I attended the Austin Film Festival this past weekend. My screenplay of Pennies from Burger Heaven made it to the second round of the AFF contest, with over 9,100 entries (read that post here: From Novel to Screenplay). It’s a huge honor, which granted me admission to special workshops and panels just for those who placed in the competition. Incredible!
I also entered the AFF pitch competition where I gave a 90-second pitch about Pennies to judges. I’ll tell you up front, I did not achieve my goal to make it to the finals again (I did that in 2005), but please don’t stop reading.
This post isn’t about writing. It’s about …
Living your life, the one playing out before you this very moment, amid the good, the bad, and the ugly that may be happening right now. Whether you’re a writer, a reader, or both – that skill is paramount to happiness.
The Austin Film Festival is a full week of amazing movies (classics and newcomers alike), while the conference is three-and-a-half, jam-packed days during that time. Hollywood directors, agents, producers, writers as our presenters. Jason Segal of How I Met Your Mother led a session. It’s impossible to attend everything. It’s so fun. It’s so exhausting.
Any conference goer can attend pitch sessions, but only those who signed up and paid $20 can take part. The 100 slots fill up fast, but they also have a waiting list for no-shows and if there’s extra time during each session. I want to compare my two pitch experiences.
Back then, I don’t even recall which day I pitched. You signed up for a session, but didn’t know your judges beforehand. That year, we met in a large theater with the two judges sat on a lighted stage, while everyone else stayed in the dimly lit auditorium.
There was no formal pitching order. They asked for volunteers each time. “Who wants to kick this off first?”
The theatre fell silent. I raised my hand. “I’ll go.”
People thought I was so brave. I wasn’t. I just wanted to be done with it.
The two judges were comedy writers. They were both funny and nice. We all relaxed and cheered each other on, but I still worried. I was pitching a ‘dramedy’ feature film (part drama, part comedy), called Beyond East & West.
My legs shook so hard inside my jeans. After I finished, one judge said, “Wow!”
“Yeah.” The other agreed.
They asked me a few questions, then that was that. I felt good. At the end of the session, they announced I was one of the two finalists!
That Saturday night, I was told I would go first of the 20 finalists. NO! Going first is the kiss of death because the judges aren’t warmed up yet. I did well talking into that blinding spotlight, but still wasn’t in the top three. I don’t even remember who won.
Here’s the most important part: Afterwards, I fell into despair for months, drowning in a shameful sea of not good enough. I knew my self-loathing was both extreme and irrational, but couldn’t stop myself. It was brutal. I don’t even recall what I did to make it better, but clearly I did because I signed up for the torture again …
This time, I saw all pitch judges online beforehand, so I chose the best pair for Pennies (a dramedy). I received an email the week before that my judges had been replaced with two comedy writers, but all the sessions were full. No switching. I didn’t worry since comedians sent me to the finals last time.
Walking through the doors that day, I saw a small classroom with about 40 chairs inside. Much cozier. They told me I was #3 in line. Yes!
I gave a great pitch. Yes, my legs trembled beneath my jeans again, but I didn’t forget my words, or stumble. Honestly, I don’t remember much, but I recall that audience seemed connected to my story.
Afterwards, the first judge asked, “Ummmm, why Burger Heaven?”
Oops. I forgot to explain that point, but it wasn’t central to the character’s growth, so I didn’t include it. Mistake.
The other judge said I presented well, asked a few clarifying questions, then I sat down. Several people whispered, “Good job,” but at the end of our 75 minutes, my name wasn’t called. The two finalists had pitched TV sitcoms.
No! I thought I’d make it back to the finals since I’d done it before. I couldn’t blame the judges, comedians sent me to the finals in 2005.
Fortunately, I left straight from there to have lunch with one of my college roommates whom I adore. As we walked down the street, we passed a man in an AFF volunteer T-shirt.
“Hey,” he yelled. We turned around. “You did a really good job back there.”
He must’ve worked my session. Yes! It wasn’t my imagination. I had done well. That man saved from torturing myself for the next several months.
Lesson: Compliments are free. When given sincerely, our words have the power to change someone’s day.
There were two afternoon sessions that day, with endless choices of what to attend. I went to one, then left. I drove straight to Book People, a huge, two-story, independent bookstore form some TLC. Pennies sat on one of the front display tables, so that made me feel better. I went straight to the café, ordered an almond milk chai latte and a chocolate chip cookie, then journaled like mad. I whined, I moaned, I groaned. I stayed two-and-a-half hours. I wasn’t 100% when I left, but felt better.
The next morning, I awoke refreshed. Another good sign. My breakthrough came at 9 am Saturday when I attended How to Turn Failures into Successes. I have so much to share about this (not just about writing) that my next post will be all about this session, but suffice it to say that the four writers (the TV show Empire, the movies The Hulk, National Treasure and Charlie’s Angels) had amazing wisdom. Stay tuned.
The answer for when you fail?
Keep going. Whether it’s writing, publishing, or life, the answer is to go back to your why? Why do you love . If you love it enough, you’ll keep trying. Again and again.
I floated from that workshop with my spirit renewed. I’d already planned to eat lunch with a childhood friend, then met another for coffee. By the end of the day, my Marcy mojo was back!
2016 Pitch Finals
That Saturday night, the room was packed. We watched 20 varied pitches: comedies, dramedies, bio-pics (biography movies), pure dramas. Fiction and nonfiction; TV shows and feature films alike. Some folks did better than others, but I admire everyone’s effort.
The AFF gave prizes for first, second and third place. Remember, the two people who beat me out to go to the finals? He won the entire competition with first place. She won third place, and apparently won it all last year.
I got beat by the best of the very best. I can 100% live with that.
It’s about Kindness, Man
Sometimes, we give it our all, yet, we still come up short. That’s hard because so many of us are taught — you work hard and it’ll pay off. Sometimes, you work hard, yet … the marriage ends, you don’t get that coveted promotion or the agency offers representation to another.
Probably the best thing about this pitch-competition experience compared to 2005 was how I responded to my so-called failure. I was 39 in 2005. Now, I’m 50. That’s just 11 years, but feels longer since I’ve touched over three decades since then.
It’s been a gift to see how much kinder I am to myself this time (a painful one, but a gift, nevertheless). On paper, it looks like 2005 was a bigger success, but I’m happier now. My family and friends are amazing. I’ve achieved my goal as a published novelist. Pennies is very well received and I’m hard at work on the sequel. I wrote a second-rounder in the AFF screenplay competition, and participated in their pitch competition, to boot.
Bonus, I like me so much more than I did back then. No self-loathing necessary.
I hope the same is true for you. If not, work on changing those critical voices inside your head. You’re the only one with you 24/7. You’re worth the effort.
How do you deal with disappointments in life?
Please leave comment. Let’s talk.
Pick up your FREE copy today of the mystery, The Moon Rises at Dawn (SkipJack Publishing). Read, enjoy, repeat.
Well done Marcy! You are much loved by your Creator anyway and irrespective of your successes and failures. It’s called unconditional love and it is what enables me to survive at 76 with the expectation that I will write a successful novel at last – and not a moment too soon!
Beautiful, beautiful, Christopher. It’s cheesy, but I truly was a success the moment I stepped up to do my pitch because I was willing to RISK myself! Good luck on your novel!
Marcy you are such an inspiration to me! I love how you just go for it. It’s not enough to write a successful and entertaining novel but you pushed yourself to pitch it as a screenplay. And then got beat out by the top competition. And then you didn’t beat yourself up about it. That’s the best part!!
I struggle when my writing group doesn’t “get” my writing submissions. I’ve started journaling about my frustration; when that’s out of my system I put it aside and start writing again. And yes, I do take into consideration their comments and my writing is better for it. As a result, I am on my third major rewrite of the beginning of an outline for NaNoWriMo!! Better get my butt in gear (I’m fighting the pantser in me)….
Thanks so much, Karen. You always make me feel like such a rock star! Don’t get me wrong, I STILL wish I’d made it to the finals and won, but I’m not treating myself like an ax murderer like I did last time.
I’m glad your journaling your frustrations because you have EXCELLENT ideas. I still think about one of your stories…one with a creepy house. You have high-concept ideas. Don’t let your group discourage you because you have big abilities inside you. I believe it. xo – m3
PS – Karen. I’ve ALWAYS been a pantser. If not, I’d still be staring at blank Excel spreadsheet for Pennies #2. It’s work OKAY for 200 pages. I’ll have a lot to clean up, but 380 messy pages are better than NONE. 🙂
PPS. Seriously, I do not “SEE” my book until I start changing. I sort of knew the major plot points, but big deal? That still mean another 320 pages where I needed to fill in the blanks leading up to those points.
Bottom line: Be the writer who you are. Plan as much as you can, then do your best in NaNoWriMo.
Karen, I agree with Marcy. There’s nothing wrong with being a pantser. Marcy will tell you that up until a couple weeks ago, I was going to run with the 3rd book in my series instead of the 2nd, because I had a clearer idea of what that story would be. Yep, I’m weird like that. Thankfully the briefest, bullet pointed outline started being put together last week. It’s still a jumble and I’m trying to make sense of it LOL. I wanted to start a deeper outline this week, but instead have started with whichever scene jumps out at me and actually wrote the final paragraph before I’d done anything else. Crazy! 🙂
Mrs. Marcy McKay… you ARE a winner in so many of our eyes! Not only that, but you’re incredible. You’re an inspiration. And a whole heap more positive adjectives besides those!
I, for one, couldn’t have done what I’ve done over the last few years without you. Initially here on your blog and for the last year or so connected away from here. Connected by heart and shared dreams. I’m honored to be your friend and I’m so freakin’ proud of you, young lady!
Thank you isn’t enough… but thank you for your encouragement. Thank you for your love and friendship. And more importantly… thank you for being YOU!
I love ya
You’ve warmed my heart sooooo very precious. THANK YOU, precious Em. I’ll take the whole heapin’ helpin’ of adjectives and hang up to them. You’ve made my day!
Oh, darlin’ I mean every word. Every single one of them. You are sooooo precious! You’ve made my day too!
YAY! It’s a regular Love Fest here. Now! Both of us get back to writing our other books! xoxoxo
Funny you should mention that… I’m 3 days into the next one. Was planning to do some more outlining, but just ran with a scene that started screaming at me (remember those childlike terms I think of lol). I’m not writing chronologically this time. Not for now at least, but will in about a week or so…
Great job, Marcy! There is nothing wrong with being beaten by the best. In my experience, going up against the best means that I’ve come away with a standard of who/what I want to be.
Be proud of what you’ve done. Not many people would get up in front of a group of people they don’t know and talk about what makes their work special. 🙂
That’s a great way of thinking about it, Mollie. Thank you! And you’re right. I learned so much from watching those 20 finalists that I came home and rewrote my pitch to make it better.
It’s powerful to say that even though I’m still disappointed I lost, I’m proud that I did it and would do that week again (even knowing the outcome). The knowledge + experience it gave me is invaluable. TY!
Paul S Vigil
Good job! Keep trying.
I know you’ve heard of people who were “overnight successes”. When these people are interviewed concerning their newfound success it comes to light that it wasn’t overnight. The work was long and hard.
You’re going to get there. Don’t give up on your dream.
Paul Vigil (1984!), what an honor to see you here. You’re so right. Rarely is an overnight success that sudden rush to fame.
I so, so appreciate you taking time out to cheer me on. Means the world to me.
Congratulations, Marcy! I understand failure. I submitted my manuscript to Reader’s Favorite. Then, right before the results were in, I pitched the same novel in Pitch Wars and failed miserably in Both contests! I was Devastated! I am ashamed to say I beat myself up horribly for a month. I was just about to give up when a Freelance editor contacted me and offered me some advice for enhancing my overly large manuscript. She was so kind, so encouraging, I felt that I had to continue, to make my book better. Taking her advice through an article she sent, I am back at my book. One day, it Will be ready for publication. Until then, I will try to remain positive and hopeful.
One little note to an aspiring author can change the course of their lives. Thank you for keeping things positive! 🙂
So proud of you, Marcy, for taking on your demons face-to-face! You did it! Keep on meeting those challenges and you will succeed! In the meantime, I am so looking forward to Copper’s next journey!!
Sweet Emily. Thanks so much for your faith in me + love for Copper Daniels. Folks like YOU keep fueling me to press on. 🙂
Marcy this is great. I love the “compliments are free”. Proud to be your Aunt T. Love you kid!!
It was a painful, but powerful week. I love you, too, Aunt Tricia.
What I hear you saying is that the only success over which we have control is the risk we take and the effort we make; the rest is in the hands of others. I also hear something that resonates with Martin Meadows’s book, “Confidence,” and the distinction he draws between self-esteem (your sense of self-worth) and self-efficacy (your sense of your ability in a given domain). No matter the endeavor, we must remember that our results are often in the hands of others, and neither success nor failure declare our value as people.
WOW, Bruce. I LOVE this, “The only success over which we have control is the risk we take and the effort we make; the rest is in the hands of others.”
This speaks to me so very much. Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking time to share it with me.
Good luck to YOU in your successes and failures. m3
Adan Ramie (@AdanRamie)
Congratulations on your second try! It’s hard to try again when you’re met with a wall. I’m glad that the eleven-year interim taught you a lesson in resilience. Try, try again. Your writing is AMAZING.
Thanks, Adan. It’s now been over a month since the Austin Film Festival, and the hurt has lessened even more. YES, I still wish things had turned out differently, but such is life. I appreciate your comment.