Well, here we are: week two. I don’t know about you guys, but although I’m 1/5 of the way through 50k, I don’t feel like I’m 1/5 of the way through my story. My characters are still morphing, trying to find themselves, and I feel like I only just yesterday managed to write something that was compelling instead of just bland exposition.
This is the stage of the process where I start to worry that the words I’m struggling to produce are going to end up being entirely worthless. Which makes it a great time to distract yourself with a silly, crazy NaNoWriMo motivational tool, like, say, writing totems.
what is a writing totem?
I am not even a little bit responsible for this concept. I first learned about it in Chris Baty’s book, “No Plot? No Problem.” The idea is to have an item of some kind that, to you, represents Serious Writing Time. For some people this might be clothing, for others it might be something you put on or near your computer monitor or keyboard. It might also be themed to your work. For instance, if you are writing a Western, a big cowboy hat, a sheriff’s badge, or a pair of boots with spurs might help you get into the Western frame of mind.
And it isn’t just about your mental state — Chris Baty also discusses the writing totem as a way to illustrate to others that you are in do-not-disturb mode. The writing totem means that you are buckling down, and cannot be interrupted.
how to choose a writing totem
This process will be different for everyone, but I think most everyone’s method can be boiled down to two major steps: the concept, and the test drive.
For the concept, you could think about two things: what your novel is about, and what writing means to you. Some novel concepts might be easy, like if you are writing a medieval fantasy novel, the obvious choices are totems like a cloak, a circlet, a goblet (ooh, a useable totem!), etc. But if you’re writing something modern, or if you want to take a more subtle route, it might be better to think about the underlying themes of your novel and choose less literally.
It’s also important to think about what writing means to you. Your totem doesn’t need to be relevant to your subject matter, as long as it motivates you and makes you feel immersed. If being a writer, to you, means wearing glasses (even if you don’t wear them), pick up a frameless or prescription-less pair to help you get in the mood. My totem is a pair of grey fingerless gloves that my mom knit for me. When she asked me what color I wanted them, I told her “Ernest Hemingway grey.” They make me feel like a starving artist writing furiously in a café while it rains just outside the glass shopfront.
The next step is the test drive. This is an important step for two reasons: First, a test drive allows you to try a variety of totems to see what works best for you. But more importantly, test-driving a totem is a fun exercise that motivates you to jam out a lot of words at once. Try each totem for a span of, say, 200 words, and time yourself. The totems that result in the lowest times are the ones that motivate you to write.
Obviously, the concept of a writing totem is more than a little silly. A funny hat isn’t going to make you a better writer, or a faster writer. But if you can tie the feeling of Serious Writing Time to an item, you can condition a response and hone your focus in a way that is a little effective, a little ridiculous, and a little desperate — kind of like NaNoWriMo.
Do you have a writing totem? Tell me about it in the comments! And don’t forget to add me as a writing buddy.