Billy Mernit wrote the book on Writing the Romantic Comedy (Harper/Collins) … literally! Known as “the guru of rom-com” for the aforementioned best-selling screenwriting textbook, as well as his popular blog: Living the Romantic Comedy, Mernit teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and is a frequent guest speaker at writing conferences around the country.
Mernit began his writing career in his late teens as a composer-lyricist whose songs were recorded by Carly Simon and Judy Collins, among others. During his many years in the entertainment industry, he’s written for television (NBC’s legendary Santa Barbara) and worked as both screenwriter and script consultant. Imagine Me and You: A Novel (Random House/Shaye Areheart Books) is his first published work of literary/mainstream fiction.
Enter the Write On! February Challenge: Have a Heart for a chance to win a copy of Mernit’s book: Writing the Romantic Comedy. In this Q&A, as Mernit shares his experience, and offers tips for writing a rom com that’s heart-and-soul above the rest!
Why romantic comedy? How did you get involved in this specialty?
I grew up with parents who were romantics themselves—I was raised on a diet of Howard Hawks screwballs; my teen idols were not only Dylan and Godard, but Hepburn and Grant. Given that it’s evidently in my blood, romantic comedy is something I always intuitively understood and responded to. I’ve made a living doing all kinds of writing since my teens, from songs to soaps, and the rom-com of it all has been a constant.
I was teaching at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program in the ‘90s and offered to teach a course on the genre. The first class was so packed we had students sitting outside the classroom in the hall, so clearly there was an interest. By the course’s end, though this sounds like a cliché, students really did say to me, “Why don’t you write a textbook?” Because there wasn’t one at the time. So I saw the opening and grabbed it. Now I get to say, “I wrote the book on romantic comedy,” because to date (it’s still in print and selling, 10 years later), there is only one.
How was your experience writing Imagine Me and You different from/similar to Writing the Romantic Comedy? How did you go about getting each of them published?
Doing the rom-com book was one of the most fun writing experiences I’ve ever had, as the process was so organic—I’d been teaching the class, it was easy to process the material, the book’s mission was so clear. I took the proposal to agent Bonnie Nadell, along with a short-list of likely suspects among publishing companies, and because of the timeliness factor, I think, it wasn’t hard to set up.
Imagine Me and You had a much steeper and more involved learning curve. First novels are scary, as in both exhilarating-scary and butt-ugly scary; it’s so easy to go wrong, and in so many ways. And because the novel took three to four years to write, the theme of it kept changing its mind over time.
Selling a novel is a cosmic crap-shoot, and mine had a typically tricky trajectory to get to my fiction agent, Joe Veltre, and then to Shaye Areheart at Random House. Sheer luck.
What are the top three things people should know about writing a romantic comedy?
#1: It’s the characters, stupid. Check out your own short-list of favorite romantic comedies and I guarantee it’s the character-driven factor (usually hitched to a neat story concept) that makes them memorable—people like Tootsie, Annie Hall, Arthur, Harry/Sally and the rest. So much of good comedy comes out of strong, vivid character ideas. And take the time to create a truthful, resonating “chemical equation” between two distinctive leads, i.e. write the chemistry on the page (instead of leaving it to casting).
#2: Use cinematic storytelling. Why is it that we don’t expect to see the first 3-D romantic comedy anytime soon? Because generally people think of rom-coms as “Two People Sitting Around Talking.” Romantic comedy is a horribly dialogue-dependent genre, and spec-writers tend to be too in love with the sound of speech. Instead, you should be tapping into great visual ideas, gags that use the medium (e.g.(500 Days of Summer)—to make a movie-entertaining ride out of your story, and to prove to your prospective buyers that your movie justifies being given big screen treatment.
#3: The best ones are about something. “I was a better man when I was a woman, with you, than I was when I was a man”… “Men and women can’t be friends, because the sex thing always gets in the way…” Not to harp on 500 Days, but there’s a movie about a syndrome: being too in love with love, and thus being blind to the realities of who one’s love object is. Even light fare like The Proposal is in its way an attempt to look at professional women and the “can you have it all?” issue. Good romantic comedies speak to something that’s going on in the culture. Make your story matter to us. It wouldn’t hurt.
What are the biggest mistakes writers make in this genre?
The most obvious one is that too much emphasis gets put on obstacles—the “what will keep them apart” of it all—while the equally important, primary job of a rom-com writer is to convince the audience that these two people must become a couple. In other words, why should we care that these two hook up, and what makes us buy into their being meant for each other?
You are also a teacher, a musician, and a novelist, how do you balance all the aspects of your career?
Some days the bear gets you. I’ve been trying to get a second novel going for three years now (aurgh), and life’s been in the way. But I do muddle through a compulsively workaholic schedule, and the writing-reading-teaching triumvirate becomes all of a part, one thing, in a way—as well as keeping the days interesting.
An established writer/director friend of mine is collaborating with me on a film adaptation of Imagine Me and You, for him to direct, which is all I can say (with crossed, excited fingers) at the moment.
Advice for fiction writers?
Always be writing and always be reading. And try to make the writing less about the writing and more about the story.
Advice for screenwriters?
Consider that this actually could be a career (as opposed to a one-hit heist), and like, learn how to write. And learn to enjoy it, because it’s going to take a while.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
That there’s no time to be a wuss. That you have to write to what scares you, hurts you, bewilders you, and to get to it as hastily and truthfully as possible. That’s where the funny is, believe it or not.
Also some fundamental instructions might’ve helped, i.e.
1) Put ass in chair.
2) Write no matter what, and write what matters.
3) Put your ass back there the next day.
If you’re not at your desk at the appointed time, how do you expect the muse to find you?
Tags: 500 Days of Summer Annie Hall Arthur Billy Mernit Debra Eckerling Fiction Imagine Me and You A Novel Living the Romantic Comedy Non-fiction Random House/Shaye Areheart Books Screenwriting The Proposal Tootsie UCLA Extension UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Joe Veltre When Harry Met Sally Write On! Author Q&A Write On! February Challenge: Have a Heart Writing the Romantic Comedy