Robert Rodriguez List

Meet people. That’s the smartest thing a writer can do. And talk to them. You could be amazed at what you learn.


Jester Timm Gillick

A few years ago, I met Jester Timm Gillick, an Indie film-producer and host of WTVP’s “The Screening Room,” in Peoria. I have learned a lot from Timm. Among other things, he introduced me to the Robert Rodriguez List.

The Robert Rodriguez List is a simple concept. When you come across something interesting, make a note. You never know when it might come in handy.

In the case of Rodriguez, it was generally film locations. You know Robert Rodriguez, whether you know him or not. Among his long list of credits, he produced the four “Spy Kids” movies.

Apparently, the name of the Robert Rodriguez List was coined by someone else. I have been repeatedly corrected, by the way, that it is ALWAYS called the “ROBERT” Rodriguez List. Just so you know.

The Robert Rodriguez list consists of notes about memorable vehicles, homes, animals and props. Rodriquez then creates a screenplay based on a list of these interesting things. It has obviously been a very successful technique for him considering he has 24 filmography writing credits, according to IMDB.

The first question most people have is what is the best way to keep track of your list. My well-researched answer is that there isn’t a best way.

Use what works for you. Evernote. Sticky-notes. Google Docs.

hackI rely on fact, even when I write fiction. I photograph locations similar to what I want to include in a story. It helps to realize where the alley might be, where the nearest bus stop might be, or whether it is likely the sun could shine through a particular window.

If nothing else, keep it in your head. But, give some thought to creating your own Robert Rodriguez List.



Serially, folks

Lists. They are everywhere on the internet. 7 Ways to Do This and 15 Ways Not To Do That. Are they effective?

I have created several series. The first was a few titles in Holly Lisle’s 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About… series.

I revisited the series concept when I wrote for Genealogy Today. My first series for GT was about databases. I happen to love a good database. But, I discovered that most people leave a lot of the fields blank when they use a database software program like Live Roots™ and so on.

Those fields are important. Let’s say you find two different people with the same name as your grandfather in one of the census enumerations. If you know that grandpa was a jeweler, then he probably wasn’t a coal miner or a chimney sweep. So, it can be really wise to fill in all the blanks.

As databases are shared more online, I found the issue even more frustrating. I would find really good data—but some piece of information would be missing. I really wanted to see a complete profile for every single person.

I wrote a dozen articles about databases, in serial format. Even as you read this, dear readers, I see some of your eyes glassing over.

Yes, I needed to generate some enthusiasm for reading the series. So I came up with “The Compleat Genealogical Database” and wrote a separate article on the 12 most common fields that really should contain data.

The Compleat Genealogical Database: Legal Events
The Compleat Genealogical Database: Property Ownership
The Compleat Genealogical Database: Death Data
The Compleat Database: Life Events
The Compleat Database: Education
The Compleat Database: Cultural Affinities
The Compleat Database: Citizenship Matters
The Compleat Database: DNA and Health
The Compleat Database: Non-traditional Relationships
The Compleat Genealogy Database: Compleat Names
The Compleat Genealogy Database: Names
The Compleat Genealogy Database: Religious Affiliations

Later, I wrote another series on The Genealogy of Communities. The focus there was on different groups of society, like logging camps. Yes, really. You can find the names of people who lived and worked in logging camps. That just might explain why 20-year-old Bobby was missing from the census that year. He was off in the wilderness felling trees.

The Genealogy of Communities
Genealogy of Communities: Logging Camps
Genealogy of Communities: Fishing Camps
Genealogy of Communities: Seminaries and Other Educational Communities
Genealogy of Communities: Indian Reservations
Genealogy of Communities: Prisons
Genealogy of Communities: Asylums, Hospitals, and Sanitariums
Genealogy of Communities: Prostitution
Genealogy of Communities: Faith-Based Communities
Genealogy of Communities: The Utopias
Genealogy of Communities: Intentional Community in the Next Century

So, what’s the point of a serial?

Serial readers. You want to keep your readers reading.

Tell me more.

In the articles I wrote, I had a process. I would list my topics ahead of time, before I ever started writing.

I am not that particular about the number of topics. There may be something magic to the number 7 or 13. But, I don’t actually do a count. I have read some research on this subject and have yet to read anything that says a specific number guarantees readers. I am more concerned with being thorough.

The Genealogy of Communities, had a nice flow. It began with an article that introduced the series. The name of that article became part of the title for every individual article. That way, if anyone remembered the words Genealogy of Communities and wanted to find my articles again, they could Google Genealogy of Communities.

As I wrote each article, I created a link to the previous one. That way, I could guide any reader to the previous article, just in case they started in the middle of the serial.

It’s possible to mention what your next topic is, as you are writing. But, you don’t usually have a live link to add yet. But, you can add a live link to the previous article.

When I finished the series, I went back to every single article and added live links to every article in the series. I was just being thorough.

Other Articles In This Series: 

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.


I am a practical writer. I wanted to link to the article before and the article after each one. But, I also wanted readers to know the entire list of articles and how to find them.

The value of a serial is to keep readers reading. Not only do you need to add new material, you need to make sure your readers can find it.


Binge-watching has had an impact on society. It is a new way of presenting the serial concept in one big dose. Instead of waiting for a weekly edition—and maybe missing it—now we can watch at our leisure. A new innovation is the release of an entire season all at one time. Order up the pizza and send all calls to voicemail.

A lot of writers create series. Readers like the characters or the story or the topic, and they want more.

Generally, writers release one book, make a big splash, go back to writing, release another…. But, recently, as a guest at a meeting of Writers on the River, in East Peoria, Illinois, I was surprised to hear author Amanda Meredith say that she prefers to wait until all of the books in a series are complete before she releases the series.

I think Amanda may be ahead of the curve. What’s good for Netflix is good for… writers?

wotrPhoto from Facebook. Writers on the River. Jessica Ann Clements, Amanda Meredith, Mandee Wallace Shanklin, Melinda Huff Bones,Anya Breton, Aly Grady and Judy Rosella Edwards ( a/k/a Think::Fast::Write::Fast).


hackAnother idea for a series is to repackage several monographs, like Amazon Short Reads, into a single volume as a collector’s edition. Maybe even sell it as a hardcover (yes, I’m talking about again).

Serial writing can be a good thing. It keeps readers on board. It can help you organize your writing. You have options: publish individually, or publish all at once for your binge-readers. And, you can still order out for pizza.


First things last

Sometimes the first thing we write needs to be last. In my case, an opening paragraph is the last thing I write.

When I was a newspaper reporter, I discovered, much to my dismay, that I was incapable of writing opening paragraphs. I had an editor, sitting just a few feet away in the pit, who always sighed when he opened digital copy of my stories. I knew what that meant. Once again, I fell short of the mark and my work was crying for a stellar opening paragraph.

I also knew what would happen next. He would start typing.

Read. Sigh. Type. Every article, every day.

And, in that newsroom, my load was three articles a day. That was a lot of humiliation.

My humiliation became a motivator. I was truly embarrassed that I was missing the target every single time. What was worse was that I actually thought I was writing respectable opening paragraphs.

In retrospect, I had the world’s most tolerant editor. He kept me on. He believed in my ability enough to tolerate my glaring weakness. He very gently mentioned to me a couple of times that I needed an opening paragraph. And, then he typed it in. After all, we were always on deadline.

Humiliated, I was determined to do better. I did a comparison of every single story I had written, holding each one up against my editor’s version. In every single instance, my editor’s version, with an extra paragraph, was much better.

I wanted to protest. I wanted to insist that I was convincing myself that the edited version was better merely out of respect for my supervisor. But, no, I had to admit it. His version was better.

I learned two lessons from that experience. The first lesson is one that holds up to this day.

Every single time I have been edited, it has been for the better. It is still difficult to part with my version.

I work hard to pen my work. But, yes, a second set of eyes was a good thing and it still is. In fact, in that newsroom,  two humans edited every story we wrote before it was released to the public.

The second, and perhaps the more important lesson, I learned was how to write a good opening paragraph. Everyone needs a technique. For some people, I do believe it is organic. For me? I have to focus. I needed a technique, a process, a method.

The interesting thing was that both editors kept what I thought was my opening paragraph. They didn’t replace it. They just added the missing opening paragraph.

I developed the technique of writing my opening paragraph last. I write that way to this day. And, editors are thrilled.

I cannot tell you how great it felt the day when my editor opened one of my news articles—and I heard no sigh, followed by typing. He read it. He almost smiled. He put it back in the queue for the second editing.

That was the day I knew I could write. No, that was the day I knew I could author.

Until that time, I had merely been writing words and good, but incomplete, copy. I was never told my copy was not good. It was just incomplete. I had such a tendency to leap into the story. I was missing that first paragraph that would grab the reader.

My editor had patiently gone through every story, crafting that missing opening that should have been there. So I mimicked what they were doing. I wrote the opening after everything else was done.

Anyone can write words. I could type words from the dictionary and still not be an author. I was merely a writer. That day, I became an author.

We all have to start somewhere. This is my story about how I learned to write the first thing last.


Writers who opt not to write

Not all writing is written. I have a client who is a public speaker, in the process of penning his autobiography.

I want to see his autobiography as words on a page. But, is writing it the best way to accomplish that? My advice is for him to narrate his story. This client does a remarkable job of preserving his unique writer’s voice in his writing, plus he’s just a verbal person with a great audible voice.

If your voice loses its unique flair when you write down the words, try narrating.

My favorite tool is a handheld RCA VR5320R, which I have had for years. I love it so much that I have not felt compelled to replace it. I just keep using it. It just keeps working.

It is especially great because it has a USB and I have had success with software automatically “typing,” if you will, the audio files. Translated, software will type the words so you don’t have to.

I would recommend something a bit more sound-sensitive, if you are really going to record your book. If you have access to a recording studio, all the better!

hack  A number of self-publishing distribution streams offer audio books. In addition to creating print or digital books, consider narrating the final version of a book especially if your voice deeply connects with your readers or if you already have an audience who is likely to have heard you speak in person. You can hire voice talent, but your own voice just might be what connects with audiophiles.

One example is Scott Sigler. Visit his website at

How fast do you need to write?

You need to write fast enough to meet your deadline. You need to write fast enough to finish.

There is no minimum speed requirement. So, how fast do you want to write?

We can’t answer that question for you. But, we can tell you how to manage your writing speed.

We strongly suggest, and actually use, a digital timer. Dial-type kitchen timers don’t seem as precise. There’s nothing like a good digital timer.

A Taylor Stainless Steel Timer with Clock, is a wonderful thing. It is rectangular, with a stand that folds up. It is not much larger than a cell phone, and it folds flat. You can hang it from the stand, or stand it upright. It works fine on its side.


This timer can be used as timer, or as a stopwatch. The timer is good if you want to get a sense of how many words you can type in a specific amount of time. If you have an hour to write, how many words can you finish during that time?

The stopwatch feature is great if you want to see how long it takes you to write a certain number of words. If you want to know how long it will take you to write 1,000 words, start the stopwatch and just keep typing until you have typed 1,000 words. Stop the stopwatch. There. Now you know.

Some people say that, if you type faster, you write faster. It is perhaps possible. But, ultimately, you can only type as fast as you can think.

However, if you know how fast you can reasonably type, you will be a more realistic writer. You won’t feel so discouraged because you have an unrealistic expectation of how much you should be accomplishing.

Just to throw a kink in the works, remember that word processors are relatively new. Typewriters are fairly new, given the history of the written word. And, there are still people who write in longhand.

But, the rule is the same. Know how quickly you write.

So how does it work?

First of all, this is not a race to see how quickly you can write. In fact, don’t even try doing timings until you get that notion out of your head.

Secondly, you need to do two kinds of timings. The first type is a timed writing.

Relax. Get everything in position. Gather together whatever media you are going to use. Clear everything else out of your head. Turn your phone off, or make a conscious decision to let voicemail pick up. Ignore text messages. Feed the dog, before you begin. Do whatever it takes to give yourself a clear playing field.

Start the timer, in timer mode for 5 minutes.

Start writing. Do not rush. Write in your usual speed.

When the timer goes off, look at what you accomplished.

That was just one timing. I recommend half a dozen timings, over several days.

Your average word per minute writing rate becomes obvious. Now you know what to expect of yourself. You know how much you can accomplish in 5 minutes.

Now try some longer timings.

I am a pragmatist. I do actual writing when I’m doing timings. If I don’t have an assignment, I make one up that I might want to actually sell or that I might post on a blog. I want the experience to be as real as I can make it.

Now, try the second timed writing technique. Turn the stopwatch on and just start writing until you are finished. Stop the stopwatch and make a note of how long it took you to write that piece.

Again, try this several times. And, again, pragmatism wins out in my book. I do this with actual writing projects, just to save time. I’m not fond of wasting precious writing time on something I know I will trash.

Now what?

With both timings done, you now know how fast you write. You no longer have the excuse that you don’t have time to write. The time is there. You just need to learn to manage it.

Plan out your writing. This doesn’t sound as fun as calling yourself an author, does it? But, it works.

Every November is National Novel Writing Month and every November I hear one person after another lament that they wish they didn’t have a job so that they could participate. Guess what? Almost every person who does participate does have a job. NaNoWriMo participants don’t take the month off!

So what’s so special about them? They know how to gauge and manage their writing time.

The first time I participated in NaNoWriMo, I realized that I needed a spreadsheet. I adore spreadsheets. I can do amazing things with spreadsheets. I use them for everything.

During NaNoWriMo, you have 30 days during which you commit to writing 50,000 words. Yes, that comma is in the correct position.

A 50,000 word is short. It is not even a novel. It is considered a novella. So, yes, you can do this.

Yes, in 30 days. Because, you know how fast you write thanks to your timed writing experiments.

Here is how I suggest you use NaNoWriMo to become a more productive writer, whether you write novels or non-fiction. Map out your writing time. That’s why I use a spreadsheet. I like it better than a calendar. I created one for myself that actually does a countdown to zero.

I create what looks like a calendar. Then I determine how many of those 30 days will be writing days. I know that 29 days are the most number of days I will write—because I don’t write on Thanksgiving.

Generally speaking, we all have days when we just are not going to write. If you plan to devote a day to Black Friday, then you need to reduce the writing days to 28. And, so on.

The idea is to be realistic. Mark off days when you will not be writing.

Next identify days when you have other commitments that will require some, but not all, of your day. Like a workday. If you are working 8 hours, then you need to deduct 8 hours of work, plus lunch plus commuting time, plus food preparation time, plus family time, plus any other commitments. Whatever is left over becomes writing time.

Begin with weekends. Schedule long hours of writing on Saturdays and Sundays. Then calculate how many more hours it will take to reach 50,000 words based on your writing rate, as determined by your timings.

Divvy up the rest of the writing throughout the rest of the month until you schedule yourself time to write 50,000 words. Now, do the work.

It’s really just that simple. Know your thinking/writing rate. Plan your writing accordingly. Do the work.

hack   Use AutoCorrect to compensate for your typing foibles.

Thanks to technology, your computer can actually do some of the writing for you. I realized years ago that my fingers refuse to believe that lavendar is not a word. So I taught my computer to replace the word with the correct spelling as soon as I type it in wrong. It’s not a spelling feature. It’s an AutoCorrect feature.

I have also learned that my fingers have a habit of typing certain things wrong, well beyond just the spelling. I went through a phase where, for whatever reason, I could not type “let’s” if my life depended on it. So I added “let;s” to AutoCorrect so that it always replaced it with “let’s” as soon as I typed it.

Do this with anything you just can’t type correctly.


hackSave even more time by creating acronyms in AutoCorrect.

I am currently writing about World’s Columbian Exposition. I added an AutoCorrect entry of “WCE” that automatically replaces the acronym with “World’s Columbian Exposition.”


A different kind of style

I’ve talked about formatting style but there is also a style for writing your story. You can go with the traditional chronological order, but that’s not the only option.

Sometimes the story is better if you divide it up into related sections. You can tell the story from more than one person’s perspective. You can tell it by seasons. There are lots of styles to go with.

How do you decide? It’s your project. You decide.

The only caveat is to make sure your story flows. If you use something other than chronological style, be sure that you can and do create flawless segues. Your story has to seamlessly pick up where you left off before you switched to another viewpoint. If you lose your reader, you may not get them back.

A good technique for making sure of that is to edit your work by following one viewpoint all the way through, skipping over the other chapters. But, you still need a segue.

The most clever way to do that, in my opinion, is to bring each chapter around so that it could continue without switching to a new chapter while, at the same time, creating a segue that comes full circle with the previous viewpoint. In other words, the end of each chapter, for each viewpoint, comes to a single point that could go either way: continue with the same viewpoint or with that of another person.

No, it isn’t easy. But, who said writing was easy?