On sex, Cuttlefish and YA.

First off, here’s the cover reveal for STEAM MOLE. It’s an odd thing to say, but here I think the sequel story may be even better than original.

Secondly I wanted to talk about sex.

Or rather the lack of it.

Actually, I have no objection to sex. I can’t say it’s why I read books, but as a biologist, I can gaurantee that any possible variant from BDSM to onanism or necrophilia, I’ve seen more extreme examples than you’re likely to know exist. And as long it’s between consenting adults, and you’re not disturbing the salmon, have fun. It’s your life, your body and your neuroses. I must admit it’s a sport where I’ve always prefered to be a player than a spectator, but whatever blows your hair back.

Where this starts to come unstuck for me is with juveniles, and with predatory behavior, where someone uses their experience, money, access to drugs/alcohol or position to exploit the weak and vulnerable.

So why am I talking about this on a writing blog? Well, I have recently ventured into the YA field. After all there are many people who probably feel 14 is above my mental age, purely based on the fact that I like doing stuff that may involve mud and excitement, and don’t mind if some of the mud or dirt comes along as long as the excitement does too. And this of course is not what reasonable adults do. They want to live Dilbert lives. So when I was exploring the field I did a lot more listening than talking and discovered that 80%+ of the readers were female. And most of the writers, at least in current crop. Moreover the writers as a general rule felt this was just fine (there were a few dissenting voices) but it was girls turn now, and boys could ride at the back of the bus. If they didn’t like it they didn’t have to read it. And in the group I was listening in on the idea that the genre needed more BDSM and more gay stories was floated… and no one said ‘boo’. After all (and I forget the exact age 14 or 15) 50% of all teens had lost their virginity. We needed more books to help the ones who were into self hurt, or dog-collars and beatings, and how to put on condoms and rubber gloves. They needed to know they weren’t alone…

At this point I wrote a long comment, sin-binned it, and quietly withdrew. Possibly asking when those into bestiality and necrophilia were going to be reassured they weren’t alone was less than tactful, as was the bit about duct tape, so just as well. Because I feel this too is predatory behavior. And worse, its targeting juveniles who just don’t have the confidence or experience to say — especially about things they’re nervous and embarrassed about ‘Oh BS.’ Who am I to preach what age is right or behavior you should follow? The trouble is that kids assume written stuff IS normality. They know the story is fiction, but assume the setting is real (unless of course it is sf/fantasy, and even there they assume the interactions between people are real). By the time you’ve been around the block a few times you know quite a lot more context and are usually better at working out that Ms Average isn’t having it off four times a night with seven partners. That Ms exists, But she sure isn’t AVERAGE and if you wish to role model or spend your allotted 15 minutes with her, good luck, and can I recommend the full rubber body suit, let alone the glove. But just as kids need to know that different tastes exist, they don’t need to feel pressured into ‘that’s normal’. And trust me on this, if that’s really 14 year old average… then the girls must start at 10 because there is no way that is accurate for teen males. My teen sons and all their mates are not that far behind me, and I remember the lies and exaggurations of my own teen years all too well.

But let’s assume they’re right for the purpose of argument. If 50% of 14 year olds (and everyone lies about sex so I doubt any figures not obtained by direct brain examination) are out having sex… They’re not reading. “Hang on, it’s just a really exciting bit about pipe-cleaners…”, “we can use the dental dam at the end of this chapter.” Not happening. The percentage of heavy readers in this 50% is small. And yes some of them probably would like a little reassurance and instruction. Is that the right target for ALL the books?

The other 50% — make that 80% of young males, might like to. Or not want to, or not yet, or not be able to with a partner of their own age. They’re doing quite a lot of reading. Well, the girls are, the a lot of the boys got bored at the back of the bus and either moved straight to adult books, or found other habits. Making them sit at the back of the bus didn’t make them all eager readers of angsty girls experimenting with whatever. It didn’t even make them keen readers of sparkly vampire books with no experimenting until after marriage. There’s a little mystery for the ‘we need more BDSM and whatever’ crowd. How come those books were just so popular?

So I decided… to hell with the lot of it. I set out to write books I would have liked as a teenager. And that I would like my teenagers to have available to read. Yes, I would have read -with wide eyes and probably locked in the loo – some of the current crop. But I wanted adventures, gadgets, and, oddly perhaps, ideals and courage too.

Cuttlefish was written accepting that a lot of my readers would be female. It was also written assuming that the kind of female reader who wasn’t out doing her best for the 50% would probably be brighter than average, and used to stigma from that. I wanted to quietly show that wasn’t odd or bad. Once again the stats show that brighter – or better achieving kids come from families that care about them. I wanted to show too that this wasn’t odd or bad – and that what you saw of your parents wasn’t the whole of them. I used various ‘vehicles’ if you like, to show how this alienation is common – and how it relates to current fashion. Clara suffers from being Irish. And from having divorced parents. In current parlance, these mean nothing. But this set of norms – like having sex – moves. It means nothing, and that is the point. You need to judge the individual on their merits. My aim was to show rather than tell this. Actually about the only time I resorted to tell and show was about an issue that I feel really strongly about. I’ve spent time as a volunteer. I’ve been the guy out firefighting. Out hunting the mountainside for lost hikers or once a child. Out looking for lifejackets in the water. I’ve seen the faces, the exhaustion, the despair, the desperate hope. And I’ve been with the people who get forgotten but shouldn’t be. The ones who made hot drinks and food for those waiting, for those trying. And I’ve seen how that helps. Sneering at this contribution is very new-age feminist. It’s bizarre , but somehow they see this as sexist. Yes, it often is women doing this. But it is not ‘women’s work’. It’s we each do what we can (and I have done it gladly, and will always again if that is what I can do to help) and by God there is no dishonor but vast respect from me to those who do this. It was why I put Clara and Cookie at the heart of one scene, to show something that is forgotten and cheapened, and should not be.

But I didn’t want to write a girls only book. For starters ignoring half the market (or possibly more, seeing 50% of those girls have no time to read) is dumb. And for a second, who in their right mind does not want as many people as possible to read? I wonder at the sort of women who want their daughters to grow up into a literate overclass? Can you imagine suggesting the inverse? And can you imagine what a society with the strongest most aggressive (thanks testosterone) part are less educated and read is going to do to itself? You’d have to be stupider than pig-dung to want this. So I wrote Tim. Once again he’s supposed to engage the kind of kid who probably reads. He’s an outsider. He’s the smallest of the boys. He’s smart. And despite the fact that he had Jamaican father… he’s just like them. What I was trying to get across here was the concept of judging someone by their actions and not appearances. And I was trying for something they’d maybe not have thought of: Tim is scared. Often. He doesn’t like blood. He doesn’t let it stop him. I was trying to show something of what courage really meant, and that ‘gung-ho’ and never a fear in the world isn’t courage. Courage is being scared, but doing the job because someone has to, and never questioning that that someone might not have to be you. Tim is, if you like, the sort of man we’d like to be. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t screw up or get scared, or question his own worth. But at the end of the day he deals. And he takes loyalty and commitment and love about as seriously as is possible. He’s no imaginary paragon. I’ve met a lot of Tims over the years, and they are what I believe society ought regard as heroes. Usually they end up as just that decent bloke… until things go pear-shaped.

So: if these are your values, or values you’d like your kids to accept as norms… you could do worse than read Cuttlefish or buy it for them.

Oh and there is no sex. There is teen romance and it’s serious, between people to whom relationships matter and commitment isn’t lightly given. Of course they’re both interested in sex. But that’s not all that it’s about. I know that’s bizarre but I think that’s not a bad concept to introduce as perfectly possible and normal too.


  1. Thank you. You just explained something I’ve been seeing but just could not put a finger on. I follow the Unshelved library web comic, and they have regular book reviews on Fridays, mostly aimed a J and YA readers. The material for boys leans heavily towards manga, scatological books (some non-fiction), and “outsider” (gay, cyberpunk), while books for both boys and girls tend to have female protagonists, or “wounded” male protagonists. I know this is partly because the reviews are of books that the blog owner likes (thus the graphic novels and manga), but I’ve seen a similar pattern at a local book store. There seems to be precious little for boys or with strong male characters until you get well into the YA chapter books, and many of those are reprints and sports books.

    Your point about the silent supporters is also dead on. I’ve helped with disaster recovery, and having someone with cold drinks, replacement gloves, and food, makes a bit difference for those doing the (physically) heavy lifting. On the literary side, think how little Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson would have gotten done without their housekeeper/ landlady, Mrs. Hudson!

    1. :-)heh. it doesn’t make a ‘bit’ (typo? big?) but a bloody enormous difference. I’ve come in ready just to give up – 20 minutes and cuppa hot sweet tea and a sandwich and gone out again, and succeeded. I’ve also been on the other side, and watched exhausted dispirited people revive. Worth doing, and worth supporting and encouraging.

      Yep. I think the problem is the quest for ‘edgy’ and the jaded gatekeepers myself. Which has ended up neglecting 90% to cater for the 10%

      1. Yup, typo. Should have been “big.” New keyboard and tired mind are a bad combination.

  2. I just want to say, firstly, I love your cover art. 🙂

    Secondly, I tend to agree with you on several points. Being a mother of two twenty-somethings and a writer of YA, I don’t think the genre should have explicit weird sex scenes because I don’t think it’s ‘the norm’. I don’t think the young girls reading YA should be exposed to it. If they are anything like I was at that age, or even my daughter at that age, then if they’re reading voraciously, they probably don’t have an active sex life, or even a dating life! So, including those scenes would not be normal for them. If those older women who read YA want all that stuff, then go read the erotic ADULT fiction!

    As for the feminist attitudes, I think they can get in the way of a good story. I feel that those extreme feminists have gone way overboard. Being a helpful female doesn’t mean they are subservient or less than the men they are ‘serving’. They do it because they want to help in the best way they can. If that’s to feed and serve coffee to firemen, at least they are feeling they are doing their part to solve a horrible situation.

    I’m glad there are men out there who can write about the boy’s perspective. YA needs those male protagonists. It’s hard for women to understand some of what a teenage boy goes through, sometimes, unless they talk with them a lot to find out what drives them. I will have to do some research into that once my series is complete. I want to write for those reluctant boy readers, something exciting that will launch them into a love of reading. Glad you’re out there already, paving the way! 🙂

    1. Excellent! I have pre-ordered both 🙂 Now I get to stare at the mailbox 🙂

      Thank you. I’ve always felt that we do a tremendous disservice to our children by stealing their innocence because some other poor child someplace else was pressured into becoming sexually active before time.

      Can’t wait to read the kind of book I’d have adored when I was a kid! Because that means I’ll treasure it now, too 🙂

      1. 🙂 Get a tripwire in the mailbox. That way you’ll catch the book before it ends up being switched to modern child abuse (mine used to eat all those acceptances and regurgitate them as rejections. You can’t trust mailboxes.).

      2. Lin, we’ve met, and you know what I’m like, so don’t take this personally.

        But: I am really getting tired of hearing this nonsense about “we do a tremendous disservice to our children by stealing their innocence because some other poor child someplace else was pressured into becoming sexually active before time” — or indeed revealing to the kiddie-winkies *any* aspect of Reality, like “you can die, anywhere, anytime, for no other reason than you were There, Then”, or “There’s been some one hundred billion humans who have ever existed; of these, maybe 200 have left any lasting mark on the world — so what makes you think you’re a Unique Snowflake?”, or what-have-you. Is hiding them from the realities of concepts like “failure”, “reduced expectations”, and such like *really* an improvement? Reality is like most ambush-predators: Trying to hide from it, or ignoring it, just makes it hurt that much more when it swims up and bites you on your ass.

        Since this thread deals explicitly with sex: I “did the research”, and have known the mechanics, since about age 7. That said, the adults I spent my formative years around taught me the *other* — and to my mind, *far* more important — aspect: Info like “why you don’t go around the halls of school smacking girls on their asses”, or “why the phrase ‘fuck me, bitch’ is unacceptable, sometimes even when she *asks* you to say it to her”, etc. Yes, I was allowed to figure stuff out for myself; but my elders made *DAMNED* sure I had some Actual Data Gained From Experience to start my investigations with. (If it tells you anything: Even tho’ I was plug-ugly and unpopular, a few girls actually asked if I’d take them to Senior Prom *because* they knew I wouldn’t take excessive advantage. I told them: “No — but if your date does, let me know” — my rep as a Homicidally Violent type preceded me.)

        Really, I’d like to see a “middle ground”: Don’t absolutely conceal all references to things Adult (not just sex, mind; Death, Responsibility, and related also apply); but also don’t revel in it. Deal with Reality *as it is*, and the kiddie-winkies will respond positively; lie to them, in either direction, and don’t have the gall to be surprised when they keep [ahem] screwing up in the same old ways.

        1. It’s not the knowledge of sex that steals a child’s innocence– it’s forcing them to mentally “go there.”

          And yes, the insistence that falling in love means you fall straight in to bed does violate a child’s innocence, steal a defense against being abused and help isolate them if they should think that, perhaps, love is more than friction in a certain area. (For some books, that sex is something more important and dangerous than tennis would be an improvement.)

        2. I quite literally cannot remember a time I didn’t understand that sex made babies. Ranch kid, asked my folks what the bull was doing. There was never any nonsense about cabbage leaves, but there was also no need to go more in depth for a child, changing the way she looked at the world and forcing her to view it in a way that her mental framework was not prepared for.

          Shoving concepts on someone who has no framework for dealing with them is damaging to the person, and counter-productive at best. It’s like yelling Japanese at someone from 10th century Nevada– even if you do eventually get your point across, the initial trauma is going to leave a mark.

    2. 🙂 It’s odd but I would have said that both books actually promote MY idea of what feminism should be about. I’m a very firm believer in merit and ability and effort trumping issues like gender or color or sexual orientation, and I like to imagine that comes through. My heroines have no trouble proving they’re the mental or courage equals or betters of any of the male heroes. I don’t pretend they’re better fighters or carriers of heavy weights. It happens (I have a cousin, and a daughter-in-law, who would beat 85% of men at most sports), but it’s like Ms 4 partners a night. It’s an exception. When it comes down to it Clara (and her mother) expect and end up getting equal respect for equal work (and there is no doubt they would expect equal pay for equal work). What they don’t do is demand it because of their gender. They earn it and their conduct demands it of people who would not give it otherwise. The first book also takes a subtle poke at gender stereotyping (and if there is anyone around who can afford to do it, it’s me. I believe that gender stereotypes are for weaklings who are worried about what other people think. Which is easy to say when you’re a confident adult, but not so much when you’re a kid. You do what you’re best at. I cook better than my wife. I deal with sh!t and puke better than any of the women in my family. I have changed a lot of diapers. But I had a epiphany at 19 – when I was in my second year in the army and quite badly mentally screwed up by what I had seen and done, and by a shedload of hormones and changes happening in my own growing up body. I was on an exceptionally hard rock climb, leading, back in the day when safety gear was a long way behind where it is now. balanced on a 1/4 inch ledge, seventy feet up, with nothing but my fingertips and keeping a cool head between me and a certain deck-fall and early meeting with my maker. There was a peg (piton) another three feet and two hard moves up. I could go on or stay there until I fell and died. I’m still writing so I guess you know what I did. But just then, when I was at my most naked, too afraid to pretend… and handling it, I realized I didn’t have to give a toss about what others thought of me, because I found my own self-respect, and that damn few others could do this. But I wanted to put that in text too, so you have Tim, who is, when push comes to shove, as solid a kid as you could hope to have at your back, a damn sight better at nursing than Clara who has no patience with sick or weak. And she on the other hand is a lot better at killing than he is.
      Wow. I rambled on.

      1. Yep. we discovered Dan was better with the kids till about three and had a ton more patience, so he was infant and toddler “mom” other than my providing the milk — and not much of that, when breast pump available, because I’m hard to wake at night. OTOH he sucks with them from three to thirteen, so THAT was my job. And I taught them carpentry and did the hard, dirty jobs. He taught them piano. Once, when Marsh was very little he said something about wishing he had a normal family where mom did mom things and dad did dad things. But… you know, he’s not saying it now. Dan is not any less of a man, and we have a lot of the typical male/female “what in heck were you thinking?” moments. we just each do what he/she’s best at. It works.

  3. The Samwises, as my mom calls those forgotten supporters.

    I know when I was that age, I had zero interest in sex. None. Bored me silly. Reading about it usually still does bore me silly, and I think you’re right about it being predatory.

    IIRC, the 50% stat was by 16, and involved in-class surveys of a couple of inner-city schools. From memory, though, so who knows. It may have been one of those things where they split the difference between guys who said they were virgins and girls who said they were virgins.

    1. I think this might have been another study (it’s about 2 years back) because it wasn’t 16, that much I remember. Inner city schools… makes sense. I think Samwise is actually my favorite character, which probably says something about me (and I prefer Merry and Pippin to Frodo, I am afraid).

  4. But if we don’t make teenagers feel like they have to have sex, how can they be liberated and make their own choices? If we don’t tell girls that they should serve men’s sexual needs, but never, ever, do other nice things like provide hot food and drinks to those involved in rescue operations, how will they realize that being a slut at twenty and a harried single mother at thirty five is preferable to being happily married?

    Now excuse me. I have to go to the doctor to help with my sarcasm poisoning.


    It is not available for preorder in digital format yet. Tell Pyr that they can have my money as soon as they rectify the situation.

    1. I will nag Pyr just as soon as I have finished these replies. But while the sarco-meter just exploded, you’re wrong. It’s supposed to be their own sexual pleasure (not needs) they serve, even if they don’t know they need them. Men are supposed to be well-trained dildoes to the modern feminist it seems. Pity no one told the kids that part.

  5. Sounds like a great series with great characters! And as a natural Samwise myself (15 years in IT support roles to pay the bills) I will often be found in a support role in the kitchen at bigger events even though I’m male. I’m _good_ at it and enjoy it so why not. And when still a single 20 something I got to talk to a lot more young ladies that way 😉

    I like the covers for these books . Consistent layout to help people realize they are related, titles large enough to read in a thumbnail size on my smartphone, interesting looking art, showing both main characters so you can see a bit of diversity in there. Author name is a bit small in thumbnail is the only semi complaint from this reader’s perspective.

    I’ve heard good things online about Pyr’s ebook quality and prices. Does anyone know if the are a DRM free publisher or will I have to buy it in paper?

    Either way it will got bought 🙂

    1. “And when still a single 20 something I got to talk to a lot more young ladies that way”
      Now THAT is something I will HAVE to put into a book. Or several. I bet it just never occurred to a lot of people.

      1. Heh, feel free to do so. It was a great way for a shy guy to talk to young ladies in a non threatening situation for both sides.

        I got started cooking in early High-School as a self defense measure, my mom is a lousy cook and admits it, and it turned into a fun hobby. The cooking for groups and functions started in college where my folks lived all of 3 blocks from campus and the school cafeteria was closed on Sunday nights. So I would invite over 7 or 8 friends for home cooked meal to fill in the lack of food choices besides overpriced pizza delivery since most students didn’t have cars. I soon had a waiting list and was in demand for kitchen duties at other social functions like Church events or larger social gatherings of my peers.

        I never did end up dating any of the young ladies I met that way (Though I introduced a number of them to the lucky guys they did end up marrying) and about a decade after college one of them DID introduce me to the nice young lady that I fell head over heals for married exactly one year later (It’s not our fault, it was the only weekend the Pastor was free!)

  6. Oh, piffle, they’re not “thinking of the children”, even the disturbed ones. They’re thinking of themselves. *They* read YA and think it could stand a little spicing up.

    All the gorram adults who started reading YA because it had something the usual adult genres lacked are like people who voted in policies that ruined their neighborhood and have now moved into the next unspoiled bit of landscape. Only to vote for the same crappy policies all over again.

    1. Bingo! They want the “adult content” of R-rated fiction with the good writing, creativity, and plotting of YA.

      Does that say more about the adults doing the YA reading or about the publishers who ruined adult fiction? I’m not sure.

      1. Publishers. I don’t think adult readers are voting for it. I don’t think the adult readers even want to buy it for their kids

    2. As in ‘they’ being the editors and critics, I’d agree with you 100%. I think, (and know a good few cases) where adult readers have turned to YA/MG to avoid the move from bonk to more bizarre bonk in detail. Editors however have more reason to get jaded, and push their personal agenda, as certainly, do critics.

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