The Tragedy of Writing a Comedy

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When I was ten or eleven years old, I wrote my first novel. It was about this group of teenagers who had always spent most of their time together and had to face the first summer apart (doesn’t this sound terribly like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? It sadly does). The distance between them would make them realise and discover new things, feelings, problems and secrets that would have remained concealed otherwise.

It was easy. I wrote it all quickly (almost 300 pages!), without planning. And then I kept on doing that. I wrote another series about some friends who played in punk bands – this happened when I was in my Green Day moment. I filled pages and pages of notebooks. I was thirteen years old. Then I wrote a lot of fanfiction with my friends – so many pages of pure bullshit. American singers and actors would speak the perfect accent of my hometown in Italy and we found it extremely funny.

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And then, after that, I wrote my first romantic comedy. A naive, stupid novel that had some good moments – I wrote it when I was sixteen, maybe, I can’t really remember. Funfair Lights was the title. I made one of my best friend read that. My ex-boyfriend read it as well, and I played it cool but instead felt very frustrated when I discovered that he made his mom read it as well. Isn’t it a cruel violence? I give you something private, something I am excited and scared of at the same time, and you make your mother read that? Fuck it. Anyway.

After Funfair Lights, I wrote the first thing that had some sort of dignity – a rom-com as well. Why Do I Want Him.Writing novels was – really – easier that what it is for me now. I would just write. I would try to go on with the story without putting too much effort in the planning. With the last two (the rom-coms), I started discovering that some planning was necessary. Even so, I was convinced that planning should not limitate my own fantasy. If writing a chapter made me realise that what I planned was fine, but not as good as it would be if I took another unexpected direction that came to me only when I kept on writing, I would go with the new option. No doubts about it.

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Now I am working on the first novel that I feel may go somewhere. Not because it is good or whatever (it’s probably not), but because it’s mine. I am working hard on it. I had my professor read it, my classmates and friends read it, and I am writing in the language I love: English. I want it to shine, I want the story to take me away.

Since I started studying Creative Writing and taking the work of the writer more seriously, I have stopped abandoning myself to the reason why I started writing in the first place: to enjoy it. To love it. I really did. I wanted my “readers”, whether they be my brothers, friends or whovever – to feel like they couldn’t look up from the page. They needed to know how the story went on. It was a matter of life and death. They needed to go on! They had to! No matter what! The house is on fire? Fine! I need to know whether they will finally get together first.

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I have a very strict structure of chapters now. They need to be perfect, not only by themselves as chapters, but also as a group of single bits that need to form a coherent, entertaining story. When I walk, I think about structure and plot and how I should go back to old chapters and make everything fit. For example, I could have forgotten to mention a detail about a place or a person that would become more important later. So I needed to go back and re-read what I wrote and try to make everything fit. Fitting ends.

But I miss being an unaware writer. I would go on and on, and writing would be terribly natural. I miss it. I have been studying and practicing and reading rules and I know that they are all important, essential tools that a writer should know. But my objective for the next month will be to be more like the writer I was: brave, imaginative, happy-go-lucky. With the young me in mind, I am sure Plan B – Love at the Time of Brexit will only come better.

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Writing the Final Project: Fiction

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My Fiction project is almost finished, and I am very happy with the idea I had, not because it was brilliant or something – it’s just that I am extremely happy because I am putting a lot of myself into this piece, since the protagonist is an Italian girl living in London. The story takes place a few days before the EU referendum, which is of course quite important if you are a European citizen living in London. Anyway, the story is about this girl waking up in bed with a Tory MP and the story goes back about how it happened and why. So the EU referendum results come just at the end of the story, and it’s going to be very meaningful for this strange couple.

Anyway, I was very enthusiast about it when I got the idea, but then I had troubles with balancing every scene. I know it’s something that every writer should learn, but being able to write something in a specific amount of words is extremely hard. So I really needed to plan my writing. I had a list with different scenes and how many words I should have reserved to every specific scene. So it was very hard, and eventually I ended up writing just as much as I wanted without looking at the word count. I would edit later. This helped me in facing the whole writing process more calmly.

I decided not to develop the plot with a linear structure. The story, in fact, starts with the protagonist waking up in bed with the Tory and goes back until it comes again on that day, which is the day before the EU referendum. So the story doesn’t end up “at the beginning”, there is another scene that takes place on the 23rd of June. This confused me a little and I needed to draw a timeline with the sequence of events. It was very helpful. I am excited to finish it and I know that there will be a lot of editing to do, but I am very happy about my characters and I feel like I am really putting a lot of myself and a lot of London in this story. I am leaving for Italy in a few days, so I guess writing about me and about London is the best way to finish my first semester in this amazing city.

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Starting the Fiction Project

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During one of our last classes, Professor Litt wanted to do some individual tutorials to talk about the project we are going to submit. It will be 5000 words of fiction, and to be honest I was very, very nervous about it. In fact, Professor Litt wanted us to send him an email about what we thought it could be our project and I sent him more questions than answers. I had carefully thought about his classes about multiplicity and simultaneity, about the “London lists” and about how Tom Wolfe depicted New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities. I am writing down part of the email that I sent him and then the answers he gave me and the discussion we had during the tutorial.

 I am really intrigued by the thought of writing about London from this point of view. It made me realise that, when I try to write fiction, I just focus on what I know and what is similar to my experience – so I always write about white, heterosexual middle-class people. But of course, and fortunately, London is not only made by these people, and to make writing about London meaningful, realistic and effective, a writer should probably emphasize the presence of many other different people.

I had a look at my “sketches” notebook, and I was disappointed. I felt like nothing could really represent this idea. I felt a bit bad, to be honest. So I tried to think about the places that could inspire me. I was lucky enough to move to Stratford, which I have personally found a bit lame, but is actually a great place in terms of “multiplicity”. Its transport connection, the big Underground, Overground and National Rail station, the bus station and the buses that connect Stratford to Stansted airport make Stratford quite an interesting place to be. Everyday I see people come and go. And just beside the stations there are the Stratford Centre and Westfield, which of course are always packed with people. The street where I live has kebab places and thai restaurants next to British traditional pubs (one of which is famous because it is apparently the pub where Iron Maiden “were born”).

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So, I know that the deadline is quite close and I need to start writing as soon as possible, but I don’t want to rush things. Not because I am waiting for the magical inspiration to come, but because I think that writing the city, and therefore writing about multiplicity and simultaneity, could change and possibly improve my writing in general, so I really need to think, osberve and know more. I would like this project to be a good one, so I am sorry if I haven’t come up with a good and precise idea yet. My head is full of questions rather than answers now. How is it possible to write about miltiplicity? How is it possible to tell a story of many, or to make those many meaningful in the story of one or a few characters? How can I write about cultures and people I don’t know anything about? I really need to focus on these questions. The only thing I have come up with so far is that I live in a great city and great neighbourhood to observe people. I would love to write about Stratford.

First of all, Professor Litt told me that I took the multiplicity and simultaneity point a bit too literally. So it’s fine to write about lots of people that are all doing different things, but writing the city is something else. Those people can be encountered by chance, or because my characters have to – and it’s fine that my characters are all white, middle class heterosexual people. Every piece of art is a selection. These people, though, need to encounter other people. And those people may be very, very different.
Professor Litt gave me a good example with the trees. You can look at a tree from a simple glass window, or you can look at a tree from a window with barrels. The fact that those barrels cover parts of the tree doesn’t mean that you don’t know what those parts are like. You know that you’re watching a tree anyway. And if there is another tree that you can see properly because it’s too far and you can only see some branches, it’s the same. You know that it’s a tree, and you have the idea that there is a tree there. The same can be made in writing about people you don’t know anything about. There are many muslims in London, and even if their culture is different from mine and I feel like I don’t know much about their lives and culture, they need to be present when writing the city.
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Character Through Place: an Exercise

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Our classes about characterisation, dialogue and place led to an exercise that I have really enjoyed doing. Professor Litt wanted us to depict a character through place. This exercise came after the workshop about characterisation. He had told us that if you create a gap between how a character looks and how it is, then it will be more interesting. This is why he wanted us to describe a character through his room. Then, the character would come on scene. He told us to give the sense of that gap he was talking about. This is my attempt.

Jake Lowell’s studio was quiet. His assistant had told me to wait for him there, as he was going to come back from lunch in a moment. His studio reminded me of one of those minimalist offices you see in the movies about very cynical and rich Wall Street businessmen, even if Jake’s office wasn’t on the top of a high building in New York City, but just on the first floor of a small cottage in Dover.

The white curtain moved slowly as a light breeze came in from the window. It was a nice summer evening, and pigeons were tooting in the garden. The desk was right under the window, just opposite the door, and two of the four walls were completely made by shelves, where books were piled methodically. There was a section for novels and short story collections, one for poetry and one for plays, but the biggest one was packed with screenplays and cinema books.

There was a full shelf dedicated to Quentin Tarantino. And then one to David Lynch, one to John Carpenter and so on. The first part of those shelves was occupied by screenplays, then there were the books about the works of those directors and their biographies. I approached to have a look at the desk. There was something strange in the colourful, warm look that those books gave the shelves, compared to the rest of furniture. The desk was made of steel, and everything was tidily set as no one had been sitting at it for a while. Pencils were perfectly sharp, sheets and notebooks were immaculate. The pen holders, the folders and files looked pricey. They didn’t seem like those stockpiles you buy at Poundland. They looked like elegant, classy pieces of stationery. Never used before.

I tried to find anything that could tell me something else about him, except from the fact that apparently he read a lot, but I didn’t. I couldn’t find anything written by him. Even a post-it. Nothing.

When I realised that he could come in any time, I approached the door again. I didn’t want him to think I was nosing around his room, but before I could reach the doorway, something caught my attention. Next to the door, there was a small cabinet piled with sheets and folders. On the top of it, a copy of Empire, folded in a half. Someone, probably Jake himself, had circled a short article at the end of the page. He had used a red pen, and it seemed like he had scribbled it furiously. It was a review of an independent movie. The reviewer had given it only one star and a half. It seemed quite a bad review, but I couldn’t read it – I needed to pick the magazine up to read the words. I didn’t want Jake to come in exactly while I was reading his stuff. But I could make out the name of the director, written in bold just under the movie title. It was Jake’s last movie.

“Interesting reading?” I almost jumped when I heard his voice from behind. He came in and quickly approached his desk, pulled off his suit jacked and threw it on the chair. I was immediately taken aback by his smell of wine. He didn’t introduce himself. He looked at me, as I tried to say anything that could make up for what I have done – which was, having a look at his personal stuff without being requested or permitted to. He tossed his briefcase on the desk, striking two pen holders. He didn’t mind the pens falling on the ground.

“Don’t worry. That review is one of the best I’ve ever had.” he said, pointing at the magazine. Then he started rolling up his sleeves. “Damn, it’s fucking hot here.” The hem of his shirt was dangling outside his trousers and the tie was loosen. He looked at me as I opened my mouth to answer, then he lit up a cigarette.

“I fucking hate this office.” he said. He approached the desk. “Why the fuck should I need a 8 pounds-worth folder?” He turned to me like I should have answered. I shrugged, too appalled to say anything. “I don’t know. It’s your office.”

He nodded. “I guess so.” Then he rubbed the tip of his fingers on his forehead, as trying to focus. “For fuck’s sake, what a bloody terrible life I have.”

That was the moment when I realised he was a bit drunk.

This exercise was very interesting for me because describing a place can be a very useful technique to start creating a new character. I have really enjoyed doing it, because when you describe a place with a specific purpose as to give the sense of a specific personality makes your work more interesting – at least, it makes it more interesting to do it. I have really enjoyed it and I am sure I will use Jake Lowell again in my writing.

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Voice: An Exercise

Playwriting Exercises - CREATIVE CUP OF TEA

What does voice mean? What is the voice? Before trying to answer this question, Professor Musgrave wanted us to do an exercise that required a slow development. It started with us writing a list of feelings and emotions.

  • Rage
  • Love
  • Hatred
  • Sorrow/Pain
  • Excitement
  • Joy
  • Sadness
  • Embarassment
  • Affection
  • Fear
  • Anxiety

He then wanted us to choose one. I chose rage. Then, he wanted us to write ten words or sentences that could express that feeling.

  • Cursing
  • Clenched teeth/fists
  • Shaking
  • Shouting/screaming
  • Crying
  • Violence
  • Feeling betrayed/insulted
  • Banging a fist on the table/wall
  • Throwing stuff
  • Anger

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Write a very short monologue using only five of these words.

Whatever. I can curse, clench my teeth, shout or cry. I was betrayed. And no curse and no shout and no cry can make up for it.

How do we establish a sense of voice in drama? Is it different from fiction prose? Professor Musgrave wanted us to write some short monologues on the theme of love.

  1. The person who is doing this monologue is precise, she is very clear and speaks with very short sentences, she thinks it is very important to be exact.

Thi is the first time. I mean, of course there have been times before. I fancied a guy at school. I used to pass in front of his classrom. I wanted to see if he was there. But this is the first time. The first time I truly fall in love and I can’t get it. I can’t explain it. It’s the first time. I just sit at the table and can’t manage to draw a scheme that eventually will help me solve the problem.

2. The person is keen to make herself heard, she doesn’t use many full stops, she goes on and on until she almost strangles on her own words.

So whenever he looks at me I feel like my heart would melt as butter on a bloody slice of bread and whenever he speaks to me I get as hot as if that slice was immerged into a bowl of steamy soup, the ones that you eat on those winter nights when everyone’s at home and the sky is thundering and everything outside doesn’t really matter, it’s just you and how hot your soup is as it touches your mouth, your throat, your stomach.

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3. This person cannot stick to the point. Always on the theme of love. 

You remember that time when I told your mother I would never ever ask you to marry me because I think marriage is something that only fascists and middle class assholes do nowadays, and she told me that I was the worst boyfriend her daughter would ever have… which reminds me of that time that you told me I was the worst boyfriend anyone could have because I threw a banana at the bride when she came out of the church and…

4. This monologue is not about the theme of love. It’s about war. And the character speaks as a muddy pond.

History books say a lot of bullshit about the war… Courage, honor, strategy. But I, only I know that war is just made of muddy holes where burying your mates’ corpses. The splashing of feet on the blood. Trapping into someone else’s insides scattered on the wet, stinky ground. Slipping and falling in an endless puddle of death.

5. The theme is war again. The character is angry, he’s telling someone off.

I know your problem. You feel like you’re useless. I get your point. The problem is not that you don’t go out much, you don’t get high standards at your exams or that girls don’t message you back on that stupid cellphone or whatever it’s called. The point is that you don’t know what real problems are! You don’t have a purpose! Have you evern buried your stupid friends after one of your evenings at the pub? Have you ever wondered what is it like to face death every day, when you were lying on your bed laughing at some Youtube shitty videos?

This interesting exercise, made of several different parts, made me realise that voice is something very difficult to create and to care for. What is my voice? I think that my voice. when I write plays or fiction, is ironical, with a simple and direct language, sometimes punchy, with a lot of curse. It comes from my readings and influences. But what is voice? Is it the way in which the character’s thoughts are exposed and expressed? What is the difference between voice and style? I need to think more about this matter.

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Lists in Writing Fiction

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In class, we have talked about how to write multiplicity and simultaneity. We started our discussion with reading the essay that Professor Litt wrote, but we also read some examples from The Bonfire of the Vanities. In the first pages of the book, there is a great description of all the ethnic groups and neighbourhoods in New York City. At page 41, there is a huge list of professions and different people living in NY. What’s the point of it? Is it useful to describe the huge amount of different people living in a city? Are lists always comprehensive with everyone, especially in such a city as NY? Is the objective not to leave anyone out? Are lists useful to approach things in different ways? Do they give a lively idea of a place that keeps changing?

After reading these examples of lists, Professor Litt wanted us to write a list about any aspect of London. This is mine. I think this could be a useful exercise for my final project of this class. In fact, I would like to put a bit of Stratford, the neighbourhood where I live, in my piece. This list is about the main square when you go out of the tube in Stratford, East London.

It does not matter if it’s a busy Tuesday morning or a Sunday night at three, when everyone could be sleeping in their beds before the week begins again. You can’t be alone at Stratford station. It is a travellers’ place. Businessmen check their wirst watches and hold their coffees while hurry to the Underground. Muslim mothers push their strollers as young students go to school, proud of their elegant uniforms. You can hear languages from all over the world. This is London. As a bus full of workers wearing different uniforms stops at Stratford, you can spot a Costa shirt, a hostess tailleur, an overall. They are travelers. People get off the bus and scatter around the square, trying to catch the Underground, the Overground or another bus. People come and go. And there are the buses heading to Stansted airport – you can see couples hugging and saying goodbye. A man smoking a cigarette and waiting for someone to arrive at the bus stop. A couple crying. A female version of Big Lebowski, with sunglasses and a fur over her pijama, with shopping bags. A group guys coming back home from a very intense night – someone is still drunk. A couple of taxi drivers who read The Sun and look at a girl’s legs as she walks past them. This is Stratford. In 30 minutes you’ll be in Oxford Circus, and in 20 you wil be in Camden Town. In 45 minutes you’ll be at Stansted Airport to catch a flight to Maldives and never see London again.

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Characterisation Exercise

Playwriting Exercises - CREATIVE CUP OF TEA

After our class on characterisation, Professor Musgrave wanted us to start an exercise in class in which we needed to create a character. He suggersted all the first steps that a writer should take when creating a new character to put on stage.

Gender. Male.

Ethnicity. White Caucasian. Italian.

Name. Cosimo. 

3 Physical Characteristics. Blonde/greyish hair. Beard of 7 days. Low and harsh voice because of cigarettes. 

Where do their money come from? Freelance work.

What kind of accomodation does he have? He lives in a hut.

Where is this accomodation? A wood in Scotland.

What do they lack in life? He lacks love. And a close friendship.

What do they need right now? He needs to try to understand if he did the right choice in leaving his girlfriend and hometown behind.

What secret they have? He desperately wants to go back home but he wouldn’t ever admit it.

What problem do they have? He definitely takes too much alcohol and drugs.

What memory do they have? His girlfriend throwing a gin tonic in his face.

What do they believe in? He believes in friendship, even though he would never admit it.

What do they wish for? He wishes something to happen and make him realise what he really needs to do, because he’s too confused now.

Where are they now? He’s in his hometown in Italy, celebrating a stag night.

What are they doing? He’s celebrating a stag night and having fun with his old mates.

What is he thinking or saying? He sees his ex-gf (she’s celebrating the hen night with her girls) and he realises he’s always going to love her.

What are three things that you think are important about him? 1) He is a literature dork. 2) He doesn’t want to admit he’d love to come back. 3) He secretly hates being alone but he knows he would feel bad in Italy as well.

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Now expand this character with 5 pieces of information about them.

  1. He has loved his girlfriend deeply but he knows that they can’t be together. They don’t share the same life values and always fight.
  2. He misses his mates, but he knows that if he comes back to his hometown it will not be the same as their old times together.
  3. He doesn’t want to accept the fact that he is a fail, or at least he has accepted it but does not know how to change it.
  4. He deeply loved the city where he was born even if he suddenly fled to Scotland. He went away because he felt under pressure, everyone was moving away and he felt close to a breakup with his girlfriend.
  5. He has never had a relationship in Scotland, only a few one night stands.

Now expand this character with 10 questions about them.

  1. Has he ever really loved Romilda?
  2. Has he ever really loved anybody?
  3. Why does he take drugs and alcohol?
  4. Is he a nature lover?
  5. Why does he like living alone?
  6. Does he really like it?
  7. Why would he like to go back?
  8. What exactly does he miss?
  9. Does he still love Romilda?
  10. What does he expect from this stag night and wedding?

Asking many questions and trying to force myself in deepening and developing this character helped me find may features and shades that I had inside me but hadn’t work out or put to light. I am happy I did and I will use this system when creating new characters in the future.

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