Giant Mutant Tomatoes from Our Space

In retrospect, the fertilizer might not have been a good idea. Over the last few weeks, this summer’s garden plot has become a very scary place. We’ve been overrun by groping vines and in-your-face leaves. Melon sprawl and wall-to-wall carrot carnage. Sweet pea forests. Six-pound marbled orange beefsteaks. Eggplants that grow like Pinocchio’s nose, expanding by the second.

The only thing that’s not getting any bigger is the size of our garden space.

"Giant Mutant Tomatoes from Our Space" by Caryn Caldwell

A specimen from yesterday, pulled up with both hands. In case you thought I was exaggerating. But then, you know me. I never, ever exaggerate.

Give me strength. I fear I may not make it out alive the next time I venture in. Yesterday I barely escaped, stumbling onto the safety of the back patio with just a fistful of dirt-clotted weeds and most of my sanity. Today? Who knows. The lettuce is looking feisty, and the cucumbers have come of age. We may have a real fight on our hands.

Still, someone has to prune the pumpkins before the patch infests the neighborhood, so I’m going in. Soon as I re-tie my shoelaces. And adjust my sunglasses. And gas up the chainsaw. And any other delay tactics I can think of while still looking brave and unhesitant. I hear pumpkins can smell fear. (more…)

Word Nerd

In seventh grade, in the back of my parents’ car, on the way home from another disastrous school-wide dance, my friend Rebekah and I lied to each other in the nicest possible way.

“Nerds,” we told ourselves, “Are awesome.”

They were the most misunderstood subgroup in the high school hierarchy. Everyone should want to be one. Those snotty popular girls who had hurled insults down the school hallway toward us that night? They were just jealous. And they were wrong, too, because we were most assuredly not nerds.

Okay, fine, we admitted as the car turned a corner and a street lamp splashed yellow light into the back, highlighting our awkward hair and gawky arms. So what if we sort of were? It might not be permanent. If we could outgrow training bras, dollhouses with hand-painted shutters, and unrequited crushes, we could outgrow this. Nerdhood? Already speeding into the past, baby.

Only, that was a lie. The biggest of all.

Because now, two decades later, I have realized something. (more…)

I Want That Job! (Or, What I Learned About Careers by Watching Movies)

Considering a career change? Need a job for a character in your next novel? No need to ask an actual person for his or her job description. Just watch movies. According to Hollywood, here’s what a variety of different jobs entail:

Subway/Train Conductor:
Look horrified while pulling ineffectively at the brakes.

Random Politician:
Gaze sternly into camera.
Pound podium.
Spray spittle and vitriol.

President of the United States:
Fly around in helicopters.
Make grave speeches.
Walk in step with perky young aide.
Inspire. (more…)

Playing with Pixels

Before Sunshine was born, the only portraits I had taken were candids at family gatherings and a few newsy items for my high school paper. Well, plus that one ill-advised attempt at senior portraits, a cheesy set of shots of my best friend leaping over a stream in the woods just before high school graduation. Those never graced the pages of a photo album, let alone our yearbook.

Over the next decade and a half I whipped my camera out for every hiking, rafting, and camping expedition, but the results always made it look as if I went on these jaunts alone because no people ever appeared in the shots. Plenty of flowers and mountains and butterflies and chirping birds, but never, ever nature of the human sort.

Then I had a baby. I traded in my zoom lens for a 50 mm and finally read the manual for my auxiliary flash. Sunshine learned to ignore the camera and my embarrassing attempts to coax her into looking into the lens, while I learned to take portraits. No one who peeks at my hard drive these days can claim that Sunshine is not well-documented.

Here’s the thing about photographs of your baby, though: Even your most die-hard Facebook friends don’t need daily documentation of your child’s every facial expression, and the internet at large probably shouldn’t know that much about your little cherub. But photos are much more fun when shared (just ask a grandma), so I needed an outlet beyond portraits of my kid. And so, after nearly a year and a half serving as Sunshine’s personal paparazzi, my camera lens and I have rediscovered nature. Because the truth is, one subject is no longer enough, no matter how cute she may be.

This isn’t sudden, nor is it unexpected. It happens every time I begin working on a new book. There’s something about writing copiously that brings out the photographer in me, as if playing with photos is the twin of playing with words. Creativity is a funny thing.

If you’re curious, you can find the results on my photoblog, Playing with Pixels, which I finally started back up again. In the meantime, I’ll be outside, taking pictures of nature and Sunshine, in-between jotting down paragraphs for the book I’m working on.

By the way, if you have a photo – or even a photoblog – you want to share, I want to see it! Post the link in the comments. (No more than three links, though, or your comment will be kicked to spam, and we’ll all miss out.)

Not Entirely Metaphor-Free

Extended metaphors make me itch. This means I could never write straight nonfiction, because the extended metaphor is the nonfictionist’s crack. Just look at early parenting books, and you’ll break out in red hot hives, too. Not since those two-in-the-morning if-you-were-a-shrub-what-type-would-you-be college discussions have I heard human beings so frequently compared to plant life. Babies, apparently, can be roses, sunflowers, even soybeans, based on a few cringingly flimsy criteria. And these metaphors do not last just a paragraph, but flourish and build for four hundred pages, twining from chapter to chapter, mixing freely with wholly unrelated metaphors, breeding at will. I could go on, but I see myself slipping from simple metaphor to extended, and I cannot let that happen, if only because of those hives.

That said, let me make just one (moderately) quick and almost metaphor-free comparison to something I haven’t even brought up yet. During my high school years I had a room of my own. ‘Had’ is an inadequate verb, really. I lived in my room, loved it, haunted it, possessed it. I made it mine. I misspent many math classes rearranging furniture in my mind, re-appropriating graph paper so I could sketch out a visual representation, then hurrying home after school to shove around my bed and night stand and bookshelves according to my not-to-scale scribbles. Then re-taping all my posters. Then rearranging my knickknacks.

Then doing it all again three weeks later.

Until my room had been subjected to intense interior redecoration, I could not do a single homework assignment. It was urgent and glaring, and never more necessary than when I had a big project due. I believe I told myself it helped me think.

I’ve outgrown a lot of my younger tendencies. I feel no need to draw comparisons between humans and horticulture, for example, and I never use graph paper. Graduation took care of most of the rest, including all the homework I once pushed heavy furniture around to avoid. But one thing prevailed: the urge to redecorate. Hence my new website. And this blog entry. Nothing like a good template switch-up to inspire a new post.

Well. You didn’t really think I could do a massive site redesign and not write about it, did you?

On the “Lite” Side

I bought a tub of cottage cheese the other day, which means my weight loss plan finally has a chance of working. I never would have made the connection, except the other night hubby and I were in a restaurant and, while I was trying to decide which delectably greasy item to order, guilt nudged me toward the “On the Lite Side”(sic) portion of the menu. You know, all that heart-healthy, tasteless crap they dish up just so they can say they cater to everyone. It was there that I saw the key to effortless weight loss. It’s a trick that all restaurants seem to know, yet women’s magazines still have not picked up on: eat cottage cheese. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, according to menus across the country, one scoop of cottage cheese is all you need in order to stay healthy and lose weight, no matter what accompanies those blessed curds. And the good news is, all restaurant diet plates come with it, so you’ll never be without this magic gut-shrinking agent. And to think, you’ve been lied to all this time: Dieting is not about the portion size, the fat content, or even those now-meaningless calories (or kilocalories for those sticklers out there).

Skeptical? Itching for more specific proof than “every restaurant’s doing it”? Fine, then. Just witness this listing under the diet section of the restaurant menu mentioned above: ½ lb. ground top sirloin with a side of peaches and cottage cheese. And, no, I swear to you I’m not making this up. In fact, I just called the restaurant to verify, in case it was actually supposed to read “Mixed salad greens tossed in a light vinaigrette dressing, accompanied by a side of steamed broccoli and a dish of low fat cottage cheese”.

Since all evidence points to syrupy canned peaches, and we all know a whopping ½ lb. serving of beef doesn’t fit into traditional heart-healthy parameters, it must be the cottage cheese that makes this dinner choice “lite”. Which is the reason I had no worries about the contents of my plate at a family barbeque I attended on Saturday. All I had to do was add a spoonful of the miraculous side dish, and I could eat whatever I wanted. In fact, when I weighed myself that night, I had actually lost weight. It’s a miracle.


My kind of diet: Cheeseburger, baked beans, brownie and, of course, cottage cheese (which makes it all good for me).


“There’s a rattlesnake up ahead,” the man said, eying the camera I’d slung around my neck before I set off on my hike. “Just thought you’d want to know.”

“Really?” Wow. That hadn’t taken long. I’d been in Tucson about four hours, and already people were warning me about snakes. I adjusted the brim of my baseball cap so it blocked the afternoon sun, then tugged one of the straps of my backpack, sliding it off my shoulder. “I’d better change lenses, then. Where is it?”

The man’s wife grinned in understanding, her eyes mirroring the enthusiasm that must have been in my own, while the guy half-turned away from me and gestured up the narrow gravel path. “Up there about a hundred feet. On the left.”

I thanked them and nodded goodbye as they passed, then dug my telephoto out of my day pack, which was now hanging from the crook of my arm. I pushed my discarded lens into a thick sock to protect it, then gently rolled it into the bag.

Camera clutched in my hands tourist-style, I crept along the trail, alert for any movement, heart hammering in a rhythm that was half nervousness, half excitement. I passed several statuesque saguaro, then a cactus flower blooming a cheerful hot pink in the April sunshine, and made a mental note of both. I’d come back after I found the snake.

Only, there was no snake. I went my hundred feet, more, and…nothing. Disappointed at missing such an opportunity, I changed to my macro lens (for closeups) and strode back to the flower I’d seen. At least it had stayed put for me, posing prettily all the while.

Once on the trail again, I paused often for pictures. One such stop required a few illicit steps off the path, but the flowers were worth it. And just ten to fifteen feet further were more, clusters of huge lavender thistles and delicate cactus blossoms.

Already planning how best to photograph the flowers, I picked my way through the shrubs and rocks, then stopped short — three steps from a Western diamondback. It was coiled behind a paddle cactus, its tail hidden and silenced, its slitted eyes watching me warily.

Adrenaline washed through my paralyzed body in a cold tide. A cacophony of unprintable words screamed in my mind. Slowly, steadily, keeping one eye on the snake, I backed up, foot by careful foot.

Around a bend and out of sight I slid my pack off my shoulders, pulled it open with trembling fingers, and located my telephoto lens.

Pit viper or not, that snake was mine.

Excitement, fear, adrenaline — something had my hands quaking so violently I knew I’d never get a clear shot without help, so I yanked my tripod out next, opened it at top speed, and fastened my camera into place. I lowered the pack to the ground and swiveled back toward the bushes where the snake hid, then slunk forward, hoping that the rattler hadn’t fled, that I was not too late.

It hadn’t, and I wasn’t.


Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Click here or on picture for larger image.

41 Ways to Conquer Writer’s Block

For the past several years I have volunteered at the local high school, advising a number of very talented students in the creative writing club. This year I mentioned NaNoWriMo to several of them. Word spread, and now we have a large group of students who are all determined to write an entire novel this month. Only problem? Some of them had no idea where to start. Since I’ve dealt with this same issue, I made up the following list for them. Since many of you write — books, term papers, blog entries, thank-you notes — I figured I’d share the list with you as well. Have favorite ways to jump start your writing? Please share!

1. Go back to when everything last worked and to see if you went off-track.

2. Skip ahead to what you do know and write that. Sometimes you’ll find that the scene you agonized over really doesn’t need to be there, or in the meantime you – or your subconscious – could think of a good way to fix it.

3. Think of ways to make your characters’ lives worse, then implement them. It’s hard to have a book if you don’t have conflict.

4. Make a list of all the scenes that have to happen in your book. Good. Now you know where you’re going, and you have a goal. Start figuring out how to get from your current scene to the next one.

5. Read what you’ve already written to get back into the groove. Danger: Don’t let this lead you to edit too much; it’s possible to spend all your time polishing the first three chapters and never get anything else written. You’ll have a great beginning, but you won’t have a book.

6. Write with someone else. This can often be inspiring; when others around you are being creative and productive, it’s hard to keep your own pen off the page.

7. Writer’s block is often caused by fear. It may be fear of writing something imperfect, fear of what others will think, fear of rejection, or even fear of success. What are you afraid of? Sometimes just knowing will help you conquer it.

8.Remind yourself that this is only a first draft. Most books go through many, many revisions, so if it’s not perfect the first time around that’s normal. You don’t have to show anyone until you’re ready.

9. Perhaps you’ve lost sight of your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts. What would your character would do next in order to reach his/her goal? Now prevent him/her from it.

10. Watch a movie or read a book for inspiration. Sometimes the creative well just plain runs dry.

11. Brainstorm with someone.

12. Or, the reverse could be an issue: Perhaps you’ve talked about your book too much and now it doesn’t seem fresh or fun anymore. If that’s the case, try going in a new direction to freshen it up a bit, and keep it all to yourself for now.

13. 90% of all people who begin a novel never finish it. 85% of all those who began NaNoWriMo last year never finished. Beat the odds no matter what, even if means writing utter crap. You can always revise later.

14. Reexamine why you’re doing this in the first place. Write your motivation(s) on a sticky note and post it next to your monitor.

15. Sometimes having too many options can cause a block. For example, should the character be an architect or a plumber? Should his/her parents be divorced or still together? It’s difficult, but make a choice and stick with it. If you still can’t decide, write each choice on a piece of paper, fold up the pieces, throw them in a hat or bowl and draw one.

16. Set a timer and tell yourself you’ll write for this amount of time, no matter what – but that you’re allowed to stop after that if you want to. Anyone can write for 15, 30, or 60 minutes if they put their minds to it. Take a break to eat or do something fun, then set that timer again.

17. Develop a writing routine – light a candle, write at the same time each day, choose a special writing chair, etc. Just going through those motions can tell your brain that it’s time to write.

18. Shake up your writing routine. Write at a different time or place.

19. Allow yourself some awful first sentences each time you begin a new writing session. After all, quite often the hardest part is just getting started. Once you’ve warmed up, it usually becomes much easier.

20. Next time you write, try stopping in the middle of a sentence, paragraph, or scene. This way you’ll know where to begin when you come back to it.

21. Write daily. Make it a habit. Often the longer you go between writing sessions, the harder it can be to get back into it, and the more time you’ll have to psych yourself out.

22. Tell everyone your goal so that you are held accountable. Then you have no choice but to get something down.

23. Start with success: Do something important but easy, such as finding a good last name for your character or doing some simple research. This gets you back into your story, and the success is often motivating.

24. Sometimes you just have to get yourself out of your own way. Take a shower, do the dishes, knit a scarf, take a long drive, play a computer game, hike, run, swim…Do something that keeps your hands and body occupied but your mind free. Then assign your brain the task of thinking about what to write next.

25. Disconnect your internet, so if you’re ever tempted to conduct another email check you have to get up and walk over to the modem to plug it back in. Quite often your willpower will return before you set aside your laptop or notebook.

26. Think of what you could be doing that you want to do even less – homework, cleaning house, writing that thank-you note to your Great Aunt Pearl, whatever.

27. Give yourself silly goals such as finding random words in the dictionary and having to use them, or starting the first sentence with the letter A, the next with B, the following with C, etc. The challenge can help get your mind off your fear and spark your creativity.

28. Open a new document or turn to a clean page in your notebook. Anything goes when you’re starting fresh. If you like what you come up with, you can always add it in later. Sounds silly, but it’s actually one of my favorite — and most effective — methods.

29. Type with your eyes closed. This can remove inhibitions.

30. Begin a free-write with, “I don’t know what to write,” and go from there, writing whatever comes to mind but slowly working your way into examining your book and then, perhaps, starting to write it again.

31. Interview your main character, or write a monologue from his/her P.O.V.

32. Keep a notebook by your bedside, in your car, in the bathroom – wherever you’re likely to get an idea. When one comes to you, take a moment to (safely!) write it down. Next time you’re stuck with your writing, look through your notebook for ideas.

33. Maybe you’ve gone the obvious route with your writing, and you’ve ended up boring yourself. Throw something big into the works to change things radically: someone new (dead or alive) turns up, your character finds out a devastating secret or is suddenly faced with what s/he most fears, the hero fails at an important task.

34. Make a list of 20 things that could happen next. Cross out the first 10-15 since those are often the more obvious choices, then consider implementing the last few.

35. Let your subconscious do the work. Long before you sit down to write, give yourself a problem that needs to be solved, anywhere from “What should I write next?” to “How should my protagonist react when s/he finds the dead body?” Think about it from time to time. By the time you write, a solution will often present itself with minimal effort.

36. Eat, go to the bathroom, and do any urgent business before writing. That way you have no reason to get up from the keyboard once you start. Just make sure you don’t put writing dead last, or you may never get to it.

37. Whatever you do, don’t delete! If you really don’t think it’s worthwhile, cut it from the manuscript and paste it in a new one so you can put it back in or use it in something else. Sometimes all you need is a little perspective, and that can take time and distance. If you’re stuck, go through your file of deleted scenes for inspiration.

38. What do you like about certain books/movies? How can you incorporate that into your own work in a creative way? What do you hate about particular books/movies? How can you write it better, and with your own creative twist?

39. Work on something else for a while. Ever have several books going at a time, reading whichever one interests you right then? The same can work with writing.

40. Remember that writing is hard. Just because it doesn’t always flow, it doesn’t mean you’re blocked. So realize that it might not be easy, and work through it. After all, things that are worth it rarely come easily.

41. Examine your attitude before you go into it. Are you expecting to have a fun, productive writing session, or are you expecting pain and blockage? Your brain often delivers what you expect.

The Revisionist’s Curse

It seems I am in A Phase. Over the weekend I waved a cheerful goodbye to two unfinished novels, then dropped them off my nightstand. The week before that, I got twenty-three pages into another before dumping it onto my library donations pile without so much as an apology. This morning I broke up with a fourth, a best-seller with reviews that swore there was no way I would not love this book. After forty-eight pages I gave up and searched my pile of unread books for yet another victim.

Most of the time I go through books the way I would eat chocolates if my hips allowed it. I finish one and delve immediately into the next, savoring the characters, the plot, the clever turns of phrase. Each time I exercise or clean house or push a squeaky-wheeled cart up and down the grocery store aisles, I plug into an audio book, letting stories wash over me. When hubs and I take our canvas chairs to a nearby overlook to watch the sun set over the desert, we often tote along something to read aloud to one another.

But I cannot, no matter how much I try, completely lose myself in reading while I am in the middle of revisions. Once I spend hours analyzing each sentence of my own work, the picky part of my brain is turned on. From then on, every bit of writing I encounter, whether it is mine or someone else’s, is routed through my editing filter.

That is happening now. The obligatory six weeks have passed between the draft I wrote this summer and the edits required to start submitting it. Now, after several days spent performing major surgery on my novel at every opportunity, my brain has once again turned into an Equal Opportunity Editor, and I’ve gone from eager-to-read to impossible-to-please. The quality of my reading does not matter. If I am spending hours each day examining my own writing, then by habit I will analyze every other sentence to waltz my way as well. Only blogs, it seems, are exempt, perhaps because the style is so different.

My inability to switch off the ruthless reviser inside me is exhausting and inevitable, and totally unfair to the author of whatever pleasure reading I attempt. Worse, my inability to relax with a good book feels unnatural and somehow very wrong. Reading, after all, is what led me into writing, and now writing is preventing me from enjoying reading.

I’ve gone through this before, and I know that it will end. Within days of finishing edits, I will be able to see an adverb without feeling the impulse to ink it out. I will once again have the patience to read backstory — it is, after all, sometimes necessary. I will not automatically pause after I read each line of dialogue, wondering if it should be reworded to make it sound more authentic. I will, in short, be able to lose myself in a book again, which is the best possible incentive for finishing revisions. I’m already saving several books I know I will love for after edits, as a reward.

The second best incentive, for the record, is getting to begin a new story. My next book has already begun to evolve in my mind, and I cannot think of it without a little zing of excitement. But first, revisions.

Thou Shalt Not Swim on Sundays

Last Sunday morning as my bare feet slapped across the scorching pavement between the ladies’ locker room and the edge of the community pool, I spotted just one empty lane. I moved toward it quickly, claiming it as mine, then slid into the chilly water, shivered in anticipation, and dunked my head. The moment I rose I wiped the water from my face, strapped on my goggles, and took off toward the deep end -– to be swamped within seconds by the swim-capped middle-aged women on either side of me as they splashed past in unison.

Their wake left me floundering in a choppy sea, and by the end of lap one I had small craft warnings going off in my brain. Seizing any excuse for a break, I slogged  back to the shallows and grabbed my water bottle, then watched in dread as my neighbors, clearly friends who had decided to work out together, executed time trials in tandem, arms and legs cutting through the water with perfect precision, churning up the water around them.

Drink over, I spent the next several minutes flailing between them, my velocity in the storm-tossed water approaching that of a half-squashed beetle. Meanwhile, the ladies pushed out lap after lap of Butterfly. If you’re not familiar with this awkward stroke, let me give you a little history: Despite what the link above claims, it was actually invented in the sixteenth century as a form of torture, and is now employed by swimming snobs and fully appreciated only by those who have mastered it. (For the record, the latter also applies to complex guitar solos and making pastry from scratch.)

The situation deteriorated around the eighth lap, when I helped myself to a flimsy kickboard for a few rounds. How is it possible to grab a sturdy, self-respecting kickboard actually capable of keeping my front half afloat any day except the very one when my ego -– and my ability to keep from asphyxiating on chlorine and water -– are most on the line? Even without the continuous shower from the ladies in the next lanes, the kicking would not have lasted long. At least with freestyle and breaststroke, I could spend most of my time with my head in the water, hiding my shame.

Around the fourteenth lap I began to take on water, and soon had a puddle the size of a baby pool sloshing inside my goggles. My arms, which have no respect for authority, began to tire despite my threats, and when I had thrashed once more to the deep end of the lane I clung to the wall and turned to decipher the clock on the side of the pool house through the foggy lenses. I nearly cheered. Three minutes to go.

Which is when the Wonder Twins decided they’d had enough of swimming and headed for the locker room. Now, if only I’d gotten everything else in line — the goggles, the kickboard, my arms — I would have had a very nice 180 seconds of swimming ahead of me.