Sean and I are often asked where we get our story ideas. The long answer involves looking all around us at the lives we’ve lived and themes we’ve pondered. The shorter answer is that Dave gives us pretty much all of them. The rest usually show up in the form of challenges, with Sean sending me a stupid idea, daring me to bake it story.
Here are 10 dumb inspirations for our books — thus hopefully forever proving that there is no genius well from which good ideas spring.
When I was in college, I worked in a restaurant that made bagel sandwiches. When I wanted to write The Bialy Pimps, I kind of transcribed my life.
We really did have a ranting homeless dwarf with fiery red hair who smelled bad, came in regularly, and wanted to shake everyone’s hand; we really did have another regular who claimed to work for the CIA; there really was a “Captain Dipshit”; we really did have a customer taken out by the Secret Service; there really was an apparently reincarnating rat, and my manager really did kill one of its incarnations with a plunger’s rubber end, in the bathroom, while his pants were at his ankles.
#2: Johnny and Sean steal from everyone
The day after this post runs, we’re going to be interviewing Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, on the Self Publishing Podcast. In tribute, we’ll just explain how flagrantly we steal ideas then (as American Idol would say) “make them our own.”
If you liked the staging of the books in the Unicorn Western series, I’ll tell you a secret that isn’t a secret at all because we’ve talked about it a bunch of times: the wireframe plots of all nine books are based on classic western movies. We did that on purpose, to pay homage to the genre while also giving ourselves a cheat … but keep in mind that while Unicorn Western 6 may be based on The Magnificent Seven, Steve McQueen never rode a unicorn or hung out with a resurrected Magneto.
So yeah, we stole. Like artists. Bitch.
#3: We watch Birdemic
Do you think we’re so snooty that we’ll only steal from quality works as in #2 above? Think again!
On the first episode of our Better Off Undead podcast, we reviewed the single worst movie in the history of ever: Birdemic: Shock and Terror.
Here’s the trailer. And no, this isn’t a joke. The director was seriously trying to make something great:
We thought: What if instead of just modeling Unicorn Western 5 after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we somehow also modeled it after Birdemic? That would be craptacular!
So we did. The bad guy controls motherfucking birds. One of the characters in that book is named Alan Whitney — a tribute to Birdemic’s two stars Whitney Moore and Alan Bagh.
Our goal was to prove that don’t need to start with a great idea to end up with a great book … you can start with the dumbest idea ever and do the same.
#4: Sean hears about weed, but has never done it himself
Sometimes it’s just easiest to go with what you know (but which you’ve clearly never experienced, because that would be wrong), then beat it like a dead horse.
When we were looking for a comedy series idea, Sean proposed Greens, which is about a guy who sells faux-weed from a high-end supermarket in the ghetto.
When we needed a way to get our characters mad at a bad guy in Space Shuttle, we had him mess with their stash of intergalactic weed.
The Beam doesn’t have weed, but it does have a new drug called Lunis. People are always trying to smuggle Lunis across the border. Oh, and the oldest of the hippies fondly recall their weed heydays.
There’s no weed in Unicorn Western, but the beats contained many weed references. Sometimes you need to compare your ideas to something in an outline so that your co-writer will understand what you mean. In most cases, weed is the most obviously logical choice.
#5: Our Outlaws have us do improv
By the two-thirds mark in 2013, we’d already based books on so many stupid ideas (“It’s like The Fugitive, but with a chupacabra!” “It’s a violent revenge story, but the lead character is a friendly monk!” “It’s Downton Abbey, but with robots!”) that we started to get cocky about our abilities to spin absurdity into gold.
We emailed our Outlaws and said, “Hey, guys and gals … we’re tired of coming up with our own stupid ideas. How about you throw some even stupider ones at us?”
The idea that won our little improv contest? “Caveman Timecop.”
There wasn’t even a premise. We had those two words and nothing else. Was it an adventure story? A tale of historical fiction? A campy parody? Was it about a timecop who traveled back to caveman times, or a caveman who became a timecop? We had no idea.
We wrote the story anyway. You can get it (and other “Outlaw exclusive” shorts not available anywhere else) by becoming an Outlaw. (You’ll probably need to send Sean and email to request Caveman Timecop after you join, though, because we’ve already sent notice about it to our current Outlaws.)
#6: Johnny and Sean attempt to answer the question, “What do you know about everything in your life?”
What’s the most enabling thing you can do to a pair of motormouths who can’t stay on topic or ever shut up?
Ask them the biggest question ever. Then you’ll never, ever, ever have to search for ideas again, because the story will never end.
We host the Self Publishing Podcast. We spend hours and hours each week discussing self-publishing with each other. We have friends in self-publishing. So deciding to write a self-pub guide was simultaneously the best and worst idea ever — at least as far as getting anything else done.
Our lives revolve around indie publishing, so when we asked ourselves the question, “What can we tell people about the topic?” before sitting down to write our self publishing book Write. Publish. Repeat: The No-Luck Guide to Self-Publishing Success, we ended up writing triple the word count we’d intended.
Idea-generating problem solved. Lots of extra time gone.
#7: Sean eats chili
There’s a running bit that begins in Unicorn Western 4 and continues on throughout the series, wherein chili is this scarce commodity that is sought after like gold in a gold rush. There are legends around chili. There’s a chili religion. There are chili cults.
Maybe you think that’s stupid, but it’s part of our story for better or for worse. It came about when Sean had chili for lunch and texted me that chili should be a “really big deal” in our story.
He claims this idea had nothing to do with #4 above.
#8: Sean and Johnny’s solution to a flopped story: make it stupider
In the middle of last year, we released three pilots for possible series that we thought of as “written sitcoms.”
First out of the gate was Space Shuttle, a story about a human who gets stranded in outer space with a bunch of sci-fi movie cliches.
Our podcast co-host Dave thought our idea to do comedy — especially in “sitcom” format, and especially considering that our previous releases had been a fantasy western and a dead-serious sci-fi political serial — was irretrievably stupid.
And he told us so in great detail when, the following week, Space Shuttle’s debut was answered by a resounding roar of “Meh.”
Our answer? We didn’t give up on our flop, we took our stupid stick and bravely forged forward. So Space Shuttle was dumb? We made it dumber. It was filled with clichés? We added so many you could barely see the story through them. It was illogical and crass? We pumped the volume on that shit.
It must have worked out at least a little. As of this writing, Space Shuttle’s pilot has the worst review average out of all of our books … but the first season has one of our best.
#9: Dave jokes about becoming a “fat vampire.”
On episode six of our Better Off Undead podcast, Sean, Dave, and I found ourselves as unprepared as we always are on BOU and decided an easy way to phone it in would be to run through a list of hypothetical questions and answer them in ways that hopefully weren’t boring.
This started my writing career: Given the opportunity to become a vampire and live forever, would you accept?
Dave, as our resident prince of darkness, was all over the idea. He’d get to stay up all night, have an excuse for shunning sunlight, and hate life? SIGN HIM UP! But then we started to wonder … would the change into a vampire make him thin and elegant? Or would he, instead, become a fat vampire?
Much hilarity ensued, with jokes about Dave the Vampire’s inability to catch prey, how he might get winded and pass out as sunrise was dawning, how he’d be lapped by the strong and pretty vampires, and so on.
Before that day, I had one behemoth novel and no idea how I’d ever write another. Thanks to the awesome simplicity of the concept birthed by our chat, the next week I announced my intention to write what would become the first in a series of six books: Fat Vampire.
#10: Dave dares Sean to write a western without doing any research
Proving that Dave’s life is cursed, the birth of what will soon be a 3/4 million word franchise came at his expense the very next week on Better Off Undead.
Sean and I hadn’t written anything together at that point, and were outlining an absurdly complicated project that was giving Sean heartburn after coming off of a string of complex projects with Dave.
I had no writing rapport with either of them, but Sean and Dave had their long history of bitching at each other firmly in place.
So when Sean expressed his enthusiastic desire to write a western, Dave promptly shat all over it, declaring that westerns required too much research. He then famously said that Sean would get the gunsmoke color wrong, that he’d put ambulances in the old west, and that he’d fuck up so badly that he’d “put a goddamn unicorn in it.”
I proposed that the solution to the research problem was to go ahead and put a unicorn in the story, because then nothing else had to make sense. Sean thought this was hilarious. He said, “It’s a straight-up western, but instead of riding horses, everyone rides unicorns.”
The idea, being stupid and simple, made our heads hurt less than our current complicated project, so we decided to write a western featuring a unicorn.
Eight sequels followed the original Unicorn Western, and then we wrote the prequel, Unicorn Genesis. In May, we’ll write the first in the series’s concluding trilogy, Unicorn Apocalypse.
Look for our next exciting story idea coming soon from a Dave near you.