What I Wish I’d Known About Screenwriting Before I Wrote my First screenplay: The Ultimate Guide to Resources for New and Aspiring Screenwriters Volume 1 by Penelope Poole
Review by Beverly Nault
Stick around after you read this review because I had the pleasure of asking Penelope questions about her experience reading for the Austin Film Festival this year and what’s new and trending in the screenwriting world.
Sometimes unlikely encounters become likely introductions, and the crazy world of screenwriter networking proved that to me recently when I “met” Penelope Poole in a Facebook group for screenwriters.
A fellow had posted something, I can’t even recall what it was now, that was obviously an awkward typo and several others teased him, to which he responded in good humor. However, he didn’t take my good-natured comment in the same way AT ALL and began calling me names, slinging a near-obscene word salad dressed with insults at me no matter how much I tried to explain. Stunned, I ended my comments by the simply phrased, “I’m sorry.”
Then someone else commented how they could tell who would be able to handle themselves in a room by watching our exchange. This made me feel a little better, but the most helpful comment came from Penelope Poole. All she said was, “You two need to read my book.” Turns out she actually holds a Master’s degree in Peace and Conflict, which no doubt comes in handy in the social media world.
I immediately downloaded her aptly titled book and flipped to the pages on Social Media Do’s and Dont’s. How’d I do according? According to Penelope’s advice, get out as soon as you realize you’ve offended. Check. Be aware someone else in the thread, possibly an industry insider, is probably watching and will know right away who they’d be more interested in working with. Check-check.
Her book is the first one I’ve seen that directly addresses these kinds of social media street fights we stumble into. But it’s so much more.
First let me tell you about Penelope. Now a reader for Austin Film Festival, she made the finals in Nicholl, Storylab, and AFF, and has had a long career writing in several formats and countries. We’re both “latecomers” to screenwriting so I felt an immediate connection, as well as respect that she’s done so well in the genre already.
Now about the book. Like I said, it’s full of information on negotiating social media, which she’s an EXPERT in. Not because she’s always done it right but because she’s had her own failures and is transparent about them and what she learned. It’s also a resource for all social media, from Facebook to Twitter to Reddit, and the differences between each and the corresponding cultures within.
She includes chapters on recommended books, resources like contests and their portals, what readers look for, and pesky words we often confuse. Rich in links and know-how, she addresses a lot of topics we wish all newbies and even some seasoned writers would follow. Her advice to read all pinned posts and do your own googling before posting to a new page is among my favorites. And links, links, links that make the entire book a gem even for seasoned writers.
She’s already announced Volumes 2 and 3. Vol. 2 will be issued with three sections: A Case for Outlining, Writing for the Screen (alphabetized), and a full Glossary of Screenwriting Terms. Partnered with Michael Midis, Penelope has developed a practical, organized screenwriting system called Badass Beat Board. She also blogs, is a script editor, and writing coach. She’s seeking a few experts in other areas in case you’re interested in helping with her book, so check out the interview below for what she needs.
Poole’s writing is contemporary and light while being straightforward and honest. I found myself laughing even though her topics could be as dry as the Mohave. She’s obviously on top of the screenwriting world and trends, and I intend to keep my eye on this writer as she makes a name for herself, or as she likes to say, “be a pusher to other writers.”
When I asked Pen for a Q&A she responded with enthusiasm. “Of course, but after I decompress from AFF!”
She’s back from Texas, and compressed or not, meet Penelope Poole.
PSA: What inspired you to write “What I Wish I’d Known”? (WIWIKAS)
I first thought about writing a short give-away book as a lead magnet for the beat board product my small business produces. My business partner, Mike, and I were 18 months into our bootstrapped project and the idea of a 50-page giveaway to garner a decent email list was appealing.
Once I started writing, I realized this was a book in its own right. (My first edited draft was over 300 pages.) I realized I had access to a vast amount of material that could help screenwriters of all levels of experience navigate the existing resources to save as much time as possible. Following the links in WIWIKAS will definitely help anyone interested in self-educating in the art of screenwriting and save them, I estimate, at least six months, possibly even a year of time down the Google rabbit hole.
PSA: How did you get into screenwriting?
I tell the story in the book, but it really started when I worked on a couple of ‘iffy’ donor-funded projects in Afghanistan where, just like in Iraq (and there were plenty of stories from there, as well) not everything is squeaky clean and money goes missing by the truckload.
I bought Final Draft in 2010, but it took five more years before I finished my first screenplay, A Brand New Year, which advanced to the Second Round at Austin that year. Something I now know (and told every Second Rounder I ran into at Austin) is a huge deal.
I haven’t finished the Afghanistan war story. Not yet. (But if anyone is curious, the film that manages to do the best job of depicting the truth of life in Kabul in the mid-late 2000s is Whisky Tango Foxtrot.)
I didn’t really start writing fiction, informed as it was by my own privileged life, until 2015. And that was interrupted by when I separated/divorced and became a crumpled recluse for a couple of years. (It was grim. Moved back to Canada from DC, changed my phone number and didn’t tell anyone.)
I was incapable of writing for a while, save notes for a memoir and handwritten scenes for a time-travel story I’m working on. Happy to say I’m back. I credit my business partner Mike Tsmidis, whom I met on a Facebook Group for screenwriters, for helping my return.
He was effusively grateful for my notes. Said it was really hard to get anyone to read his scripts. I’d already had experience reading specs, and early pandemic, began making time to support new writers by taking notes on their IPs. It wasn’t always welcome. I now refuse, unless I know a writer truly wants to improve their work.
For what it’s worth, when I read a new writer’s screenplay, I send their notes with a link to my article: How to deal effectively with notes on your screenplay
PSA: Some may ask since you aren’t produced, why are you giving advice, and why should we take it?
That’s a great question and I’m glad you named the elephant. I have several properties, including with cowriters… and currently have a couple of scripts being read by producers. But as you know, this is a long game.
One of my new AFF contacts asked me “What did you wish you knew?”
My response: That it would take 8-12 years to get produced.
But truth be told, the last couple of years I’ve done little work on my own properties in favor of helping other writers and developing the tactile outlining system. Not that I’m remotely in his category, but I point to Robert McKee, the beloved Hollywood screenwriting guru and author of two excellent bestselling books: Story and Dialogue and is finishing off his final set of teaching workshops this year. His own screenwriting history is less impressive than his teaching career.
I love being the wind beneath the wings of a capable writer who often just needs some encouragement and a little unlearning of ineffective habits. Nothing makes me happier than to see a writer I’ve coached excel.
PSA: Who are your favorite screenwriters?
Well, I write romcoms and dramedies, seriously influenced by Aaron Sorkin, on whom I have a giant intellectual crush. With a single quote, Mr. Sorkin has helped me a lot through what I used to perceive as ‘slow times’ or even times of blockage. He said: “Even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.” Those seven words have shown their impact many a time, when I may not be sitting at my laptop staring at a FD screen. And during what I now refer to as my ‘gap years’ post-divorce.
For pleasure, I appreciate Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror) I’ve lately been drawn to a number of British writers.
PSA: What SPs would you recommend we read?
I can’t answer that because it depends on your genre. Although I often read scripts I like to watch (e.g. sci-fi) even if I don’t write in the genre.
One of my new FB friends is a horror freak. She’s brilliant. I love her mind. But can’t read her scripts. Even though I should probably read the masters for their craft, I wouldn’t choose to read the Exorcist or The Fly …
In the book there are several links to sites to find great screenplays, and also links to specific scripts so writers know what a spec looks like, for example, compared to a shooting script (Sorry to Bother You, Written and Directed by Boots Riley.)
Lately I’ve been enthralled by the BBC Writers Room scripts because, unlike in the US, it’s easy to find the entire series, not just the pilot. And the writing is brilliant.
What I absolutely recommend every screenwriter do is to swap scripts whenever possible. Learn to give and receive notes. And if possible, to join a writers group where several of you can break down a script.
PSA: As a reader, what might make you want to stop by page 10? What has reading for AFF taught you?
Superb question Bev. When I offer to read for new writers, I tell them I’ll read five pages (or perhaps only one) to flag issues that will obviously repeat. Anyone with a little experience can tell from Page 1 whether the writer has a grasp of the craft.
AFF first level readers must certify they read the entire script before submitting the assessment notes, which include the decision to advance or not.
The vast majority of AFF entries I read this year were extremely well written. No grammar issues or even typos. Most of the time, I didn’t get bogged down in a story until the Act 2 turn. That’s where most of them fell apart, or around midpoint.
As Shane Black told an AFF panel last month: “This [screenwriting] is a very rarified and difficult art form.”
I only read 50 scripts this year, enough only to earn me a $375 Weekend Badge at the Festival ☺ So those of us who read for contests are clearly not in it for the money.
Of those 50, I advanced only four on my main pile, then was able to overturn one below-par reader’s “No” – which felt good to be part of a process that works. (For the record, all the other “No” confirmations were perfect, the notes suggesting extremely intelligent, helpful readers. That one reader had not read the script –a television spec, nor been familiar with the characters.)
I’m slow because I want to ensure I give the writer the same focused attention I would like for my own scripts. I spent an average of three hours on every IP. But I always knew a script wouldn’t make it by about page 40. Act 2 is a bitch. No getting around it. Stories I was immediately engaged in and desperately wanted to work, just pixelated and collapsed around midpoint.
Also, as a professional editor and former academic publications manager, I’ve spent years unlearning my attachment to perfection. Early on I’d get stuck fixing format and grammar errors and would not be able to read the story. I still advocate for perfection in those areas, to avoid any bumps. But I was tickled to have uncovered an imperfectly presented AFF entry that I was still able to advance because I recognized the story value. As I said, readers will not always be able to do this, so I would advise all writers to ensure their scripts are bulletproof in terms of formatting and language before submitting to any contest or read-request.
Also, don’t try any silly games or enter a non-standard length doc. For example, I did not read two scripts. One because it showed at 95 pages, but the writer had reduced the font size and narrowed the margins. Because I’m a print expert (super visual, I can spot a single extra space), I copied and pasted the script into Final Draft and noted to the reader and the contest supervisors that the writer was trying to pass off a 128 page script as 95 pages. Why not spend the effort editing the 8 pages.
Note: a 120-page script is a red flag too… even though it’s the max allowable, aim for 110. If you’ve unwillingly squeezed your story into 120 pages, it’s highly likely you’ve overwritten it.
The other script I didn’t read also had to do with length. It was 135 pages. I read the first two, in case I was wrong. Then sent the script back as non-compliant with the guidelines.
If you’re entering a contest, it makes sense to follow the rules. If you think you’re above them, or worse, as in the case of the margin fiddler, can manipulate them, probably best not to enter. You won’t make friends by disrespecting conventions.
As for timing, I’m not sure if the high numbers and reader burnout will mean a later announcement from AFF, but if that’s any indicator, it seems clearly worth waiting to ensure quality control. I know they had record numbers of entrants again this year.
Anyway, what I really wanted to tell you about today was an epiphany I had last night while reflecting on the high numbers of extremely well-written scripts that don’t advance to the Second Round.
This was my eureka! And it applies to more than screenplay contests.
Excellence is not enough.
And neither is ‘unique.’
What makes me sit up and notice are these: the exceptional, the extraordinary, and the surprising (not to be confused with the shocking).
PSA: I know you just returned from Austin. Anything new, good or bad, you’d like to tell us?
AFF is always a fantastic in-person experience. I’ve attended as a Second Rounder and this year, my first time, as a reader. I always love it and recommend any serious screenwriter to attend if you possibly can. Indeed, if your script advances you will be among kings.
I told some disappointed Second Rounders this year how hard that is to achieve. (In my case, I was able to advance less than 10% of the scripts I read.) Honestly, if I were a principal at a production company, I would send out my underlings to read the AFF Second Rounders for the past decade to find the gems that would otherwise be lost forever.
PSA: What are the requirements for being a contest reader?
I don’t know about other contests, but as a first level reader at AFF this year I had to take rigorous tests in each category I wanted to read. I had to read and evaluate each of the following: a comedy feature, family drama, comedy television pilot, one-hour drama tv pilot, and tv comedy spec.
We had to agree to read 15 scripts in a few weeks, then set our pace. They have a perfect interface that was easy to work with. Whenever we were ready for more scripts, we simply pushed a button and told them. If we were tired of a particular drama, it was easy to adjust what was incoming.
The AFF staff and volunteers are top drawer pros. It was an utter pleasure working with them.
PSA: Do you have any projects in development/options/not in the trash bin?
Scottie Thompson, my occasional cowriter, joined me at Austin this year and we’re currently dusting off our mother-daughter road trip script, WHAT WOULD ELENA DO. It’s a fun story of a trip to Peru concocted by their mutual friend, the eponymous Elena, who drops dead on a karaoke stage belting out My Way in scene 1. The estranged mom and daughter must scatter her ashes in Machu Picchu and end up, of course, burying their hatchet.
PSA: What is Badass Beat Boards? How is it different/better than what’s on the market?
Badass Beat Boards is a tactile system designed to help screenwriters outline their projects. Mike and I designed it to fill a gap. Final Draft and some others have digital systems, but we wanted tactile and reusable. Other systems, like Save the Cat, involve paper, as do DIY versions of postit notes on white board or index cards pinned to a cork board.
We tested all kinds of things, and eventually settled on a series of laminated guides that can be infinitely reused after writing with even permanent marker, using our special cleaning solution.
The website has a series of videos explaining each guide. There’s the Logline Matrix, the Conflict Chamber, Story Cycle, Character Profiler and more. We even have a Budget Board to help writers understand how to keep costs low.
But more than the writing system, we wanted to be a repository for curated material. Much like the book. For example, on our website under the tab Resources for Screenwriters, each topic will link to the best videos and articles around the web. We didn’t want to recreate what’s already out there. Just to help people find it.
Also, let me plug my Glossary. It’s the most complete screenwriting glossary available online with more than 650 screenwriting-specific terms, and I have another couple of dozen new ones to add. They show up in online forums, or I hear them on an NPR program, or from an entertainment attorney.
PSA: I can see how plotters would be attracted to the toolkit, but what about pantsers?
Pantsers are a rare breed of writer. In fact, I consider them utter geniuses. Shane Black told us at AFF that he thinks he might have made a revision on two scripts. I’m still trying to close my mouth.
Pure plotters love the Badass Beat Board Systems – That’s Mike. He loves to plan.
Moi, and I think most of us, are a mix of both. And I think that’s why so many scripts — even those that managed to get greenlit and we see on screen – flail around midpoint. Planning helps ensure your scenes connect logically, that you come in late and get out early, that each has a purpose etc.
PSA: Any idea when volumes 2 and 3 will be released?
Volume 2, which is really just a polish of the Chapter on Writing (especially The Tips – I really want to organize the words section so they are easier to find, and to add the full Glossary. That will be as useful as a print book because that section isn’t dependent on links. I expect to get that done by January, 2023
Volume 3 I’m hoping to issue in March or April, 2023, but for that one I’m dependent on other writers who will each write a chapter detailing something they are experts in, so it may be June before everyone has a chance to contribute, review, and sign off. I have identified willing experts in Reddit, The Trades, Twitter, Why go to Film School, and a couple of others. I would welcome any of your members who would like to contribute a chapter on an area they are experts in. I’d love a pitching expert, for example.
PSA: Should spec writers focus on trends or dream projects, or both?
I can only speak as a reader and to be honest, it’s hard to read a spec that reads like a blockbuster in that it’s too grand with so much CGI, so many fancy stunts and car races, special effects etc. that it will never be made… BUT, if the writer knows this and just wants to show their skills with what they deliberately designed and written as a sample script, go for it…
But the scripts you pitch have a better chance of ever getting greenlit if they are smaller in their cinematic ambitions.
PSA: Where do you see movies and series going with the streaming world changing daily? How should writers try to fit in?
This is just my opinion, of course, but I’m quite interested in exploring other opportunities for screenwriters such as dramatic radio production. In the US these are still referred to as podcasts, but they involve scripts, actors, sound effects engineers, musicians, and narration. They could also be an audio version of a book, but with the dialogue written into script form. Another potential area for screenwriters to explore is the on-line gaming world.
Since I tend to write what I’d like to see, I’m keen on limited series. Personally, I’d rather watch a six- or eight-episode series than seven 26-episode seasons of a television show I’ve never seen. But I haven’t owned a tv for years.
PSA: I’ve seen more and more requests for shorts in film and SP form. What’s up with that?
Excellent question. Again, my observations are as valid as yours are. I suspect this interest in shorts has to do with two things.
- Shorts are more accessible than they’ve ever been. Even the giant streamers offer them now. Twenty years ago, even 10, we had to go to film festivals to watch shorts. Now we can easily stream them on Youtube and Vimeo.
- We’re all aware of the hunger for video content. And shorts are a perfect vehicle for a writer to show their chops.
PSA: Anything else you’d like to share or warn us about?
“Warn” sounds ominous. ☺ I don’t have any warnings. But, there are several worthy areas I’m currently watching for new opportunities for screenwriters – like the gaming – that don’t immediately leap to mind, and not just for newbies.
I think everyone who decides to dip their toe into the world of writing for the screen automatically imagines their work appearing on a giant silver screen. Or at the very least on a large VOD streaming service. But there are so many other ways.
I don’t go into this in WIWIKAS, but intend to in subsequent volumes.
Thanks for sharing your valuable time, Pen. How can we find you?
My absolute pleasure Bev. I spend a good deal of time in the FB group Screenwriting, and a few others there, as mentioned in WIWIKAS. I’ve met so many terrific folks there, including you ☺
Please don’t ask me to read your early draft screenplays though, unless we already have a script-swapping relationship. Much as I would love to, I no longer have time beyond the occasional offers I post on FB. Also, and this was my problem at AFF, I’m a SLOW reader. I want to give 100% attention to a script.
For the rest of 2022, I’m working alongside my dear friend Nicholas Asheshov, an extraordinary human being, Cambridge anthropologist, and fabulous writer who began losing his sight nearly 50 years ago and went completely blind a decade ago. In spite of that, has written an opus – a thrilling trilogy that takes place in the high Andes. FORGOTTEN SECRETS tells the story of a matriarch tribe in the Amazon who fight for their sovereignty against government forces.
After that, I’m looking forward to working with a small group of writers who want to tell important stories well. I like to cast myself as a ‘writer encourager’ (Nick says writer “pusher” or “steerer” which both suit me fine too.) Bottom line, and ultimately why I wrote WIWIKAS, I want to do my small part to help storytellers elevate their game.
About Beverly Nault: Beverly Nault was a technical writer for an aerospace software company before she began writing creatively for publication. In 2011, her first novel, Fresh Start Summer, and memoir Lessons from the Mountain, What I Learned from Erin Walton, written with actor Mary McDonough, both released. Since then, Bev’s had ten novels and several short stories published. She’s been a freelance editor for fiction and non-fiction writers, a first reader for a literary agency, and staff acquisitions editor for the literary journal, Eastern Iowa Review. Bev lives in Mesa with her husband Gary where she dabbles in tennis, and excels at spoiling their three grandchildren.