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.