Now that we’ve called a wrap on 2020, a year that maybe wasn’t the worst in history but sure felt like it, I want to take stock of what I accomplished over the prior 12 months. While the pandemic impacted everything, many aspects of my life marched along with minimal disruption.
I still wrote movies. I still made software, worked out, and played a surprising amount of D&D.
Basically, a lot of normal happened despite the abnormal circumstances. It’s worth evaluating those parts of 2020 that were under my control.
In his annual reviews, James Clear asks three questions:
- What went well this year?
- What didn’t go so well this year?
- What did I learn?
Let’s see what we find.
My two big writing projects for 2020 were Toto and Upstate.
Toto, an animated retelling of The Wizard of Oz, has been charmed from the start. Writing it felt like remembering. It went from treatment to script to greenlight in orderly fashion. With normal production upended by the pandemic, we found new ways to do things that blended animation and theater workflows.
Upstate, a Netflix comedy with Ryan Reynolds, is a wildly different movie but has also benefited from being the right idea and the right place at the right time.
For both Toto and Upstate, I wrote detailed treatments before starting on the first draft. In the past, I’ve never found treatments to be all that useful, but in both cases the treatments helped me and my collaborators understand the shape of the movie we were discussing. Doing this work staved off some painful decisions down the road. For 2021, I suspect I’ll be writing more treatments.
The end of Arlo, for now
For the first time in four years, I didn’t need to write a book in 2020. All three Arlo Finch novels are out in the wild, both in the US and overseas.
It’s hard to overstate what a change it is to be freed from the thousand-words-a-day treadmill of writing a novel, much less a trilogy. For four years, I felt like I was always behind — that anything I was choosing to do that wasn’t writing or revising Arlo Finch was cheating. To be finished is a huge relief.
At the same time, I miss that daily work. It was great to have a clear purpose and plan: sit in the chair, write the words, keep going. While I’ve always felt like a writer, working on the books made me feel like an artisan, a potter at the wheel. I couldn’t wait around until inspiration struck. I needed to throw some damn pots.
With the books finished, I took a lot of meetings about turning Arlo Finch into a movie or TV series. Deals were proffered and scuttled. I think there’s a decent chance there will ultimately be an Arlo Finch on screen, but I can’t predict when, and it’s not a top priority for me.
A quick no is better than a slow maybe
The Arlo Finch meetings were part of a larger narrative in 2020 in which I pitched projects with mixed success.
Early in the year, I made a deal with a Well-Known Rights Holder to create a limited event series based on their material. In the spring, we went looking for a home for it. We took meetings with all the streamers and got offers that never quite became signed deals. Twice, the executives we pitched to left their companies before business affairs started making a deal. It was a very slow process that still hasn’t finished.
In the fall, I tried again with a feature animation pitch based on a terrific short film by an international team. We got a lot of yesses on Zoom but no offers. It was the kind of project that animation folks always talk about wanting to make: mid-budget, unique, very culturally specific. But that was always from the creative side of the studio. The money people wanted something that could easily play to the traditional family audience.
Basically, more Toto, less Frankenweenie.
And on some level, I should have known that going in. The project was always a longshot, but I convinced myself that multiple buyers really could make it.
One important difference between the two experiences: on the animation project, we got to “no” quickly. I’ve come to really appreciate execs who can say, “I like this. I get it. We just can’t make it here.”
The Zoom of it
Because of the pandemic, all of these pitches were on Zoom. Honestly? Pitching virtually was great. We could meet with six buyers in a week, and I didn’t miss driving all over town. We could rehearse and show slides, and not worry about making eye contact with the one key person in the room. Post-pandemic, I suspect a lot of these meetings will remain on Zoom.
Looking back, I spent too much of 2020 pitching, especially considering I didn’t control the underlying IP. Had these been my own properties, I could have decided to simply write them myself.
Right after the new year, there’s a project I’m going to pitch to the one buyer who could conceivably make it. If they say yes, great! If they say no, I can scratch it off the list. Again, a quick no is better than a slow maybe.
The other theme I’m using to guide my choices in 2021 is Hell Yeah or No. If a project comes my way and I’m only mildly interested, I’m going to say no faster. (Basically my internal version of avoiding the slow maybe.)
One project that had zero forward movement this year was The Shadows, a movie I’m planning to direct with a blind hero, played by a blind actor. From the start of the pandemic, it became very clear that the challenges of filming it safely were insurmountable until we’re safely back in a normal production universe.
Going back to our initial questions:
What went well: – Writing scripts – Starting with treatments – Taking meetings on Zoom
What didn’t go so well: – Pitching other people’s IP – Self-delusion
What I learned: – A quick yes is better than a slow maybe – Focus on words written – Remember Hell Yeah or No
The Apps and Other Company Projects
My company Quote-Unquote makes digital things like Highland 2 and Weekend Read, along with atom-based products such as t-shirts and Writer Emergency Pack.
We made steady progress in 2020, both in terms of revenue and features. In addition to incremental improvements on our main products, we did a lot of behind-the-scenes work setting up for what’s coming next.
Highland 2 is mature. Currently at version 2.9.5, we won’t be adding any new features to it. Instead, we will fix the bugs that invariably pop up because of OS changes, and make sure Highland for Mac stays compatible with the iOS version of Highland currently in development.
Likewise, Writer Emergency Pack is mature. It still sells well, especially at Christmas.
This year, Highland 2 and Writer Emergency Pack have offered useful lessons about supply chains, both in and out of a pandemic.
Highland is available only through the Mac App Store. It’s a free download, with a $50 in-app purchase to unlock the Pro version and remove the watermark. We qualify for Apple’s new Small Business Program, so for 2021, Apple will only take a 15% commission rather that 30%.
(For folks doing the math, I’ll confirm: our apps generate less than $1 million per year in proceeds, which is why we’re eligible for the discounted commission.)
One of our goals for 2020 was to get more screenwriting students using Highland. We want the next generation of screenwriters to think of Highland as the way screenwriting apps “should” work rather than Final Draft.
With that aim, we added a Student edition, which is essentially Highland Pro but with an expiration date. Students still download the app off the Mac App Store, but rather than purchasing the upgrade, they enter their pre-approved email address which we’ve gotten from their writing professor.
This new system worked, mostly. We now have around two thousand student users at writing programs around the world. But the system we built for adding students is cumbersome and requires way too much staff supervision. For 2021, we’re greatly streamlining it.
We learned a similar lesson in 2020 with Writer Emergency Pack, trying to reduce the number of steps and intermediaries.
In the US, we sell WEP on Amazon through Fulfilled by Amazon. You click the yellow button and comes directly from Amazon’s warehouse along with everything else. Around the holidays, we had a hard time staying in stock this year because of Amazon’s COVID-related inventory restrictions. I don’t know that there’s anything we could have done differently or better. We kept sending new cases to Amazon every three days, trying to stay in stock but below our limit.
In both the US and overseas, we also sell WEP directly from our website. This is where we made bigger changes.
Our system is based around Shopify. When someone buys a deck, Shopify handles the billing and then generate an order for outside fulfillment service. For years, we used Shipwire as our warehouse/fulfillment partner. They were ultimately the wrong place for us: way too expensive, too opaque, too hard to control. For 2020, we decided to flatten our supply chain by shipping directly from our printers in Florida. Now when you buy a deck through our site, it comes directly from the folks who printed it.
The other area where we made changes in 2020 was our user community. We opened a Slack for our Pro users, and hired a new team member to take over customer support emails.
On a tech level, we updated Highland 2 to run natively on Apple new M1 and did a lot of behind-the-scenes work in SwiftUI for upcoming products. We also tried a few moonshots: wild experimental projects just to see what’s possible. I’m happy to report that one of these will ship soon. It has that “wouldn’t it be cool if…” feeling that makes software fun.
As a company, we tend to be early adopters on new Apple stuff. For SwiftUI we definitely hit some rough patches where it wasn’t clear if the issue was us or the language. But I’m glad we stuck with it. The software we’re shipping this year and next will definitely benefit from what we’ve learned.
What went well: – Flattening our supply and distribution chain – Signing up students – Pushing updates – Engaging with power users
What didn’t go so well: – Keeping stuff in stock – Shipping new things
What we learned: – Asking, “What if it were simpler?” – Any process that requires a human is worth reconsidering – Think twice before rolling your own solution
Scriptnotes continued its weekly release schedule through 2020, with a few video events to make up for the lack of in-person live shows.
We moved our premium subscriptions to a new service (Supporting Cast) and raised the monthly price from $1.99 to $4.99, which included access to all the back episodes and special bonus segments at the end of every episode. We also started putting out the premium episode the night before the normal episode drops.
Even at the higher price point, we have roughly the same number of premium subscribers (3,500) as we did before the switch. Craig and I don’t earn any money from the show, but the subscriptions nearly cover the salaries of our producer, editor and transcriber.
In 2019, a major focus of the show was improving Hollywood’s traditionally abysmal assistant pay. This year, the pandemic quickly shut down the industry, leading to massive layoffs. #PayUpHollywood had to quickly pivot to helping support staff simply pay rent and buy groceries. Craig and I donated and raised more than $500,000 through GoFundMe to provide direct relief for staff.
Raising the money proved much easier than getting it out the door. With the help of unemployed production accountants, the team was able to cut checks, but the logistics were still daunting. It reminded me of my experience with Writer Emergency Pack on Kickstarter. Congratulations! You now have $158,109 and 5,714 different problems to solve.
Ultimately, the Actors Fund took over the ongoing back-end work of getting the last of the money out.
If I had to do it again, I would have gone to the Actors Fund from the start and set up a special campaign. GoFundMe is great for pulling money in, but any roll-your-own system for distributing it is perilous.
This fall, we started having producer Megana Rao read listener questions on air. It felt like a good change, in part because she could ask follow-up questions as a proxy for the audience.
In terms of guests, we consciously tried to bring on more new voices — especially female, Black, and members of underrepresented communities — rather than relying on longtime friends of the show. There are big areas of film and TV writing that Craig and I don’t work in, so it’s great to talk with folks who do. That said, we don’t want to become a guest-of-the-week show, so it’s always about finding a balance.
One thing that’s become clear is that our Tuesday morning release schedule pushes work onto the weekend. We may revisit that for 2021.
What went well: – The switch to the new premium service – New guests – Small format tweaks
What didn’t go so well: – The video episodes felt kludgey
What I learned: – It’s easier to raise money than to distribute it – Think twice before rolling your own solution
Organization and Getting Things Done
Earlier in the year, I wrote about my Daily Lists, the little quarter-folded sheets that have proven indispensable for me. I’ll keep using them.
Likewise, I’ll keep writing in 60-minute sprints. It’s the way I work best.
In 2020, I started keeping a stack of blank index cards on the bedside table. If I have a late night thought — an idea or reminder of something I need to do — I’ll grab a card, scribble it down and put the card on the floor by the door. That gets it out of my head and into a system for dealing with it.
I haven’t found a great system for that 10,000-foot view of personal projects and goals. (This summary is a stab at that.)
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying out Roam as a space for brain-dumping. It’s still early days, but so far I like it. The initial outline for this blog post was put together inside it.
What went well: – Daily lists – Writing sprints
What didn’t go so well: – Evaluating longer-term goals and plans – Finishing things
What I learned: – Habits are better than goals – Don’t mistake the system for the product
Fitness and Health
This is the easiest one to measure. I worked out nearly everyday. I consistently filled my rings on my Apple Watch. I lost nine pounds and gained three back over the holidays.
In 2019, I ran a half-marathon. I didn’t run any races in 2020, and ran less outdoors as the pandemic got worse. My total running mileage was about half what it was in 2019, although I did more interval work on the treadmill.
I got a Peloton bike at the end of 2019. I rode just over 1,000 miles in 2020. I pushed myself to beat personal records, figuring that if I was meeting or beating my best output, I couldn’t possibly have COVID.
Is that “healthy?” I dunno. But it was very honest 2020 energy, and it got the workouts in.
In addition to the bike, I liked the Peloton digital classes. I did the four-week strength class, which was nicely designed. In recent weeks, I’ve been trying out Apple Fitness+. The classes are well constructed, and the on-screen data from Apple Watch is smartly handled.
I haven’t been to a real gym since March. I miss it less than I would have expected. I definitely do miss the Hollywood Boulders climbing gym, and look forward to going back once that’s safe.
I used to be a vegetarian. Then I started eating poultry and fish. These days, I try to eat a mostly plant-based diet. Each week we get a box from Purple Carrot with three or four vegan meals to cook, and they’re thoroughly tasty.
In 2020, I stopped eating breakfast on weekdays, which could be considered Intermittent Fasting or Time-Restricted Eating. Basically, I have black coffee and plenty of water until lunch. I eat all of my calories between noon and 9pm, except on weekends.
The science is decidedly mixed on whether these diets are a good idea. For anyone prone to an eating disorder, I’d urge caution. But in my own experience, it was surprisingly easy to do after a rough first week. It’s helped me to distinguish between “hungry” and “bored.”
While most of our meals were cooked at home this year, I didn’t eat especially healthy. Many cookies were eaten.
Other than my regular colonoscopy — my family’s history of colon cancer means I need to have one every three to five years — I didn’t have any of my normal medical appointments this year. Once the infection rate drops I do want to get my normal checks for cholesterol and the like.
Between the election, the pandemic and the protests following the killing of George Floyd, it was a stressful year. I tried to watch how much I checked Twitter, and to stop looking at news altogether after 8pm. That helped, but c’mon. This year was scary.
After years of being a sporadic Headspace user, in 2020 I took off my headphones and instead got a good cushion and a quiet corner. I meditated for about 10 minutes every night before bedtime, and it really helped. When I meditate, I zone out so completely I can’t remember my name.
Likely related: I slept surprisingly well this year given :gestures at everything:. It also helped that I kept a regular bedtime (around 11pm) and woke up later once my daughter’s school went virtual.
What went well this year? – Working out at home – Regularly meditating – Turning off the news
What didn’t go so well this year? – Limiting sweets and bad carbs – Normal medical visits
What did I learn? – Not every tingle is COVID – The discs in your spine need time to hydrate after sleeping. So don’t rush ‘em.
I didn’t have any particular reading goals in 2020. I read a pretty wide assortment of books, including the following:
Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley Amazon / Bookshop
Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life by Sissela Bok Amazon / Bookshop
Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox Amazon / Bookshop
Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein Amazon / Bookshop
The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood Amazon / Bookshop
The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together by Brennan Barnard, Rick ClarkAmazon / Bookshop
What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel Amazon / Bookshop
The Day It Finally Happens: Alien Contact, Dinosaur Parks, Immortal Humans—and Other Possible Phenomena by Mike Pearl Amazon / Bookshop
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino Amazon / Bookshop
The 99 Percent Invisible City by Roman Mars, Kurt Kohlstedt Amazon / Bookshop
I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are by Rachel Bloom Amazon / Bookshop
I re-read Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History by Matthew White Amazon / Bookshop for the third time. In times of great upheaval, I find it comforting to know things have been much, much worse.
I’m putting up links for Amazon and Bookshop, but I generally buy my books from Chevalier’s on Larchmont in Los Angeles. I hosted an online event for them over the summer.
What went well: – Bedtime reading
What didn’t go so well: – Reading at almost any other time of day
What I learned: – Most local bookstores can get almost anything you want in a day or two. So support your local bookstore!
In the late spring, I made a conscious effort to set up FaceTimes and Zooms to talk with a few friends I’d normally have lunch with. It was great to catch up. I wish I’d done more of it, and will make it a priority for the new year.
In the summer, we had backyard, socially-distant drinks and dinners with three friend couples. Again, it was lovely to see people. By the time Thanksgiving came around, that wasn’t particularly safe, so our holiday meals went back to Zoom.
The one area in which the pandemic has surprisingly improved things is D&D. My group used to play in-person every few weeks. We’ve now moved online, using Zoom and Roll20. We’re playing every week and I’m eating a lot less junk food.
Our friend Tom commissioned Gedeon Cabrera for this illustration of our D&D group:
Craig and I recorded a five-part YouTube series on getting set up as a DM in Roll20.
One thing I noticed early in the pandemic is the collapsing distinction between “local” and “distant” friends. If we’re hanging out on Zoom, it really doesn’t matter if we’re in the same city.
What went well: – D&D on Zoom/Roll20 – Adapting to changing safety standards
What didn’t go so well: – Keeping up with lunch friends
What I learned: – It’s weird how the pandemic has flattened distance
I’ll end my wrap-up with family time, which constituted the majority of my hours in 2020. We were within 100 feet of each other for nine months of the year.
Fortunately, me family is good at spending a lot of time together. Our year living in Paris, along with a lot of other travel over years, definitely gave us a head start on learning to live in lockdown.
We took two family roadtrips in 2020. The first was to Colorado to see family (at a distance). The second was to Yosemite. These trips were by far the most time we’d spent in a car together, but luckily we all enjoy the Hamilton cast album.
From the start of the pandemic, I worried about my 84-year-old mom, who was living in a senior community in Boulder. Since she couldn’t socialize with her friends, I FaceTimed with her every day at lunch. We’d traditionally been on a once-a-week schedule, but moving to daily calls genuinely improved our relationship by taking the pressure off. We didn’t have to go deep. We could talk about anything or nothing, and I could really see how she was doing day-to-day.
My mom died fairly suddenly at the start of December. It sucked. Many the normal things one faces with the death of a parent were upended by the pandemic. There was no funeral, no reception, no sitting around in her apartment reminiscing. In many ways, she simply vanished.
Fortunately, I’m close with my brother and his family. We’ve been able to share the workload, and our relationship was never entirely about our mom. Still, 2021 is going to be weird and different without her.
What went well: – Lockdown, all things considered – Car trips – FaceTiming with my mom
What didn’t go so well: – A death during a pandemic
What I learned: – Frequency of contact can be as important as depth
This post ended up being much, much longer than I expected — which was also true of 2020. It felt like a decade rather than a year.
As I write this, we’re a week in 2021. It’s already had wild peaks and valleys. But I remain bullish on the overall direction of the country, the world and the things that matter to me.
I don’t know that I’ll write one of these updates every year, but the process of accounting for what I did in 2020 has been helpful for organizing my principles for 2021. I recommend this exercise to anyone struggling to move beyond resolutions to real progress.