Entry 17: Breaker Bay and a Road Map

January 5, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 17th 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?


I took a mind-clearing, Twitter-free hike this afternoon. The picture above is of Breaker Bay, a short drive from Victoria University and an easy hike with lots more views like this. It helped. I also went home and practiced some yoga. I’m a rusty bicycle.

Before the hike, I wrote 381 words. After the hike I came back and did another 150 or so words. To recap the book so far:

My intro chapter lays out the roadmap of the book in a riveting kind of way. I’m told (because I didn’t go to Stanford, sigh) that Stanford University professor Stephen Krasner tells students that all research must answer two questions: What’s new here? Why does it matter? If the answers to those questions aren’t blatantly obvious in your introduction, then something’s wrong.

The second chapter gives a background history on the United States and the Korean Peninsula in about 10,000 to 11,000 words (though there are a few holes I need to go back and fill in). Nothing groundbreaking here, but it’s coherent, and it helps situate everything to come.

Chapter three, the current chapter I am working on, is a bit of an experiment. In about 8,000 words, it lays out North Korea’s theory of victory (its beliefs about violence and threat-making) in the first half, and the risks of war (nuclear and otherwise) in the second half. I don’t create a new theory, but it’ll be the first place to ever put forward all the rationales that could lead North Korea to launch nuclear first-strikes (there are four).

After chapter three, I’ll have several historical chapters dissecting North Korea policy during the Obama administration and the words and deeds of the Trump administration. The concluding chapter will put a bow on the whole thing, plus a section with some juicy policy recommendations (my bread and butter).

It’s the final chapter that will really have to pivot if there’s a war before the book comes out. I can’t bring myself to actually plan for that.

One unsettling thing: I pulled half a dozen non-fiction trade press books off my shelf last night (which I’m trying to imitate despite publishing this with Cambridge) and none of them have a chapter like my chapter three. Hal Brands, Lawrence Freedman, Richard Haass, Barbara Tuchman, Chris Clark – the books by these authors tend to present straightforward chronologies packaged as sequential themes stitched together with an overarching narrative.

Historically oriented narratives almost always use chronological presentations while books in my field (international relations) often don’t. Strange because these are really two sides of the same coin. And I’m trying to split the difference. I suppose I should have some confidence in that Cambridge sent the book proposal with chapter outlines to four (!) external reviewers and all gave it a thumbs up.

I checked Twitter for updates five times while writing this.