When my coffee was finished brewing, I poured myself a cup (cream and sweetener; I can drink it black, but it’s early and I deserve something foo-foo), closed my office door, put on my headphones and started some music (Eminem’s Recovery).
I blacked out my screen other than one window, and started typing what you’re reading now.
That’s not how it works every morning, though. Some mornings, I noodle a novel instead of a blog post. Some mornings, I listen to different music.
I’ve got a pretty great life, but it’s not always filled with thrills and variety. This time of year, the days don’t change much as one follows another. Despite attempts to flee, I still live in Ohio. The technical term for what’s going on outside right now — the phrase the meteorologists use — is that the world is shitting down on us out of an icy asshole. It’s a claustrophobic existence. My world, during the work day, is this room. In the evenings, I expand into a larger experience that includes my family, my living room, and my bed.
There’s a whole world out there, but over the past few years, as I’ve scrambled to build our empire of words, I’ve seen little of it. That will change, but for right now, my world is this room. This house. And the same handful of stores and restaurants over and over again.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m in a rut.
But then I look around at the larger world, and I feel better. I see that if I’m in a rut, most people are at the bottom of a canyon.
They wake up.
They get in a box, then drive to work and sit in a box all day.
They come home, eat dinner, watch TV.
Day after day after day, until they die.
Part of me wants to see it as sad, but I’m ambivalent about whether or not it actually is. On one hand, there’s more to life than scuttling from one place to another and making numbers add up (salary, expenses, miles per gallon, the number of unwatched shows on the TiVo), but on the other hand, I suppose it’s none of my fucking business.
Sometimes I wonder if we’re all living cliches. Then I wonder if it’s a cliche to expect to break out of cliches.
It reminds me of the opening lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
I don’t know how literally Shakespeare meant those lines, but they express a notion Sean and I have returned to again and again while writing our books: what we assume to be the entirety of existence might really be the area in front of the curtain — and therefore might be at home with cliches, conventions, tropes, and the occasional deus ex machina … so long as they serve the larger plot.
You’re given a part. Then, you forget it’s a part, and play it out as if it were real.
Standard questions chase the thought: Why are we here? Why do we do what we do?
Are we merely acting out parts in a cosmic play? If we are, when the performance is finished, will we all high-five backstage and laugh about the good, bad, and ugly of all that just happened — events which, in and of themselves, didn’t actually have the dire implications we could have sworn they had when we under the the heat of their lights?
Hey Tom, remember how scared you were about that bankruptcy, as if it were a real thing?
Hey Betty, remember how much you cared about the “career” from your script?
If the world is a stage, maybe we’re playing our parts for a larger reason. Maybe we’re living a big story beyond us, past the scope of our own tiny pieces within it. If that were true, I’d be a character and you’d be a character, and the details of what happened to us would matter little … as long as the overall story kept moving forward.
This may sound like a lot of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, but I figured I’d explain anyway because it also happens to be why we write about unicorns.
Sean and I have this annoying frustration we know you’ll relate to. We wrote an enormous western/fantasy mash-up epic about an asshole unicorn and a gunslinger whose pistols belch pink smoke … but when we tell people about it, motherfuckers don’t take us seriously.
All of this — the existential pondering, the sense of fatalism, the magical alternative universes — has been on my mind lately because Realm & Sands is coming up on its first anniversary, and that means it’s time for us to revisit the story that started it all.
Unicorn Western was the first book Sean and I wrote together. It’s the universe that’s home to The Realm and the Sands. And it’s the first time we realized that when Platt and Truant combine forces, not even the stupidest stories can just sit or play dumb. We think too much, and too big.
Even the simplest ideas are bound to open a can of unicorns.
Right now, Sean is outlining the second season of The Beam. Next week, I’ll start writing it. Shortly after that, we’ll start work on the third and final piece of the Unicorn Western story: Unicorn Apocalypse. We couldn’t be more excited.
The 9-book Unicorn Western saga tells the middle of our epic tale: Clint and Edward’s journey from the edge of the Sands to the detached, unfindable city of The Realm, which sheared off when the worlds shattered. Unicorn Genesis, which we released in early November, tells the beginning: how the worlds formed, how they were breached and weakened by the incursions of humanity, and what happened during the Grand Cataclysm.
But Unicorn Apocalypse? Well, that will tell us how everything ends.
Endings are tricky because they carry so much of the load. We have all sorts of sayings about endings: “All’s well that ends well.” “The ends justify the means.” And in just about every game show, the bonus round at the end makes all of what happened earlier totally irrelevant.
In essence, the end of a story validates (or invalidates) everything else. A good ending tidies loose ends and clears final questions from the queue. It also lends new meaning to events that occurred at the very beginning. That tiny thing that happened on page 3? Well, that mattered because of what was explained on page 803. It gets more complicated when the story sprawls across multiple books — or, in the case of the Unicorn Western universe, when it sprawls across multiple phases: Now, Before, and After.
I’ll tell you a secret: there’s a little bit of the author’s soul in every story they write. Even when the tale is fictional, a large part of that fiction is still true for the author. By the time we were done with the ninth Unicorn Western book, we’d hidden a lot of ourselves beneath a dusty world filled with magic and strangers.
By the time we’d finished Unicorn Genesis, we’d forged an infrastructure under our world that, although fantastical, was braided with strains of our most pressing real-world questions.
In Genesis, we sowed the seeds for Apocalypse. And I’ll tell you now, those seeds are fat.
We have a difficult task with Apocalypse. How we handle the final trilogy will illuminate not only Apocalypse itself, but Western and Genesis as well. And because we’ve put so much of ourselves into Western and Genesis, what we say in Apocalypse is bound to change how we think about the cliches, ruts, and plot lines within our daily lives.
In other words, we’re dangling from our own cliffhanger. The ten books we’ve written so far in this fictional universe have opened metaphorical wounds in what we think, suspect, wonder, and wish about our own universe.
Our task, when we write Apocalypse, will be to find ways to close those wounds — and to tell ourselves what it all means.
A Dream Within a Dream
Maybe you don’t care about Unicorn Western. Maybe you’re about to tune out, or already have. I suggest you don’t, though, because even if you ignore the ghoulem and turkey pie, you’ll find a lesson here.
As authors, we have a neat way to try on our philosophies without too many people suggesting we’re blowhards. In grand Shakespearean fashion (in quote if not in style), we simply create our own world as a stage, with our own men and women and creatures as players. Through the peculiar magic that occurs while writing, those characters then take on their own lives and personalities, and “creating” a story begins to feel more like simply observing and writing down what happens.
Edward is a unicorn, born with magic, who is bound to Clint until one of them dies. There’s a reason he’s such a jerk. It has to do with events in his past (as explored in Genesis), not with a character sketch on my hard drive.
Both Clint and Edward have their own personal history. Each has memories. Each does things for his own reasons — not reasons they’d ever suspect have anything to do with me and Sean working behind the scenes, pulling their strings. Within their universe, things are simply occurring, and they’d never suspect there’s a plan that they cannot know of, or claim any control. In fact, Sean and I will spend a few days at the South by Southwest conference in March specifically to outline Apocalypse. But Clint and Edward, to my knowledge, have no clue we’re doing it.
In other words, neither have any idea that they’re characters in a story.
Clint could wake up one day, boil himself some coffee, then get out a piece of parchment to write the Sands equivalent of a blog post. In it, he might quote someone (probably someone with a dusty beard) as saying that all the world’s a stage, and that all the men and women are merely players upon it.
Now, I can predict what you’re going to say at this point: Clint is fictional, and we’re not.
But your life was forged by influences in your past, few of which you can consciously recall. The winds of the future will nudge you forward, and you won’t always know what impacts you, where it came from, how, or why.
So how is it all that different?
This is the part where I backpedal and explain that we’re not actually trying to unfold the mysteries of existence with our ridiculous unicorn story. It doesn’t read like a dense tome, and we’d never want it to. Nor, for that matter, would we want to beat you over the head with themes that surfaced as we wrote it.
In case you don’t know, Unicorn Western started as a joke. In a discussion on our Better Off Undead podcast (somewhat NSFW audio) Dave protested Sean’s desire to write a western, complaining about how much research it would require. He told Sean that he’d get things so wrong, he’d “put a goddamn unicorn in it.” That was the spark that got me interested in co-writing with Sean for the first time. Because hey — if our gunslinger rode a unicorn instead of a horse, research was moot. We could do whatever the hell we wanted.
The first book, based on the Gary Cooper western High Noon, is a fun yarn about a marshal and his unicorn. What happens in Unicorn Western 1 isn’t complex. We wrote it without curse words so our kids could read it, and all of said kids (aged 8-11 at the time) zoomed through it. Our wives and fans read it too, and enjoyed it. Even so, there was a problem.
If we’d stopped after that relatively simple first book, Sean and I — as creators — would have been unsatisfied.
So we wrote another, and another, and another. We kept the series kid-friendly, but we let it grow in the way the Harry Potter books grew, and the readership began to skew toward adults. It was still appropriate for our children, but very quickly the tales stopped being merely about what happened. If you looked deeper as you read, you might also start to wonder why.
Sean and I don’t want to create plot-only fiction. There are books out there that lead you through a series of events that occur as inevitably as toppling dominoes, but for us, those stories tend to be as unsatisfying as a too-rich dessert. Yes, the action in “this-then-that” tales will get you through a plane ride… but when you close those books, you’re unlikely to ever think of them again.
We prefer to create resonance in our stories, because we like it when stories resonate with us as readers. When I finished Everyday this summer, the story followed me around for weeks like persistent mist. Catch-22’s narrative flipped so suddenly that it hit me like a below-the-belt punch. And after I finished House of Leaves, I felt like I was being stalked by a ghost, unsure of my footing.
You can read Unicorn Western as an adventure. But when you close the 9-book epic, we want you to be thinking. We want those characters and adventures to move into your brain, and stay with you for a while.
We want our characters to be real.
We want them to be relatable. We want you to understand them, to know them, and to recognize parts of them in yourself.
Which is why we don’t usually run from cliches in our fiction. Cliches are cliches for a reason, and life is filled with them.
Gunslingers really did carry dusty pistols on their hips.
Lawmen really do fight bad guys.
And people really do wake up and go about their standard business day after day after day — be it cleaning the chambers of a seven-shot magic revolver, or brewing coffee for the daily commute.
There are cliches in stories because life is thick with them. It’s not good, bad, or ugly. It’s just how it is.
No matter how free we might sometimes feel, we’re all living inside our own handmade boxes.
Fact and Fiction
There’s no right answer; the decision to be highly connected or not is yours. The key is that whichever way you lean, you must choose to do it consciously.
Living in a rut (or a routine, or a cliche, or even inside a box) isn’t bad. Doing it by default is bad. Doing it because someone else put you there is bad. Doing it because your mother told you that you could never break out is bad. It’s volition — not circumstance — that matters.
So if all the world really is a stage, the trick is to realize that the stage exists. Which play are you a part of? Whose story are you acting out? And if you realize that you don’t like your story, can you see clearly enough and be courageous enough to move into a new one?
I don’t like spoilers any more than you do, but I can’t help but share this relevant question that’s raised in Unicorn Genesis:
What if the lines between fact and fiction — or, if you prefer, between one story and another — weren’t so hard and fast?
Throughout Western, we referred to “worlds,” in the plural, but we never specifically enumerated them. In Genesis, we did. There are worlds with humans and worlds without them. There are worlds populated by creatures. There are worlds very much like our own — frighteningly like our own, you might say. And there are worlds that seem familiar for other reasons, because they are home to what we, in our narrow-minded way, would call “stories.”
After the Grand Cataclysm, barriers softened between the worlds. One spilled into the next. Tunnels were built below the surface. Cracks formed, allowing things to leak into worlds that once considered those things to be fictional. The lines between fact and fiction began to blur.
This doesn’t actually sound far from reality to me. When I’m writing, our characters are often surprising. I literally do not see some things coming, even though I’m supposed to be the one with my hands on the wheel. I’ve had characters fight, turn on each other, make love, and kill without my foreknowledge. It’s almost as if they were out there in some alternate world, living lives of their own.
In my more whimsical moments, I wonder what it would be like if someone, somewhere, was watching me, telling a story about a man who breaks out of his shitty lab job and decides to live his dream as a writer. What challenges would that man face? And how have I, as a conscious being, addressed those challenges?
It’s ironic. I spent so much of my blogging career urging people to wake up, to see the walls of their box, and choose whether or not they wanted to stay once fully conscious.
And here I am, writing about unicorns and pink gunsmoke, saying the same exact thing.
Stories are just allegory, reflecting the world back so that it can see itself and learn … or refuse to learn. That’s it. Stories always have a lesson. You may not be aware of the lesson; you may not care about the lesson; you may not agree with the lesson; the author or storyteller may not even have intended for the lesson to exist. But it’s there, truer than true.
You don’t have to care at all about any of our books to get the message. In my shoes, you soon begin to wonder which came first anyway. Do we create the stories? Or do we tell the stories that were already there? Stephen King said he believes that stories already exist, out there in the world, as buried fossils. The storyteller’s job isn’t to create so much as to excavate them. I tend to agree. Nothing we write is new, and nothing doesn’t grow and evolve as we roll it back and forth between our hands.
You don’t have to read anything we write to know that your life is someone’s story, in addition to your own. It may be your children’s story. It may be your father’s story. You may be in your own box. And you may, like any good character, become self-aware, grow, and choose to emerge from that box.
These aren’t new concepts. They were always there, and they are simply the raw materials I pick up each day at 5:45, when I sit in front of my keyboard with my coffee beside me.
Maybe Sean and I are just scribes, writing what’s happening in other worlds.
Maybe we’re cobblers, assembling found pieces into finished puzzles.
Maybe the reasons we see cliches in fiction is because those things are happening for real all around us.
And so the question becomes: Will you choose to be one of them?
Thank you for reading …
Johnny (and Sean)
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