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Bad things happen to good people: The Just World hypothesis

We have three back doors in our house. Regularly someone leaves one of them unlocked. We have so many nickable items casually left in view, like this laptop (my baby), or the Samsung tablet we got free with the Smart TV. So far we’ve got away with it, though when I was pregnant with our daughter (who is now 18) a burglar burnt a hole through the back door of the house we lived in, with a blowtorch (he obviously didn’t know how to pick locks). I woke (smelling burning) and waddled downstairs to investigate, disturbing him, but he still got away with my purse and bike with a flat tyre – found discarded a few metres down the road (not the best getaway vehicle).

Of course, carelessly leaving a door unlocked is not in the same league as carelessly misplacing a child, but we have done that to. Twice my son has disappeared long enough for me to start considering the photo we would use on the missing posters. 

The first time, we’d just arrived in Germany, where my husband had been posted with the army. We had taken the children to the Social Club, where a welcome event was taking place. Outside the club there was a fantastic children’s playground and my four year old daughter marched off determinedly towards it, with our nearly three year old son struggling to keep up  – his gaze fixed on the sandpit.

I was immediately engulfed in the ‘wives of’ welcoming committee, and keeping half an eye on the play park answered their eager questions, sure my husband was watching the children.

About a minute or two later, I saw my husband come out from inside the club. My heart lifted in my throat and the hairs on the back of my neck lifted. I disentangled myself from the friendly women and strode purposefully towards the slide and climbing frame. I saw our daughter’s shock of dark hair straight away. She had already found a friend and they were jabbering at each other and holding hands. I couldn’t see our son, not yet three, but again that wasn’t unusual as he was likely to be found on the edge of things, an observer rather than a doer. However, within thirty seconds, it was obvious he wasn’t there at all, nor in the immediate area surrounding the play equipment. I ran back down the grassy slope, screaming his name. What followed was five minutes of hell as my husband and I searched the club and grounds becoming more and  more frantic. And then from across the road I saw him, in the arms of a woman I barely recognised. She was the wife of my husband’s Sergeant and she’d intercepted our son barrelling towards her, after crossing two – thankfully quiet – roads, heading, it seemed, towards our flat – obviously he was searching for his mummy.

I held him so tight to me and vowed I would never, ever let him out of my sight again. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach and still, to this day, 17 years later, my cheeks flush when I think how stupid and careless we were.

The second time, he was seven and we were camping in France. We were queuing for fish and chips at the bar, when he asked if he could play with his new friend Ben. We said, yes, assuming he meant at our tent. Five minutes later we returned. No sign of either of them. The enormity and anonymity of the campsite hit us like a lead football in the guts. There must have been a thousand people swarming the site, with cars and campervans coming and going. Thirty long minutes later, after I had convinced myself he had been whisked away and was already at the border with Spain, we found him playing with Ben as he said he would be, confused by my tearful hugs and kisses (and very embarrassed).

Then there was the time our daughter had a tantrum in John Lewis, one minute lying face down screaming in-between the dress racks, while I was doing my best to ignore her – the next she was running into the lift with the doors just about to close. Her grandmother did a ninja move any superhero would be proud of and got her arm in the way of the door, thank goodness.

So what’s my point? Just recently I have been distressed by the vitriol directed at April’s parents. It reminded me of the terrible, nasty things that were said about the McCann’s in May 2007, after Madeleine was taken from her bed in a hotel chalet. In both cases, I have no doubt the parents are torturing themselves with ‘what ifs’. If only I had called her in earlier… if only I had stayed in the chalet…


But it seems that many people need to find someone to blame (other than the sick perpetrator).

What was a five year old doing out at 7pm?

I don’t know for sure, but they’d just returned from parents evening, so maybe April was allowed to play out a bit later than usual for having a good report.

In psychology this need to blame the victim is a well known phenomena and it is called the ‘Just World Hypothesis’. This basically means we need to believe that we live in a just world, where people get what they deserve. Good is rewarded and evil is punished. When something bad happens, we need to restore equilibrium and to distance ourselves from the incident. We need to believe that somehow the victim deserved what happened to them.

Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knife-point, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. “We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed,” said the jury foreman. click here for source.

In the case of rape, psychological studies have shown that the more attractive the victim, or the shorter her skirt, the less likely it is the rapist will be found guilty.

“Both men and women who viewed a photograph of the victim in a short skirt attributed more responsibility to the victim than those who viewed a photograph of the victim in a moderate or long skirt.” Click here for abstract.

When the victim is an ‘innocent’ child, blame is shifted to the parents. We need to believe the same thing won’t happen to us, or our family because we are good parents and therefore by default they must be bad (parents).

The sad fact is; bad things happen to good people and the world is not a just place. Once we accept this, then blaming the parents, or the girl in the short skirt, becomes nebulous and we can start to address why our society fosters such rare, but despicable people. Child murderers don’t appear overnight. They will have a history of minor crimes against children and women and they often come from dysfunctional and toxic backgrounds. Intervention must begin in childhood. We must do more to protect children from abusive influences so they don’t grow up devoid of compassion for themselves as well as others. We must also ensure that police forces talk to each other, so someone with a record of child abuse cannot wipe the slate clean by moving to a new area with a new name (as did Ian Huntley). We must also examine how we deal with paedophiles, and not release them if we cannot guarantee they will not reoffend (as did Roy Whiting).

We all make mistakes. Tell me a parent that hasn’t lost sight of a child for a moment or two in crowded shopping centre or at the park. What is heart-warming is that for 99.9% of the time, nothing bad will happen; the vast majority of people are fundamentally good.

April’s parents are no more culpable than Madeleine McCann’s parents were. They, like all of us, probably believed it wouldn’t happen to them. They aren’t perfect parents, but who of us are? But they are not bad parents either. Something bad happened to their child.

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to “feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.”

Next time you hear someone blaming the victim for the crime against them, just remember; ‘there but for the grace of god, go I.’ And don’t let it be a reason to accept things as they are.

Your views on this blog post are welcome.

[cough] [foot shuffle] My name is Juliet O’Callaghan and… [deep breath] I am a teacher

Why is it I feel somewhat shameful about admitting what I do for a living? 

A fly on  a wall somewhere in Westminster…

Civil servant: So Minister, how exactly are you going to leave your mark on Education in Britain?

Michael Gove: I am going to encourage all schools to become Academies, open as many Free schools as I can, utilising empty office space, bring back O-levels and Latin, and save the country millions of pounds in teachers wages, by opening up the profession to non-graduates. The army need to make a lot of redundancies, so we will turn the soldiers into teachers. Oh, and I am going slash the pension fund to help pay for the deficit.

Civil Servant: Very good Minister, but I feel I must point out that under the previous administration, schools were only turned into Academies if they were failing.

M.G.: Right. Then we must do the exact opposite. A school can only become an Academy if it is graded as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.

CS: And what about the other 80% that aren’t oustanding? Surely you want all schools to be taken over by parents and idealistic teachers, and of course [cough] profit making [cough] private enterprises.

M.G.:  Mmmm. I know. We will tell the rest of the schools they can apply to be Academies too, but only after the ‘outstanding’ ones have already applied.

CS: And what about the schools that don’t want to apply?

M.G.: Will accuse them of being obstructive and prejudiced; of being happy with failure.

CS: Right. So all schools will be Academies. And what is the reason we give the outstanding schools for why they should become Academies? Clearly they are doing very well already.

M.G.: We don’t need to give them a reason, we just need to give them money.

CS: But there isn’t any money.

M.G.: There isn’t any additional money. We’ll Slash schools budgets by bringing the amount per pupil over the age of 16 in line with Further Education colleges – that’ll serve the National Union of Head Teachers right for demanding parity in funding. Demand all schools repay deficits in their budgets immediately, and then offer them the money back if they become and Academy.

CS: We are going to bribe them. I see. Very good idea. But how do we sell this idea to the public? More and more children are achieving the benchmark 5 A to C’s  each year in grant-maintained schools.

M.G.:  That’s easy. I’ll invent a new performance measure. How about saying the 5 subjects must contain English and Maths.

CS: We already measure that statistic.

M.G.: Do we? Right then. A bit of blue sky thinking is required. What subject/s do children not tend to get a GCSE in?

CS: The Labour government made Languages optional because there was a shortage of language teachers, so lots of 14 year olds drop languages at the end of Year 9.

M.G.: Perfect. The new measure will group the core subjects together: English and Maths and science, ummm? What other subjects do schools offer?

CS: History, geography…

M.G.:Yes one of those, and of course a Language like Mandarin.

CS: I take it, Minister, we will apply this new measure once we have informed schools, so they can advise their students about GCSE choices.

M.G.: Don’t be ridiculous, man. The whole point of this new qualification is to show how badly schools are doing… what should we call it?

CS: There’s the IB – the International Baccalaureate, it groups subjects together in a similar way…

M.G.: Marvellous, we shall call it the English Baccalaureate. E.Bacc for short.

CS (whispered): E. Bacc? Sounds a bit like a nasty type of food poisoning.

M.G.: What was that?

CS: An excellent idea, Minister. So we will measure schools on a performance indicator they didn’t know about and then, in two years time, when schools have forced their students to take a Language, it will look like you have single-handedly improved standards.

M.G.: Exactly.

CS: I’m still worried you might get some resistance to rebranding schools as Academies, when Ofsted only rated 10% of all schools in England and Wales as unsatisfactory.

M.G.: Get me the head of Ofsted on the phone.  Who is the head of Ofsted?

CS: Michael Wilshaw, Minister.

M.G.: “Wilshaw. I need you to make more schools unsatisfactory. I don’t care how you do it man, just do it. Uh huh- yes – wonderful idea. Yes do it.”

CS: What did Wilshaw say?

M.G.: He said, Grade 3 satisfactory will be re-branded as unsatisfactory. As of tomorrow, 40% of schools will be failing.

CS: But grade 4 is already unsatisfactory.

M.G.: Then grade 3 will be, ummm…any ideas?

CS: A little below average?

M.G.: No, grade 3 will be; ‘not good enough‘.

CS: Isn’t that the same as unsatisfactory.

M.G.: Exactly. Is that it? I’m due at the PM’s for drinks.

CS: No minister. Not quite.

M.G.: What else? We’ve made half the schools unsatisfactory, with terrible EBacc results, surely the public will accept Academies and free schools now?

CS: The problem is, year on year, results are improving on individual subjects like English and Maths – which sort of ruins your line that the Education system is in need of a complete overhaul. 

M.G.: Well then we must discredit both the exams system and the teachers that administer it – the public barely tolerate teachers for having all those holidays as it is, so it won’t take much to turn their envy to hatred.

CS: But teachers only get paid pro-rata to reflect the extra holiday.

M.G.: Keep that to yourself, man. Let’s blame the grade inflation on coursework modules. Teachers cheat and do the coursework for them.

CS: We have no evidence of that.

M.G.: Evidence? Since when has government policy been determined by evidence? We’ll spread the rumour that teachers cheat and then propose to get rid of coursework all together, which will strain the exam system to breaking point – killing two birds with one stone – besmirch the reputation of teachers and prove the exam system is broken.

CS: What about subjects that need coursework?

M.G.: We will make students do it at school under exam conditions.

CS: There isn’t time in the school day to fit that in.

M.G.: Which means standards will drop and the public will blame the teachers because they are lazy, whining cheats. We will also release a statement saying; it is criminal that the majority of schools are not above average.

CS: That is statistically impossible, Minister. The majority is the average.

M.G.: The general public aren’t clever enough to realise that.

CS: What happens if you get picked up for it, by an education correspondent from the TES, for example?

M.G.: Bloody TES. I’ll blame my comprehensive education.

CS: Excellent Minister. Are you planning on bringing back grammar schools?

M.G.: It pains me to say ‘no’ because the baby boomers would love it, but I just don’t think I can get that one past the Liberals. However, we will bring back O levels and CSE’s – that should secure the vote of the nostalgic brigade.

CS: But if the GCSE is fit for purpose, which it appears to have been for 30 years, how will we float this idea?

M.G.: We must make it unfit for purpose, immediately. Give me the head of Ofqual. “Glenys, we must have a drop in GCSE passes this year. I don’t care how you do it. Tell the exam boards they must regrade all the exams. Yes, send an email if you must, but do not copy me in.”

CS: We could also play up grade inflation by pointing to the number of students that do resits, and the fact we have exam boards competing for business.

M.G.: Excellent idea. I can see you have the right mentality for politics. We will scrap all resits and give students only one chance to pass the exam. And we will do away with separate exam boards and have just the one.

CS: Teachers have been calling for one exam board for years – that should make them happy.

M.G.: We can’t have that. We must have unhappy, militant teachers, who go on strike and upset parents. It is the only way we are going to get away with eroding their pay and conditions, stealing their pensions and make them work longer hours. And they must keep children in school longer so both parents can go to work and therefore consume more, leading to wealth creation for the top 1%.

CS: How are we going to upset the teachers?

M.G.: Apart from freezing their pay, moving to regional payscales and plundering their pensions? A constant drip feed of attacks on their work ethic in the press. We can say ‘some of them’ are lazy, incompetent and in it for the holidays.

CS: But in every professions, ‘some’ people will be incompetent. It is not particular to teachers. I had an incompetent plumber come round the other day and now I have no hot water.

M.G.: Exactly. But by the time the plebs on BBC’s Have your Say and Twitter have finished, all teachers will be incompetent.

CS: An excellent Educational Policy, Minister.

What do you think? Are teachers the ones that are out of step with the world? Should we just put up and shut up? Do you think teaching is worse today than it was when you were in school? I really would love to know what you think.

All the blog posts I mentioned at York 2012, and a big Thank You

A reblog of a very handy post that links to all Emma Darwin’s great writing tips. The post that affected my writing the most was Psychic Distance (top of the list). She first blogged about it in 2010 and has recently expanded her explanation of this brilliant concept. There is very little out there on Psychic distance, but if you have ever been accused of head hopping, then this is the post for you.

Emma Darwin is the author of ‘Mathematics of Love’ and ‘A Secret Alchemy’.

Her website can be found here.

Two for writers: My method for writing a synopsis

For those who have been following my literary journey, One for writers: how not to get a literary agent, you’ll remember I promised ‘The Agent’ the opening chapters of the novel by the end of the month. The chapters are going really well and I have posted the first four on Authonomy for feedback. I reckon I will have the first draft completed in a couple of weeks, if I stick to 2000 words a day (the schedule has slipped a little, but essentially I am on target).

So the time has come to write the ‘dreaded’ synopsis. Nothing is likely to strike fear into a writer more than a request for a one-page synopsis. You want to shout: “If I could have told the story in one page, and not three hundred, I would have.” 

But shouting is not going to get the darn thing written. Nor is hoping it will magically appear on your laptop one morning. The only thing you can do is sit down and write it and hope you survive to send it.

So what is a synopsis?

Essentially it is what the story is about. What happens (to the character/s)? What are the major plot points; the highs and lows, twists and turns. It must include the ending, cliff hangers are a ‘no,no’. The agent wants to know if the story holds together. If the conclusion is – if not expected- then plausible and satisfying. But, and this relates more to general fiction than genre, the synopsis  also needs to convey the themes of the novel, or in other words, it must answer the why questions. Why does the character/s react like that? What is their motivation? What is their goal?

A novel’s readability is all about the tension you create. A character wants something and spends the whole novel trying to get it. The plot derives from their attempts being thwarted (what happens). And also, and more importantly, how they react to those events (why it happens). This is what drives the story and the reader forward. The ending should either give the character what they want or not (with the attendant nuances, such as they didn’t want it in the end anyway, or they got something different and better, or they got something worse).

There is plenty of advice out there, but if you try to follow all of it, your synopsis will be as long, if not longer, than the novel itself. 

However, I have come up with method that is relatively painless and seems to work (i.e. I’ve had full requests).

It came about after reading about surface and story-worthy problems. A detailed explanation can be found in Les Edgerton’s book on writing craft, called Hooked, and a summarised version can be found on his blog, here.

Essentially, he shows, through the example of the film, ‘Thelma and Louise’ – how the two levels work. 

The surface problem is what is happening (the plot). What?

The story-worthy problem is what drives the surface problem. Why?

Louise wants to go on a road trip with Thelma, but she knows her husband is likely to say no. As she begins to ask him, he brushes her off. Louise decides to go without telling him. This out of character behaviour already indicates that the story-worthy problem will involve Louise, but as yet the reader, nor Louise, knows what it is.

Emboldened by standing up to her husband, Louise persuades Thelma to stop at a bar. Initially Louise is happy to be chatted up by a man (Harlan), but outside in the car park, he won’t accept ‘no’. This shows Louise is not only under her husband’s thumb, but generally unable to stand up against men (story-worthy problem). Thelma ends up shooting Harlan (melodrama/action). Louise urges Thelma to call the police, but in the end decides to go on the run with her, which kicks off the plot proper.

The surface problem gets bigger and bigger; disobeying her husband, which leads to them being in the bar, and Thelma shooting Harlan, which leads to them running from the law. This relates to the story-worthy problem, which is, Louise is finally standing up to all the men who have abused and dominated her all her life (but again she and the reader do  not see this clearly until the end scene). Ideally, the protagonist and the reader need to discover the story-worthy problem at the same time.

The road chase is not only about whether they will get caught or not, but it is also a metaphor for Louise’s emergence from the shadow of men (the cop chasing them represents men’s oppression of women in general). This is what makes this film enduring.

So how does this help with synopsis writing?

I start with the surface problem. What is the inciting incident that kicks the story off? Sometimes it comes right at the beginning and sometimes a little way in. It is not always the most dramatic event. It can be something quite small and seemingly insignificant, but it’s repercussions are far reaching.

In Thelma and Louise, it is when Louise disobeys her husband, and not when Thelma shoots Harlan. Even though the plot-action results from the shooting, it’s because Louise stood up to her husband that they end up in the bar, and because she stood up to her husband,  she refuses to let Harlan bully her into submission.

Once I have identified the inciting incident (it is not always what I think it is when I begin writing), then I consider what the story-worthy problem is in relation to this. Why did the character do that? What’s going on subconsciously?

It is Louise’s attempt to assert herself against the way men have treated her, which drives her to go on the run with Thelma, rather than handing herself in. The police are a metaphor for men in general.  Legitimate but unjust power.

After you’ve  identified the inciting incident and the story-worthy problem, the rest of the synopsis is easy (honest). You pick out the next big thing that happens (which should be a worsening of the original surface problem)? How does this event, drive the story-worthy problem?  And so on, until you reach the end, where the surface problem and story-worthy problem come together.

If Thelma and Louise hand themselves in, they have not achieved freedom from male domination, and they will be back where they’ve started. For Louise, now she has had freedom, going back is not an option, so plausibly if dramatically, there can be only one outcome – to drive over the edge of the cliff.

I find thinking of my story using these two layers, helps me to pick out what is important for both plot and character motivation in the synopsis. I still need to cut and trim. The first draft or three are always too long, but essentially this approach has saved me hours of frustration and helps when I am writing the novel too. Keeping the story-worthy problem in your head as you write, helps to ensure scenes evolve from the character’s internal motivation, giving the scenes depth (layered).

Synopses will never be fun things to write, but hopefully they will be less distressing if you stick to the above method. Unless you’ve got a better one to share? How do you do it without tearing your hair out, or your manuscript up? Do you write it at the beginning, or leave it until the end? What’s the best advice you’ve found on synopsis writing? Please share.

AGNUS CASTUS – a cure for PMS, and why you won’t be able to get hold of it in Boots: An open letter to the European Medicines Agency

Dear European Medicines Agency,

Imagine, for a moment, a drug that could cure Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS/PMT), which has minimal reported side effects, and is easy and cheap to produce. What a wonderful drug that would be. A drug that could give a woman her life back after years of excruciating cramps, which even morphine was unable to control. Imagine what it would be like for that woman not to live in dread each month, and even get to the point where she forgets she is about to have a period. Imagine how much money could be saved because that woman no longer needs a hysterectomy and then years of HRT (with its increased risk of womb, ovarian and breast cancer). Imagine how many lives that drug would save if women did not have to have a general anaesthetic, nor the risk of post-operative infection.

Imagine how that woman feels to be in control of her life once more.  

If only a drug like that existed, instead of the current treatments on offer such as Prozac, with its increased risk of suicidal thoughts, or drugs like Danazol, which can deepen the voice and stimulate facial hair growth along with many other horrific side effects.  Or, taking oral contraceptives, which stop ovulation, and with it, the natural rise and fall of libido, while increasing the risk of blood clots, acne and fluid retention.

If only a herbal remedy existed with hundreds of years of safe usage, and clinical trials proving its effectiveness, like this one reported in the British medical Journal in 2001, and this one reported in the American Journal of science in 2012, and this one also conducted in 2012 at Hamedan University of Medical Sciences, Iran. And this list of studies on google scholar, citing highly significant results compared with placebos. If only there were a study that the EMA agreed met the criteria, something like this:

“There is one publication proving efficacy for the indication “Premenstrual syndrome” for an extract
specified as follows: Vitex agnus-castus L. dry extract (6-12:1), extraction solvent: 60% ethanol
(m/m) / 20 mg per day corresponding to 180 mg drug per day on average. This preparation fulfils the
requirements for WEU.” European Medicines Agency Assessment report on Agnus Castus.   

Just imagine…

What would you do EMA, if you had all this research, alongside hundreds of women’s anecdotal accounts and clinicians testimonials?

Would you force manufacturers to reduce the dosage per tablet from 20mg (the known effective level a cited in your own report) to 4mg per tablet? But not tell women that at this dosage, the drug will be ineffective?

That would be madness, wouldn’t it? Why would you render a drug, as clearly effective as Agnus Castus, ineffective, by restricting dosage, making the treatment unaffordable for thousands of women, even if they did know to take 5 TABLETS  A DAY(costing around £20 a week).

Who would this benefit? The women with PMT? The doctors who are treating these women, with the limited and often dangerous chemical or surgical solutions on offer?

No. A move such as this could only benefit the multi-million pound drugs industry, whom bring new drugs to the market with a short history of efficacy and lack of data on the long term side effects.

Restricting dosage on not just Agnus Castus, but a whole host of herbal treatments, such as St John’s Wort, is a conspiracy to keep the drug companies in huge profit and the public captive to their demands.

If you buy your tablets from Boots and take (the recommended) 4mg of Agnus Castus a day for PMS, it won’t work, your symptoms will not improve (your own report shows this to be the case).  For women who buy these tablets and find no relief, they will believe the drug is ineffective and return to their gynaecologist begging them to take out their ovaries and womb (a huge decision, with huge repercussions). And gynaecologists, despite knowing how effective Agnus Castus 20mg is, will be unable to tell you about it, because it is not listed in their prescribing manual.

Why?

Because there are no profits to be made on a drug that already exists, is not concocted in a lab. No concoction. No patent. No profit.

“The pharmaceutical industry is in crisis because companies are rewarded for developing new drugs that have few clinical advantages over existing ones, experts say. They pointed to independent reviews that found between 85 and 90 per cent of all new drugs developed over the past 50 years have provided few benefits and considerable harms.” Read more here.

Forgive me if I sound a little paranoid with my conspiracy theory, but what else am I supposed to think? Either you recommend the drug or you don’t. Recommending it, as your reports final conclusion does:

“Except for severe allergic reactions, there are no documented severe adverse events. Therefore the
use of the above mentioned extracts – in combination with an adequate labelling as included in the
monograph- can be supported.” EMA report on Agnus Castus.

but rendering it ineffective, by only allowing it to be sold in a dose too low to work, smacks of underhand tactics.

If you have an honourable reason, then I for one would love to hear it. In the meantime, I will continue to tell every doctor I meet and every women with PMS, how Agnus Castus gave me my life back, and I will unashamedly plug this Guernsey based company, that can sell you 20mg tablets, despite your mean and sinister directive.

Any woman reading this, who has PMS, check the evidence out for yourself. Be empowered! Take control of your body. For the most common type of PMS, I have yet to find a woman this has not transformed the life of. However, you must take 20mg (dried fruit extract) a day. 

Just think… no more mood swings, breast tenderness, irritable bowel, and no more pain so bad, you vomit and lose control of your bowels at the same time. No more lost days, lost months, lost sleep, lost life.

And my final message to the EMA – you should be ashamed of yourselves, condemning women to unnecessary medical interventions and possibly even death; very, very ashamed.

Yours ungratefully,

Juliet O’Callaghan – free of PMT for five years since taking Agnus Castus 20mg (dried fruit extract) once a day.

Anyone else found the EMA’s interference in herbal medicines has been detrimental to their health and pocket? Angus Castus: Has it worked for you to? Tell me your story. I would love to hear it.

Writers who write about cancer

Time is tight this week. A new school year has begun and I am determined to stick to my 2000 words a day, particularly as I have promised the agent the completed novel by Christmas. However, I have been wanting to share this poem since it was sent to me a few months ago, and it got me thinking about how many published literary authors had grappled with the sensitive subject of cancer.

As it turns out a lot, as you can see on this list. It includes a number of my favourite authors such as, Margaret Atwood; Anne Lamont; Ian McEwan; and this poem by Raymond Carver.

Cancer is an emotive subject. It is also one that a lot of people don’t want to read about, and certainly not in fiction. However, authors have always written about subjects that others may find distasteful and morbid. They write about things that matter to them, or have scarred them. As cancer invades so many of our lives, it is inevitable that writers will write about it; having it, beating it, and watching the ones they love die from it. I, for one, seek the words of those who have survived the aftermath of losing someone they love to cancer. It helps me to heal. So while this post and the poem may not be for everyone, I hope for some it will bring comfort and the knowledge that they are not alone.

Collin Tobin is a writer I met on Authonomy (a website where writers can try out their work and get some feedback). Collin sent me the poem after he read the opening of my novel. I like it because it is not maudlin. In fact the voice is often light and mocking, although the final verse reveals the writer’s true feelings, and his sense of helplessness in the face of the relentless onslaught.

Your Cancer

I don’t want to kill your cancer
I don’t want to choke you both
With a cold cocktail of poisons
I don’t want to irradiate it
By setting your house on fire
And recklessly believe
You will be able stay
And only it will flee
I don’t want to excise it
Taking a merchant’s pound
Of your precious flesh

Instead, I want us to love it
Embrace it
I want us to nurture it
I want it to feel the warmth of my hand
Each waking morning
As I place it over your sleeping skin
And hope its fibrous tissues
Can reach out too
And feel the reassurance of a caring touch

I want us to feed it
Engorge it with raw, red meats
Permeate it through and through with carcinogens
I want us to find some old red dye #2 M&M’s
And spoil it rotten
I want to sit cross-legged with it
Each night on the floor of our quiet living room
And trade deep puffs from the Hookah pipe
While we three sit
In companionable silence

I want us to take it out into the blessed sun each weekend
Lather it in baby oil
And let it simmer contentedly next to us
Like a slab of happy fatback
Floating in a heated skillet

Because maybe then
It will not just grow, and attach
But grow, attached
Maybe it will pause just long enough
Grow sentient enough, to reconsider
To maybe scale back its self-defeating
Blind growth within you
And content itself with co-existence

Develop the intelligence enough
To want what we want
Just a fair measure of days
Through which we can carefully pick our way
To find those rarest days of all
The carefree ones

You can find Collin’s latest work here, and more about him here.

Collin Tobin on Facebook. Colin Tobin on Twitter: @coljtob

Update: How not to get a literary agent

For those who followed my novel saga on the previous post. The agent got back to me. She said…  

Dear Juliet,

You are quite possibly unhinged, but version 2 (based on the measly pitch you sent me) does sound stronger. Do send the opening three chapters and synopsis. 

Yours expectantly, 

Ms Literary agent

OK, well maybe she didn’t word it exactly like that, but she did want to see version 2. This is great news. I have a goal to aim for, which is always useful when you are 40,00 words in and wondering why you started the flippin’ thing in the first place.

One for writers: How not to get a literary agent

This week is the first of my posts about writing (which I plan to make a regular monthly feature), but it is not the first post I intended to write.

I was all set to write a post about something I am struggling with, like over-writing or balancing show and tell (clicking on the links will take you to Emma Darwin’s marvellous blog about these ‘writerly’ issues).

Then, on Saturday morning (which happened to be my birthday), I got an email from an agent requesting a full MS. For my non-writing readers, this means that a literary agent (who is the gatekeeper between writers and publishers) liked the opening three chapters of my novel and would like to read the rest of  the manuscript (MS).

This has happened to me before. The first time, I’d already cast the film adaptation – I was thinking Nicole for the lead – before even sending the MS.

The me today, several rejections later, recognises this request is but a teeny, tiny step on the stairway to publication,  and that the majority of full request do not end up in anything other than, a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

“Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.”  Isaac Asminov

For an agent to take on a novel, they have to really, really love it. After all, they are going to have to convince commissioning editors to throw money at it (printing, cover art, advertising, ISBN) before it makes a penny.

However, as this request is all that is on my mind at the moment (the writer portion of it at least), I decided I would write about the dilemma I now find myself in – purely self-inflicted, I’d like to add.

So, as you will have gathered, I sent the opening three chapters of my completed novel to some literary agents (three in total).

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” Truman Capote

This was mistake no.1 because although the novel was finished. It wasn’t finished.

“Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure.”  Oliver Herford

I know why I did it, but psychological insight is of little use if it doesn’t actually alter behaviour. My daughter was about to launch herself into the world, leaving behind a gaping hole, shaped like me. At a subconscious level, I was feeling rejected by my daughter so thought I’d go the whole hog and have my heart stamped on as well.

“That’s the essential goal of the writer: you slice out a piece of yourself and slap it down on the desk in front of you. You try to put it on paper, try to describe it in a way that the reader can see and feel and touch. You paste all your nerve endings into it and then give it out to strangers who don’t know you or understand you.” Stephen Leigh

Almost immediately, I got a request for the full MS from one agent. This led to a mad panic of final editing for typos and punctuation. I also didn’t have any feedback on the plot from my trusted reader/writer friends (mainly because I hadn’t actually sent it to them). Finished and finished are not the same thing.

Too late now. I stalled for a week and then sent it. Those pesky day dreams started all over again. This time I chose Kiera as the lead, but made a note to remind her to pout a little less.

Three days later. REJECTION. 

“Engrave this in your brain: EVERY WRITER GETS REJECTED. You will be no different.” John Scalzi

In one line of type, the agent decimated my plot – though she liked the writing and the idea. Hmmm.

“There is no mistaking the dismay on the face of a writer who has just heard that his brain child is a deformed idiot.”  L. Sprague de Camp

I spent the rest of the day vowing I would never write again, chastising myself for my arrogance in thinking I could write a publishable novel, and general self-flagellation about the wasted years of my life.

That evening, I met up with a dear friend (who writes), who wisely moved our planned  get together from later in the week to ‘right then’. My anguished text: she rejected ME, may have had something to do with it. Three hours and a bottle of red (between us) later, I’d gone from devastation to inspiration. Although, I recognised it was only one agent’s opinion, I’d had a sneaking suspicion the plot was a little too quiet. I’d been toying with another way of telling the same story for months, but you get so far into the book that sometimes it is easier to ignore the ‘little voice’. Anyway, that ‘little voice’ is sometimes just plain nasty and if you listened to it all the time, you’d never write anything, ever.

“I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” Peter de Vries

 I went home that night and wrote 10,000 words of the ‘new’ novel (now called version 2), and I haven’t stopped since. It’s a mess and will need rewriting and rewriting and… but it’s working. I am in love. 

“Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it… ” Michael Crichton

I wish I’d done it months ago.

“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.” Edgar Rice Burroughs

However… Remember I said I’d sent it to three agents. Guess what? I got a second full request (the Saturday morning one), which leads me to mistake no. 2; maybe I should’ve waited a bit longer before deciding the novel, in its present state, was unpublishable. How many times was Harry Potter rejected? And how about Lord of the Flies and Catch 22?

Which brings me to the dilemma. What to do next?

Both novels are essentially the same idea told in a different way. It is either one or the other, there’s no way both could be published. They have the same characters doing different things. As of right now, most of version 2 is still in my head where, of course, it is perfect.

“The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.” William Faulkner

Do I want to send the first novel, when I think I am writing something much better?

“The measure of artistic merit is the length to which a writer is willing to go in following his own compulsions.” John Updike

Or am I being blinded by new love and rejecting a perfectly publishable novel, which took years to get right?

“Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” Gene Fowler

In love with my new baby and contemptuous of my ugly older child, I replied to the agent by asking her to consider my second novel instead. As it isn’t written yet, I was only able to send her the briefest of pitches (like the blurb on the back of a book). I then went onto to explain that I didn’t want to send her the first novel (although I would if she insisted), which I had waxed lyrical about only two weeks before; and could she possibly wait until Christmas, when I promised her version 2 would be finished.

This leads me to mistake no. 3. I pressed SEND!

I await the inevitable reply, which I think will go something like this.

Dear Juliet,

If you don’t love your work, how can you expect me to? No, I do not want to the see the full of the novel, you are now disowning. And no, I do not want to see the full of the novel you haven’t even written yet, because:

1) it is not written yet; and,

2) who’s to say you won’t reject it like you did the first one.

I wish you luck in finding your misplaced sanity, please don’t contact me again.

Ms Literary Agent

Anyone else shot themselves in the foot recently? It doesn’t have to be writing related.

Lap dancing clubs, tiger mothers and Lord John Shayler

Pole dancing classes, Fifty shades of grey – it seems stitched-up middle-class middle-England, might be, at last, coming undone. Not so, if the furore over a lap dancing club set to open in ‘posh’ ‘leafy Georgian town, Ampthill, is anything to go by.

As a resident of said town (actually it’s ‘chav’ neighbour, Flitwick), I have been following the story with a mild sense of amusement and a large dose of feminist angst. However, after being accosted in Waitrose car park to sign a petition against its opening, I began to realise the real victim in this is not the self styled Walt Disney,  Lord John Shayler (the proprietor of the council approved lap dancing club), nor the tiger mothers of the ‘innocent’  Ampthill children.

“We’ll gather outside the strip club as a community with our children to switch on the Christmas lights; to sing carols; to sit outside eating our snacks waiting for the next ballet class down the road.”  An Ampthill resident.

No. The real victim of this grudge fueled proposal, is the misrepresentation of sex.

Beautiful, glorious, life affirming SEX!

Sex is an innate drive, like thirst and hunger. Who you have sex with and at what age, has largely been determined by cultural norms and values, a bit like why we eat cereal for breakfast rather than roast beef. But sex in itself is not a bad or dirty thing.

However, exploitation of women is. While every woman knows she uses sex as a bargaining tool in her relationship armourey, even if this is subconscious, there is difference between that and others making profit from the exchange. Many women working in the sexual entertainment industry will argue they choose to work in clubs such as this, but what do we mean by choice, or in other words; what is free-will?

As women, we a brought up to use our femininity as a commodity. Sex sells everything from alcohol to zucchinis, but I wonder how many Ampthill parents would applaud their A-level student daughter, getting a Saturday job at the local lap dancing club, to save up for university.

I am not against a lap dancing club in Ampthill, I am against all forms of entertainment that exploit (for profit) the private sexual rituals between men and women. So, I do understand the objections raised by some Ampthill residents. This blog in particular, attempts to be measured and not fall into the trap of small minded bigotry, unlike some of the comments on this thread. But, this is a wider issue than a club opening in Ampthill. This is a deeper and broader issue that begins from when our daughters are born. It is about the messages they receive concerning who they are and what we value about them.

That’s what the Ampthillians need to be fighting against, the debasement of women, the world over. Sex is not the enemy here, sexist attitudes are. But just as Lord John Shayler is clearly not a feminist, then neither are the tiger mothers, leaping into action in Waitrose car park, who like the three wise monkeys, believe sex should be neither seen, heard, or spoken of.

Trying to shield our children from sex, is like trying to shutdown the internet. They are surrounded by sexual imagery, online; on TV; in music; magazines; newspapers.  A lap dancing club in the centre of town is unlikely to have a catastrophic impact on their sexual identity, already, shaped and moulded by their multi-media existence. Lap dancing clubs are not, as far as I am aware, the gates of hell, from which you will never escape. They are bars where men can watch a woman dance and take her clothes of, or for an extra price, have her do the dance, dangling over his lap. Not something I would pay for, but hardly, Beelzebub running amok in the local primary school.

Instead of shielding our children from sex, we should be talking to them (age appropriate of course) about the rights to their own body. How they don’t have to touch, kiss or be cuddled by anyone they don’t want to be. How sexual feelings are normal and masturbation won’t make them blind. How having sex is a big step and one that most of us wish we had done differently. How sex is a wonderful and beautiful thing, when we do it with someone we really want to, and have feelings for.

Having a lap dancing club on the doorstep could prove advantageous. A daytime visit as part of the PSHE sex education programme would provoke discussion about the uneasy role women and their bodies occupy in this product driven age. Young people want to talk about sex, relationships, and how they will negotiate their sexual identities. The recent sex education show at Redborne, was proof if any is needed that our teenagers are not ‘innocent’, if anything they are confused, unable to separate fact from myth. They need adult guidance.

Instead the naysayers condemn, sex, wonderful, incredible sex, with prudish indignation (confusing consensual acts such as swinging and bondage, with exploitative practices). Of course, the louder they protest, the closer Lord John Shayler gets towards making his rather childish insult a reality.

Maybe if there was more sex, not less – sex given freely, without profit, because its fun and perfectly natural– then clubs like this wouldn’t have customers in the first place.

Sex is not the enemy here, we would all do well to remember that.

 

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