.  Yeah, I know.  Not typical light reading, but a fascinating book and very well written.  I would actually recommend it for any historical fiction writer–whether they write about genes and germs or not.

All of a sudden, the germ of an idea hit and Haarper was born.  So was Coli.

Isn’t he cute?  Aren’t they all?

Do you think I’m weird for having an entire cheerleading section of random objects while I pen my novels?  If so, I assure you, I’m quite normal.  Or at least as normal as many other writers across the globe.  If you don’t believe me, check out this post on Writing Superstitions and Rituals to see just how unsilly my totems are.

Comparatively speaking, of course.

Who cheers you on when you write?  Do you think having someone–anyone/thing–keeping a watchful eye on your progress is motivating or terrifying?  How do you reconcile your fear of not finishing when people actually know you’ve started a new project? 

Curious minds want to know.


17 responses to “Essential Writing Tool: Totems

  1. Love this, Cat!! Sort of reminds me of the little clay kiln gods many potters make to add to their kiln so that their pieces will survive the firing. I don’t have any writing totems, but I may just have to find one.

    Btw, just got to splice pGLO vector to E. coli to make the E.coli glow under UV light. Wonder if that’d work on Coli? He could glow for you– a beacon in the darkness if your muse looses her way. ; )

  2. LOVEIT!!! You are ever the shining beacon for me in this vast world of writing.

    Sounds like your class is going well–and fun, too. Glowing E.coli? Life cannot get better than that.

  3. And you, for me!! Couldn’t ask for a brighter beacon. : )
    Gotta love anything that glows! lol.

  4. I guess I’m just too much of a weirdo. I don’t have any totems. I go to bed at my regular time the night before NaNo, get up, do my usual circuit of the web and then get down to writing. I don’t have anybody watching, but I can’t see how it would make any difference if I did. Ever since I completed my first successful NaNo and went on to write year-round, hitting 50,000 words doesn’t raise any fears.

    • Catana,

      I think completing that first manuscript is crucial in alleviating some of the angst in writing. Congrats on being so normal!

      Hugs and best luck in your writing journey.

  5. Don’t think you are weird at all. I have a dragon’s head bust (not small), open mouth, fangs, 8 inch horns, that sits on the top shelf of my desk and watches over me. His name is Aaron and sometimes we discuss things. I also have one of those little wind-up toys, a turtle named Tomy (he is very old and doesn’t wind any more but is ever faithful all the same).

    I think it is normal for writers, especially fiction writers to have totems, tokens and non-living friends to cheer us on. What lives in the imagination, truly lives, after all 🙂

    • Whew, I feel so much better about my penchant to collect small fuzzy things!

      Your dragon sounds amazing. I love that you’ve named him and that he helps you unwind the tangles we can weave into our writing.

      Thanks so much for sharing about your friends.

  6. Looks like you’ve got a great team set up there! Good luck 🙂

  7. Ha, I’m not alone in being “not alone” while I write! (It’s nice, on occasion, to redefine “normal” to actually include myself…) My companion is a stitched-together ragbag which started out, some 36 years ago, as my Teddy bear. Toots is a great comfort on those days when I’m giving myself keyboard-imprints on my forehead… 😉

  8. That’s awesome, Kana. Not the keyboard-imprinted forhead. Toots.

    And yes, it’s a relief to realize we are not alone in our quirks.

  9. I want a totem too! Hmmm, going to have to put on my thinking cap (or better feeling cap) and figure out who/what my totem needs to be…

    Maybe having a totem will bring my new idea into focus – I’m too focused on edits to do it myself! 🙂

  10. I don’t really have any totems, unless you count music. A different artist or style is all I’ll listen to for each book. I may have to look for a stuffed totem, though, they’re awfully cute! And I LOVE Coli! 🙂

    • Music counts. We should even include smells if anyone is inclined to burning a particularly scented candle while tapping the keyboard. Or taste. Baileys chocolate chip cookies, anyone?

      LOL. I think there is more to our writing rituals than we realize.

  11. Pingback: Blog Treasures 10-29 « Gene Lempp's Blog

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