On Writing Jane, Unlimited: Webs Versus Lines

Now that I’m home from my tour, the mad rush is behind me, which means that now and then, I have little pockets of time for blogging. When I can, I’d like to fill some of those pockets with blog posts about what it was like to write Jane, Unlimited. This is a weird little book and writing it presented some unique challenges.

Before my first installation, though, I’d like to share some really nice news. I’ll share it in the form of a humongous THANK YOU to Kathy Dawson and my team at Penguin; my agent Faye Bender; and all of the many readers who came together to put Jane on the New York Times Best Seller List and the Indie Bestseller List (for the second week!). Thank you, thank you, thank you, everyone, for this gift. I think that if Jane found out about this, she would be astonished and overwhelmed. Hm. Although probably the realization that she’s a character in a book would trump the realization that the book is a best seller. HA! I wonder what umbrella she would make to express her feelings :o).

Also, I was interviewed for the New York Times Book Review Podcast a few weeks ago. Follow the link if you’d like to hear me talk with NYTBR editor Pamela Paul about Jane. AND, the NYT review of Jane is out, online and in this weekend’s print edition. It’s a bright little gem that made me tear up.  Excerpt: “Cashore’s latest is a defiantly weird, genre-obliterating book — it all but rewires your brain as you read it…. Trust Cashore…. She’s a vivid, inclusive writer, and everything serves an empowering subtext: Don’t let anyone tell you who you’re supposed to be, and don’t let anyone tell you what a novel is supposed to be, either.”

Now. There are so many topics I want to address about the writing of Jane. For example, the first few drafts were written in the second person, and the reader got to choose in what order to read the stories. I have a lot to say about what it was like to struggle with those drafts, and how things changed when I switched the point of view and took control over the order of the stories. Also, in the earliest drafts, the protagonist – “you” – was ungendered. I could write an article about how hard it is to avoid gender indicators in this society of ours! Also, I learned a lot about genre; about myself as a writer; about my relationship with my wonderful, patient editor; about taking risks and believing in one’s project; about the technical challenge of writing the same scene over and over, differently; about clue-planting and hint-weaving; about moments of serendipity (like, the moment you realize that the structure of your umbrella-themed book is shaped like an umbrella!!!); etc. etc.

I think I’ll start with something more general. The following is adapted from a talk I gave to librarians, booksellers, and other wonderful book people, during Book Expo in New York this past summer.


Jane, Unlimited is a book about a girl who arrives at a house where strange things are happening; there’s more here than meets the eye. And then, at a certain point, Jane has to make a choice. What mystery should she solve? Should she follow the housekeeper, who keeps giving her significant looks? Or, should she seek out the strange little girl she keeps seeing in the distance? Should she tend to the dog, who’s whining like his heart is broken? Or join the friend who’s invited her to this house? Or her friend’s rakish brother?

From this point, the book breaks into five different stories as we watch Jane make five different choices. And each story is in a different genre. If Jane follows the housekeeper, she ends up in a mystery story. If she follows the brother, she ends up in a sci-fi story. And so on. There’s a spy story, a horror story and a fantasy story as well, and, each story informs every other story, and, whichever story you’re reading, you can see the other stories playing out in the background, AND, each story informs the truth about Jane’s life; who she is; and who she could become.

Because of its structure, the writing of it presented some unique challenges. Let me try to explain.

So, I started writing. I was writing, and writing, and I had these five different stories that I wanted to tell, and each of the stories had a way of informing all the other stories… And immediately, I was overwhelmed, by all the details and all the links between the stories. It was really hard to hold the idea of the entire book in my head. That’s one of the main stresses of writing a book – you have this complex concept in your head, and it takes a long time to write a book, so you have to keep holding that thing in your head, and it’s just hard to remember everything. But it was especially so with this book, because there’s so much to keep track of. There are probably a hundred things, big and small, that happen in this house after the point where Jane makes her choice, that have to happen in every story. If the moon rises at 5 AM in one story, then it does so in every story. If there’s a man gardening in one story, he has to be doing so in every story, anytime Jane looks out the window or goes out to the yard. If there’s a familiar photograph on the wall of a corridor that shocks Jane when she walks past it in one story, then I need to remember that if I send her down that corridor in any other story, she needs to be shocked then as well, even if the discovery of that photograph isn’t relevant to that story.

And of course I take notes and I write book plans and I have a big book map up on my wall with every book I write… But it’s still all needs to be in your head, accessible to you all the time. And that was HARD on my brain, harder with this book than with other books.

BUT, I wrote, and I kept writing. I forced myself to look over the entire book map frequently (which is SO TEDIOUS), to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything super important that would be difficult to fix later. And at this point, you also need to understand that the writing (like, at the sentence level) isn’t very good. It’s your first draft. You’re just sort of throwing things out there to see if they stick. You don’t know who your characters are yet really, you don’t know which descriptions matter and which don’t… You’re sort of building this house around you as you write… So it can be very disheartening, because you’re aiming for this lofty goal, but it feels so far away, and you feel so overwhelmed by things you’re constantly forgetting, and when you look at what you’ve done so far, it’s basically a big pile of crap.

What you do when you’re in that situation is: you KEEP WRITING.

So that’s what I did.

And then, at a certain point while I was writing… a funny thing happened. The weird, nontraditional structure all just suddenly clicked together. And it became strong. And by that I mean that the underlying structure became strong. The book was still a complete and total mess, but I had my basic plot structure, and it was actually quite stable. And the reason it was stable is that instead of being one long line of narrative the way a book usually is, and maybe you go back and forth along the line to fill in earlier or later parts, but ultimately, you’re filling out this long timeline – instead of that, THIS book was five simultaneously-occurring stories. So, five shorter lines stacked on top of each other. And there were connections running from various points in each story to the other stories, story connections wound between and through each other. Which means that the structure of this book was more like a web than a line. A web is a more stable structure than a single long string.

Of course, I also developed a new problem at that point: The plot structure was SO stable that it became difficult to change anything dramatically. Because, like I said before, there were certain things that had to play out a certain way in every story every time. And that meant that if I changed any of those things, every single little change then had ripple effects through every story. This is normal when you’re writing a book. Any change you make will have little ripple effects. But in this book, that danger was multiplied, because there were five different stories for every change to impact. And a change in one story might make another story fall apart completely and not work anymore. I started to feel like I couldn’t change much, like I was locked into the plot I had, with not much wiggle room.

And it was interesting that this problem arose to the extent that it did. Because in this book in particular, I was trying to create a feeling of opening. It’s a book about choice, right? About life’s openness and possibility. But it’s also a book about the things we miss and the mistakes we make and can’t undo… the things we lose every time we choose something else… Because you can’t do everything. You can’t know everything. And you always choose in some ignorance.

And still, the things we can know and can do are so extraordinary.

I think that in a funny, coincidental way, the process of writing this book mirrored the point of the book. With every new decision I made as the writer, doors opened, and doors closed. Until I made the decisions and saw the consequences, I didn’t really 100% know or understand what choice I was making. That’s what happens to Jane in this book, too, except that we get to see the consequences of five different choices for Jane. Though that’s not unlike the writing of a book too – because after the writing come revisions, then more revisions.

I’ll stop there for today, but add a note to myself that I’ll have to blog more about the challenges of the revisions!

So, this is my first attempt to blog about what it was like to write this book… The first angle I’m choosing to tell the story from. I’ll choose some other angle next time. I hope you’ll find it interesting!

Godspeed to all writers.