Nuke Your Darlings: On Writing in National Security

December 14, 2017

 In writing, you must kill all your darlings.
-William Faulkner

…Or in this case, nuke them.
-Van Jackson


Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered what writing a book in the national security field entailed? What authors go through, and how they approach a massive writing project? Today marks a new kind of series at War on the Rocks. Cambridge University Press has commissioned Van Jackson, a WOTR senior editor, to write a general interest book about the causes, consequences and risks of the ongoing nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula. The catch: He has only six months to complete the 80,000-word manuscript, from scratch. In this unique series, Van will document the daily rhythm of his writing process and progress — highs, lows, pitfalls, distractions, and what works for him.


You might be wondering how this book project came about, and why I’m volunteering to write about it.

Back in September, when President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un were engaging in an unprecedented war of words, I was doing a lot of media engagement, op-eds, and the like, trying to warn about how and why it all risked going sideways. But I saw so much wrong with U.S. policy that I couldn’t do justice to the many dangerous (and interrelated) aspects of the situation in three-minute media hits and 1000-word op-eds. How did we get to the point where a sitting president and numerous members of his party were openly threatening war against a nuclear-armed adversary? What does the United States need to do differently to navigate the ongoing, longer term risks of nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula? And to what extent is the current crisis a harbinger of crises to come in the Second Nuclear Age? I needed a larger canvas.

Months earlier I drafted a book proposal focused on these questions, but shelved it to work on other stuff. Then, out of the blue, Cambridge University Press (which published my first book) reached out to pulse my interest in writing a book on this exact topic — and not one of those dry, $100 turnoffs that only libraries buy, but like a real book with a realistic price tag written for an audience of non-academics. So, after some updating, I sent them my proposal, they put it through their peer review process, and we agreed to a specific length and timeline for delivery: ~80,000 words, due in about 20 weeks, which translates to writing 4,000 words per week on average. Accounting for the fact that I’ll probably need at least a week or two of buffer time for editing and revisions, I’ll have to produce more than the weekly quota when possible.

So why add more words to my burden by writing publicly about my progress? Most books, most of the time, are written the old school way — quietly and misanthropically. That’s definitely how I’ll write the book itself (in solitude), but I need to occupy my day with a bevy of other tasks beyond working on that one project. I see this diary thing more as forced reflection than as a drain on my time, though I guess I’m also taking on some risk. After all, if I don’t deliver on the goods, the world will know. But that’s kind of the point. A daily log of my writing progress, and the process involved, will help keep me accountable. I need to write every day to deliver this manuscript on time, and knowing that people out there are tracking my progress will hopefully keep a fire lit under me.

Also, I’ve always wanted to read something like what I’m writing here. John Steinbeck kept a diary about his time writing The Grapes of Wrath and it was awesome to read. I learn a lot from reading about others’ personal experiences with the craft of writing the same way you can learn about history by reading biographies. Yet too few people actually write about their writing, and nobody in the national security field has written about the writing process as far as I’m aware. The ten years-ago version of me would’ve killed to read the ups and downs of a writer struggling to produce a book. So on some level, I guess I’m betting that I’m not alone and that there are other writers out there who want to go on this journey with me for whatever reason.

At this point you may also be wondering how the hell I’m going to pump out 4,000-plus words per week and have them be coherent. Honestly, I’m wondering about that too, especially because I have a few constraints and disadvantages. Realistically I’ll never be able to focus on it for more than two to three hours per day. I’m doing God’s work (just kidding…but seriously) with associate editor duties at Texas National Security Review. I have some journal articles and book chapters that are going through the really, really long process of review and publication, which ends up taxing my time and brainpower at unpredictable intervals. I still engage with media outlets whenever possible, and for me at least, preparing to be interviewed or offer expert quotes eats up a lot of time. I have obligations to be a husband and dad, which limits my ability to work on the book during off-hours. And come March, I’m teaching two courses at Victoria University of Wellington I’ve never taught before, so between now and then I need to develop the curriculum and prepare those lectures/seminars. By the time the school term begins, I’ll be a little more than halfway through this project, and will suddenly have the functional equivalent of three fewer days each week to work on the book.

But I have a few advantages in tackling this book as well. I’m an expert on the subject in every way a person can be an expert — as a practitioner, researcher, teacher, and writer. I published a thematically similar (but much wonkier and more expensive) book last year. Because I’ve spent so much time with the topic, my personal library includes a lot of the research resources I’ll need, and I can regurgitate a lot of the history involving U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula from memory. I have an incredibly supportive spouse and an occasionally supportive little boy. I’m also really lucky to be writing this from New Zealand, where the winter is actually the summer and I have no teaching requirements until March. Most importantly, I have a ten-page proposal that’s a solid roadmap for the book, and that I’ve already repackaged to serve as the introductory chapter. So boom — 5,000 words right off the bat.

With that, let me offer a couple promises.

First, I promise to update this diary every weekday. But don’t expect Shakespeare. I’m not writing for quality here.

Second, I’m going to do my best to be honest and not self-conscious. Today’s entry is very consciously a conversation with you, the reader, but I had to set the scene before beginning. Future entries will report on how many words I wrote, my mindset, what I think is working (or not), my choices for how I approach constructing the manuscript, etc.

Third, I intend for today’s entry to be by far the longest. Most days I’ll aim to write only a paragraph or so. Neither of us has time for more than that!

Fourth, I’m a human being, and value external validation on occasion. If you have any feedback, tips, moral support, and the like, feel free to post it in the War Hall!

Political scientist John Mearsheimer once said that writing a book was like wrestling a bear. But not all bears are of the same size or ferocity. I hope this one proves to be a baby cub that I can easily submit. I have my doubts.


Van Jackson, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies. He is also an Associate Editor at Texas National Security Review and a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. Soon enough he’ll be author of the book Standoff: North Korea, the US, and How to Prevent a Nuclear War. 

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