Writing the Roadmap

December 18, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?


Over the weekend, I ended up with a little over 1,000 words (inclusive of footnotes), though I probably wrote closer to 3,000 words before deleting most of it. I hate it when that happens but I’m pretty sure writing begets writing. The 1,000 words I ended up with wouldn’t exist without having written the 3,000. Before having a kid, the weekends were by far my most productive writing time; now I enter the weekend having no idea whether I’ll get anything done. By current standards, this was a productive weekend.  Nothing remarkable in the words I salvaged. They feel a little utilitarian. Last week’s words were more poetic.  Many of my scholar friends would say there’s no need for poetics.

It dawned on me that it might be worth sharing a high-level sense of my writing roadmap. I’m thinking the chapters should go like this (not yet etched in stone):


2—The Inheritance of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Korea

3—North Korean Strategic Thought and the Risks of Nuclear War

4—The Obama Era (need a better chapter title)

5—Settling on Maximum Pressure under Trump

6—Mixed Signals and Escalation to Crisis

7—An Unprecedented War of Words

8—Conclusion: How to Prevent a Nuclear War (may need to pivot here based on whether a nuclear war happens before publication)

I’ve been writing the background history chapter (“The Inheritance”) in reverse chronological order. Not sure if I’d advise others to do that, but the more recent history was more accessible and easier to recount; positive momentum feeds confidence, right? In the month-long ramp up to launching “Nuke Your Darlings,” I started chopping away at the chapter I’m working on now, drafting a solid 6,000 words that trace the key decisions and events of North Korea’s pathway to the bomb since the Cold War. The biggest obstacle was making sure I was writing to the standard of historians of the subject (it is Cambridge, after all). I can afford to leave out certain details historians might fetishize, but I can’t afford to get the details wrong. I’m also wrestling with a tension between the academic habit of creating paragraph-length footnotes and the need to both keep the overall word count limited and not alienate the lay reader who might be turned off by it.

The progress this weekend closes out the background history chapter for now, though I left several holes in the prose that I need to go back and fill in at some point. Next up is the chapter articulating how North Korea thinks about coercion and the pathways that lead to nuclear use; might be the hardest chapter to write given the need to please audiences with different needs. Still feeling really good overall, especially because of some uber-supportive feedback about the “Nuke Your Darlings” series itself.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.