war on the rocks

Entry 39: Writing on Waitangi

February 6, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 39th 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?

 

Today was Waitangi Day, a national holiday in New Zealand. I had a lot to do to prepare courses for the upcoming trimester though, plus my daily writing obligations, so I went to my office even though everything on campus was shut down. The silence offered a few hours of focused productivity.

I wrote about 900 words, 600 of which went to nipping and tucking the first chapter on the early Obama era, and the other 300 were a down payment on the next one. I think this next chapter will try to explain the various motivations underlying the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” approach to North Korea during his much more cynical second term.

From all my stacked ammo so far, it seems reasonably clear that U.S. policy toward North Korea during Obama’s second term actually focused very little on influencing North Korea per se, and a lot more focused on using North Korea as an object to advance other interests in the region, like the Sino-U.S. relationship and bolstering alliances.

From the beginning of this book, I’ve been struggling with writing a narrative that was more thematic versus chronological. It turns out I’m not the only one. During one of my undisciplined moments searching the web — and violating my five-minute timer rule — I stumbled upon a piece written by military history buff Tom Ricks last year.

In the Ricks piece, he talks about how his editor kicked him in the ass on his most recent book, Churchill and Orwell. His first draft presented thematic chapters that jumped back and forward in time. His editor demanded that he conform to a chronological narrative. His last three books were all bestsellers, so it was fascinating to read about him licking his wounds and having his editor rip into him.

So Ricks’ book, which is on my Amazon wish list but not yet added to my cart, has been well reviewed, so resolving his book in favor of chronology generally—but not throughout—seemed to work for him. He put a useful question at the top of his manuscript as he wrote: “If it is not chronological, why not?” Anytime I jump forward or backward in time, I hope I’ve thought it through and feel justified in doing so.

 

Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.