war on the rocks

Entry 54: Building Your Own Building Blocks

February 27, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 54th 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 wrote a little over 500 words today in the span of two and a half hours. Not great if you’re going by the numbers, but a big chunk of that was figuring out how to put together the various building blocks of prose I’d written for the current chapter.

I’ve recently tried to emphasize chronology in the presentation of the narrative as much as possible. As such, I’ve found it necessary to start each chapter by spending at least a week going through a process of simultaneous research and summarizing. I document a specific event or utterance, maybe grab a quote, and describe the immediate context and what was significant about it. Breaking down the chapter into these building blocks makes it possible to write and get words on paper even when I’m not yet sure where I’m going with the chapter’s larger narrative.

But once you compiled a bunch of blocks of chronological events and actions, you have to put the puzzle pieces together into something that not only makes sense, but that meaningfully reinforces your overarching argument from the outset (or revisiting that argument if it needs to change). As of this morning I had eleven paragraph-length (and some of them were really long paragraphs) building blocks about specific events that took place over the span of nine months in 2016. It takes time to build a narrative out of those blocks, but it feels like an accomplishment when they click into place.

Maybe the building block thing is what everybody does and I’m just late to the party. In the Pentagon, the speechwriters for the secretary of defense—who are typically expert writers but not expert policy analysts—write speeches by requesting building blocks for the speech from different parts of the Pentagon.

As a policy guy in the Pentagon, I’d get asked for building blocks on my issues all the time. I’d write up a page or two and send it to the speechwriters. Depending on the nature of the speech, the speechwriters would do the same with a bunch of other offices, and then assemble the speech. This was efficient, and allowed the writers to focus more on telling the right story than on researching the details.

With this book I have to play the role of speechwriter and policy guy. I’m writing my own building blocks, and then having to assemble the pieces into a story that makes sense. But it’s giving me a way to make progress in the writing even when I haven’t figured out the narrative at any given moment.

I’m realizing that most of my various tricks and practices seem to come from movies, hip-hop lyrics, and time spent in the Pentagon.

 

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