Archive for July, 2013

One of the joys of this blog is re-reading favorite stories — as research, you know. What I’ve be re-reading most recently is Bone, the comic series by Jeff Smith.

Bone is that rarity, a high fantasy comic book that tells a novel-length story with epic sweep and outrageous humor at the same time. It shows influences from Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, and the comic strip Pogo. The three main characters are Bones — a white-skinned, hairless race similar in appearance to Casper the Friendly Ghost, but with bigger noses. It sounds weird, I know, but it works!

Fone Bone is a good and noble soul, the opposite of venal, scheming Phoney Bone. The two of them are kept together by silly but sweet Smiley Bone. These three are cousins who have been chased out of Boneville after one of Phoney’s crazy schemes went out of control. They wander through the desert until they get separated by a swarm of malevolent locusts.

Lost and alone, Fone Bone encounters the Great Red Dragon. He’s terrified and runs from the huge beast, which calmly ambles after him. Eventually Fone Bone realizes the dragon isn’t chasing him to eat him, but instead saving him from rat creatures and other dangers. Helped by magical beings, including a tiny bug named Ted, Fone Bone makes his way to the farm of Gran’ma Ben, where he instantly falls in love with a pretty girl named Thorn.

Much to his indignation, no one believes in dragons. Except that Thorn has recurring dreams where she is sheltered by dragons in the midst of a war. And Gran’ma Ben might know more about it than she wants to let on. That’s only the beginning of a delightful and complicated tale, full of quirky characters, slapstick humor, thrills, chills and pathos.

Smith wrote and illustrated the quarterly comic, which he self-published starting in 1991. The series was well enough received that he struck a deal with Image Comics to publish issues for two years, starting in 1995. After that, Smith resumed self-publishing for the duration of the series, which ran 55 issues total and wrapped up in 2004. Later, Scholastic Books collected and colored the comics and released them as graphic novels. This is the form in which I read them.

Though the dragons aren’t always at center stage, they are a presence throughout the Bone saga. On Saturday I’ll talk more about the two main dragons, Great Red and his mother, Queen Mim.


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Break TIme!

I want to thank everyone who responded by my last post (Cautionary Tale) and let you know I’ll be taking a break from blogging due to a major home improvement project. I will be able to read your blogs — and I know I’ll enjoy all of them — but I won’t have time to focus on my own writing.

“See” you in a few weeks!

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Recently I found out that a friend of mine had a children’s book published through a publisher I also work with. I was excited to see it, and I planned to review it here. Then I actually read the book.

I’ve been agonizing since. If I give an honest review, it will be fairly harsh, and I’ve no wish to embarrass my friend or my publisher. If I don’t give a review, then I have no topic for my blog. Oh, no! you all say. Deby has nothing to talk about??

So what I will cover, without naming names or titles, is some general problems in the manuscript, and one great big puzzle.

In this specific case, the author did have some interesting ideas and a few good plot twists. The problem? The author’s approach was very dated. All the characters were simple and one-dimensional, the child protagonist particularly romanticized. That isn’t how we do it any more. Even in short picture books, characters are multi-faceted. Kids are allowed to be naughty.

The vocabulary was at adult level, perhaps under the assumption that adults would be reading to a child. That isn’t how we use children’s books any more. In the 2000s, we want kids to read to themselves as much as possible, so we use accessible vocabulary and grammar. You also need to know what age child you’re writing for, so you can choose appropriate subject matter and vocabulary.

The language was indirect, with lots of passive voice, and the plot wandered around inconsequential details for many pages before arriving at an exciting event. In children’s books today, you have to be concise and direct.

It’s certainly possible that a book like this could have been published… fifty years ago. It shouldn’t have been published in 2012. It just isn’t suited to today’s market.

This brings me to the puzzle: Why do people, with no background in children’s literature, think they can just sit down and write a children’s book? (Not just my author friend, but rock stars and news casters.) Honestly, would you go into a doctor’s or lawyer’s office and start seeing clients? Jump in a plane and take off without ever having flown? But people do this. Just because they graduated high school at some point, they assume they can write for kids!

Children’s writing is not any easier than other kinds of writing. It has its requirements, and you have to educate yourself to know what they are. Join a group like SCBWI, that is devoted to children’s writing. Go to your library and borrow a bunch of books in the genre you want to write. (Make sure they’ve been published within the past few years.) Read those books, study the plots and characters. Then start to write the same way, so your approach will be suited to today’s marketplace.

Please, don’t just dash off a story like the stories you read when you were a kid. The world has changed. If you want to be published, you have to keep up.

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I’d like to close this thread on sea monsters with a giant of early television: Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent. Cecil starred, together with his best buddy, a boy named Beany, in the seminal puppet fantasy, Time For Beany, a.k.a. Beany and Cecil.

Beany and Cecil were created by Bob Clampett after he left the Warner Brothers animation studio. Indeed, the show shares many attributes of Warner Brothers cartoons: broad characterization, slapstick humor, and rampant cartoon violence. At the same time, the shows were full of sly asides and political comment directed at adult viewers. This mélange was actually quite common in the era when there were only three channels and the whole family watched TV together. Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Flintstones used much the same approach.

Time For Beany began airing in 1949. In the initial incarnation, Cecil was a hand puppet, so you only saw his head. Voices were provided by masters such as Daws Butler and Stan Freberg. In 1959, the show became one of the first animated cartoons on TV. The black and white show became color in 1962 and lasted in that form until 1964. It then went into syndication, which is how I came to be watching it during the ’70s.

Cecil, himself, was a big green sea serpent. (Duh…) Why they called him sea-sick, I’m not sure. He endured lots of cartoon violence, but I don’t remember him ever getting sea-sick.

Cecil was devoted to Beany, although not very bright — it was all too easy for bad guys to trick him. Beany was the little blond boy with the propeller hat. In some episodes, he actually flew! These two traveled the sea with Uncle Horatio and his crew, aboard the Leakin’ Lena. Ostensibly, they were searching for treasure.

In their adventures, they often came up against Dishonest John, who was trying to get the treasures first. Dishonest John had that famous laugh, “nya-ah-ah!” His motto was “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” The villain often kidnapped Beany in hopes of forcing Horatio to turn over the loot. It never quite worked out that way.

Though long gone from TV, the show’s influence continues to be felt. Dishonest John’s motto became a rock song. Villains in all media still laugh with a version of “nya-ah-ah!” Cecil’s image is said to have inspired Larry Niven to create his Puppet Masters. And there’s more… Not a bad legacy for a hand puppet and a kid in a silly hat!

By modern standards, these shows are crude but spirited. If you like your funnies old-style, with lots of slap in the schtick, you could do worse than scrounging up some Beany and Cecil. Episodes are widely available on the Internet.

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Last time, I mentioned Scylla, a sea creature of Greek myth. This may seem like it’s all very long ago and far away, but did you know there were a string of sea serpent sightings right here in the U.S.?

That’s right! Over centuries, ship’s captains and residents reported sighting a sea monster near Cape Ann and Gloucester Harbor, Massachusetts. The earliest known report dates to 1638; the most recent was in 1962. In some cases, English settlers wanted to attack the creature, but Native Americans pleaded with them not to make it angry.

The most active period for the Gloucester Serpent was in 1817, when more than 100 people reported seeing it over a month’s time. Every one of them described it as a sea serpent. Some said it had a horse’s head with a great horn projecting out. Others said it was a turtle’s head with huge eyes and a horn. The creature was said to be between 80 and 100 feet long. Its scaly body was jointed all the way down, so it could turn back upon itself at any point. Some witnesses said it could coil itself up like a cable. Others compared it to a row of floats on a net, or a set of casks.

What was it? Nobody knew! Bear in mind, Gloucester was a center of the fishing industry. The people of the town certainly should have been able to identify what they were looking at. This time, people did try to kill it, but their musket balls had no effect.

Nevertheless this visitation created enormous interest. Newspapers did many articles, and the New England Linnaean Society (a natural history organization) appointed a committee to gather facts about the sea serpent. They proposed a scientific name, Scoliophis Atlanticus. Without a specimen for study, little more could be done.

Still, the Gloucester Serpent remains one of the best documented cryptid events in North American history.

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Another classic sea monster of Greek myth is the duo of Scylla and Charybdis. These two legendary monsters lived on opposite sides of a dangerous sea passage. In veering away from one of them, mariners could fall into the jaws of the other. Charybdis seems to represent more of a whirlpool, so I’ll be focused on the sea dragon, Scylla.

Scylla’s is a tragic story, as she was an innocent caught in the passions of others. She was a water nymph, in some variations daughter of a river god and in others of the sea god, Triton. It’s said that Poseidon fell in lust with beautiful Scylla. Legends don’t tell us whether Scylla returned his affections, but she still paid a terrible price. Poseidon’s wife, Amphirite, was furious. Overcome by jealousy, she poured a poison into the tide pools where Scylla bathed. The sea nymph was changed into a hideous beast. (In the other version, Circe’s lover fell for Scylla; the punishment to Scylla was the same.)

No longer a lovely maiden, Scylla had six long necks with monster heads. Each had three rows of shark teeth. With these she reached into ships and snatched unwary sailors, who she devoured alive. Twelve tentacle legs supported her in the water. She also had the heads of six snarling dogs around her waist, and a cat’s tail.

A cat’s tail? All this horror, and a cat’s tail? Snerk.

With Charybdis, Scylla appears as a maritime hazard in some of the greatest Greek myths. Most notably they appear in Homer’s Odyssey, where Circe gives Odysseus advice on how to get by them.

Over the centuries, scholars have speculated whether the events of folklore took place in the real world. The Strait of Messina, between Italy and the island of Sicily, has been named as the most likely location. In fact, shifting currents and tides can create a whirlpool in the area. This is thought to be the origin of Charybdis’s legend.

No similar explanation is offered for Scylla’s existence. It is notable, though, that unlike many great monsters of Greek myth, Scylla was not slain by the hero she came up against. The sea dragon lived to ravage another day.

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I don’t know about all of you, but it’s been 100 degrees where I live. It’s making me long to go to the beach. Unfortunately for me, the beach is 300 miles away. I’ll just have to make do with talking about sea monsters instead.

Sea monsters are an ancient category of dragons — some say, THE most ancient. Anywhere in the world where people live near the sea, and make their livings from the sea, there are legends of sea monsters. You see them pictured on antique maps as emblems of wild, unknown territory.

As we all know, there are some huge and amazing creatures that live in the sea. Giant squids, whales, large sharks. Because they are hidden below the waves, we seldom see them, and their sudden appearance can be dismaying. Even today, there are many reports of Sea Monster sightings each year. Cryptozoologists try to prove they’re real, and skeptics try to prove they’re some other creature that’s been mis-identified.

My personal interest is in mythology, so let’s check out an old favorite: the sea monster disguised as an island. Aspidochelone (asp turtle) appears in Greek folklore and was carried into the Middle Ages. It appears in Medieval bestiaries as an immense fish or turtle with craggy skin.

Aspidochelone float on the sea’s surface. Patiently waiting, it allows sand to collect on its back, where weeds and even trees can grow. Along comes a ship full of sailors. They’ve been long at sea and think this is an unexplored island with a nice beach. (See, you knew I was going to work the beach into this.)

The hapless sailors moor their ship on rocks near the shore. When they start fires to cook their meals, Aspidochelone knows it’s time to act. Without warning, it dives into the depths, dragging the ship down with it. Soon enough, it can make a meal of the drowned sailors.

In Medieval times, Aspidochelone was used as a metaphor for the Devil, how people can be lured to destruction by things that look good and aren’t what they seem.

I might not look that good, but I am what I seem, and I’ll be back in three days with more sea monster destruction.

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