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Non-State Actress Special Addition #2: Too Purple To Fail
Status Check on Non-State Actress the Book
Welcome to Non-State Actress Special Additions, which are just slightly different from regular NSA issues. Still written by me, Maggie Feldman-Piltch and still [mostly] about national security but not boring. This Special Addition includes an update on the Non-State Actress book project.
Review: Take a look at past issues of Non-State Actress here.
Writing the Substack Version of Non-State Actress while I am writing the Book Version has been enormously helpful. Not only have I clarified and refined my voice, I’ve been able to strengthen my vision for the project and get real-time (enormously valuable!) feedback. Since the comments you all give me are so meaningful and I’ve just turned in my first proposal draft along with sample chapters, I want to share some updates on where things stand.
This Special Addition playlist is a simple random sample of my writing/pre-writing playlist. These are the songs I listen to when I’m walking to the office, the songs I play in my head when I’m editing, and the songs I blast as a not-at-all subtle emotional security blanket. Enjoy!
Wait, You’re Writing a Book?
Despite my semi-constant fear that I talk about my book so much I’m turning into Cady Heron in her Plastics era, it turns out a lot of people are surprised by this information. If you are one of those people, this section is for you :).
So yes, I am writing a book. I turned in a ~14,000 word book proposal, plus a several hundred person long list of potential interviewees, to my incredible agent Jess this week. As I’ve said a few times to friends since, I am convinced I have essentially given birth to a very ugly and very stupid baby. I am terrified I’ve failed to effectively communicate my ‘pitch,’ that my sample chapters are trash, and this is going to fall apart. There is no ‘Plan B,’ and not just because some states don’t think I can control my own body.
Non-State Actress is ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ for national security and defense.
The physical book will include QR codes on the pages that, when scanned, will take the reader to hyper relevant sections of the companion digital resource. For example, when talking about the National Security Act of 1947 the QR code will link to an electronic copy of the document, an audio recording of someone reading the document, and podcast interviews (produced by my dear friends at Goat Rodeo) with relevant experts.
I would like to see all of this live in a special, separate, Non-State Actress section of #NatSecGirlSquad’s Herd Mentality platform. HM is the private, members-only online home of #NatSecGirlSquad. Used for events, courses, and informal communication each user has their own profile, can post and ask questions, interact one-on-one. It’s an entire universe. I plan to replicate it for Non-State Actress readers, offering not just a single place for all the digital resources to live but also to give people a chance to interact with one another, me, and any members of #NatSecGirlSquad or the Book’s featured experts who choose to participate in the platform.
I know that if I do this right, it will be impactful in ways I don’t know about yet. Non-State Actress could enable and activate a demographic that we know is vital for a healthy democracy at a time when we really, really need one.
What Comes Next?
There are no guarantees, but as my friend Seb said, “it’s too purple to fail.” This can be roughly translated to “It will eventually be fine, or you will die trying.”
Largely, the next step is to do whatever Jess tells me to do in order to get this thing matched with the right (read: a brave) commercial editor/publisher. I most certainly need to keep working in the interim so all the pieces can come together however is best. I know what my goal is and I know where my expertise lies… and where it does not. I cannot WAIT to get feedback and help from people who know about books and publishing because it’s going to make all the difference in the world.
Right now, I need to:
Decide the right and best structure for the book.
Finalize the specific topics and issues the book will cover.
Secure additional funding for the project.
These are not small, but they are also far from impossible. In my mind, what remains for these three priorities is about 40% me absorbing information and 60% execution. Not so bad.
Not Up For Negotiation
While much is TBD, it is made easier by the fact that I have a tentative destination in mind. I’ve got a decent list of ‘Immovable Objects’ when it comes to how Non-State Actress will exist and I’d say this is pretty on brand for me. One of my strongest skills is the ability to quickly suss out and articulate the strategic vision, intention, and requirements for a project…and let everything else flow from there. It also helps that I have quite a bit of experience in building stuff from nothing.
The level of obsession I have with the components of a project’s strategic aim and minimum requirements is apparently terrifying. I like to think it is balanced out by my desire to defer to those who know better or care more about the specific operational and tactical level details I am less focused on, but others may disagree.
With Non-State Actress, here is my list of priorities as and how I am keeping them center stage while fine-tuning the structure:
1. Who Am I Here For?
I know that I want this project to be a resource for American women, particularly American millennial women, in a similar way as ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ was during its first printing in 1971 and has continued to be over the last 8 editions. I know that this requires a nuanced, intentional, and inherently multimedia approach. It’s the difference between a resource that is engaging, relevant, accessible, and enjoyable vs one of the most infamous memes of all time:
Making this happen requires more than my natural and practiced abilities, particularly because I am trying to reach a population I am not completely a part of.
Yes I am a millennial woman but I eat/sleep/breathe/dungeon and dragon national security. I enjoy documentaries on the history of armored vehicles and arguing about which is more damaging to norms and institutions: calling Jim Mattis General Mattis when he is no longer in the military or the fact that we again have a Secretary of Defense who is a former four-star general.
Also, I have never seen The Bachelor or Love is Blind. Forgive me.
How am I filling the gap? Research!
I spend a lot of time on Instagram these days. There’s even a Non-State Actress account that I use to see and follow what Normal People might see and follow. Sometimes I even remember to post on it! But generally, I am consuming an enormous amount of content- Buzzfeed, 19th News, comedy podcasts, Good Morning America, The View…and that is pretty tough on my brain.
Since I have a seizure disorder trigged in part by screen time, this much reading and watching is exhausting and can easily bring on a seizure. At the very least it absolutely lowers my seizure threshold so I need to strictly control my screen-time (texting, email, typing), and seriously prioritize my physical health. It means setting and enforcing strict limits on my activities and doing my best not to feel guilty about it.
I also rely pretty heavily on the Normal People in my life, especially my siblings and my close friends, to help me stay up to date on important cultural phenomena like Shakira’s divorce and tax troubles. Not only does it keep me from using wildly out of date memes, it broadens my cultural competency and helps me aim a little more precisely because instead of pretending to understand what is cool, I actually almost know what is cool…even if I don’t fully understand it.
Ok But How Does This Even Count?
All the information I take in sort of fuses together in my head and…eventually turns into a Non-State Actress section (if you don’t think Shakira is going to be a crucial part of tax codes and national security…LOL). There is no set order in which things come together, nor is there a linear process from input to output. At any given time, I have more than a dozen sections cooking at varying levels of intensity in my mind. I wish I could provide a better description, but honestly it isn’t a constant choice or even a process I am aware of. It’s just what happens
2. What It Sounds Like vs What It Is
Another crucial factor closely related to knowing who I am writing for": I know that I am not concerned about balancing my vision with fitting into an irritatingly false definition of intellectual rigor…which is really just about communicating in a way that Sounds Serious to Important People .
The Important People in this project, and for the health of our democratic institutions, are millennial women. Specifically, millennial women whose idea of a good time does not currently include memorizing US-government acronyms. I do not care if Non-State Actress is ignored, overlooked, and discounted on account of ‘vibes’ by those outside the primary audience (read: my own colleagues) because, with all the love and grace in the world, it isn’t for them.
Some people are convinced ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ is a masterpiece but ‘Legally Blonde 2,’ is trash, despite being intentionally shot for shot the same movie. I cannot help these people. It is also not my job to help these people.
Memes, contractions, and cultural references do not mean Non-State Actress’ future analysis of supply chains as a national security consideration beyond the Defense Production Act is less accurate or that my discussion of partner military education lacks rigor. It means that in addition to crafting a chapter that describes the form, function, impact, value, and cost of a topic or policy without prescribing a choice, I get to redo the work so that it is interesting…and takes less than 9 minutes to read. And I’m pretty good at it, too!
3. No More Winston Churchill Biographies
Finally, I know that in addition to being for women, Non-State Actress will feature women.
For this to work, we need to continue to shift the inappropriately narrow definition of expertise in the national security and defense world. We constantly highlight, validate, and canonize men as the Voices of Reason in national security and defense. Not only does this create a real and present danger to our national security(read this footnote, it’s a good one), it directly and indirectly results in American women who know just as much if not more than the guy in their Facebook feed who “would have joined the military” taking themselves out of conversations and being shut out when they do bravely stay.
Non-State Actress, like every thing I build, will once again remind us all that there are women who are experts on truly every national security topic and combat insider threat risk at the same time. Huzzah!
What Stories Get Told? Picking Topics
There is so much ground to cover when it comes to national security and defense, Non-State Actress could probably be a multi-volume series (don’t tempt me…). How am I deciding what to focus on?
To be clear, I’m talking to A LOT of people and I plan to talk to more - especially potential readers. I want to make sure that I am meeting people’s needs while also shaping the conversation.
One thing I’ve learned from this Substack is that you can’t just ‘jump in’ on a topic because it turns out Instruments of National Power is not a widely used phrase! Building out definitions that are finite enough to be meaningful but flexible enough to encourage critical thinking is an absolute must. So are examples and case studies that are interesting enough to get Normal People to care and cover a lot of ground. It’s also *really* important to genuinely explain without forcing a specific opinion or belief, being a condescending asshole, or both.
Certainly my personal priorities play a part in what I write about. How I write is shaped by the requirements we’re talking through. Let’s look at Crafts, Cakes, and Crimes:
Antiquities trafficking is not something we think about every day, but there’s evidence that its an area of interest thanks to movies like Indiana Jones and The Mummy. This is a great way to expand horizons without going too far off
the beaten path.
Antiquities trafficking is a big topic, but focusing specifically on the act as a financing mechanism for terrorist and transnational criminal organizations not only makes the writing and reading easier, but connects it to two of the most Structuring Structuresfor American millennials - terrorism and post-9/11 life and the drug war. Given NSA’s focus on making national security relevant for Normal Life, this is some juicy low-hanging fruit.
The next issue in the Cakes, Crafts, and Crime series will dig into a really specific and relatable or familiar example, which is something I’ve done in each Non-State Actress to date (AFG: my own friends and their families, power in The Godfather, NATO fighting a creep at the bar, and my own visit to Dachau). Again, it’s a great way to keep your thoughts organized, make it more interesting to the reader, and focus on the new information or points you want to highlight without needing to put as much energy into scene setting.
There are additional, important reasons Cakes, Crafts, and Crime is an area of focus, but this post was getting pretty long. I've added them as a footnote if you're feeling it.
Staying Alive: Funding Non-State Actress
Some people think it’s ‘not classy’ to talk about money, but I think those people are wrong.
One thing I’ve been (not actually) surprised by in this process so far is how people don’t acknowledge writing a book is a full time job and yet you also need a paid full time job. I will not be one of those people.
I won a grant for Non-State Actress earlier this year and while it far from covers the full cost of the project, it has enabled me to focus my professional time on the project for the last several months. I am exceedingly grateful to the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, where I am a 'Non-Resident' Senior Fellow, for giving me a physical space to work. I am particularly appreciative of Anca and Nick's work to process and execute the grant. This grant and the paid subscribers to Non-State Actress are currently my only income sources.
As I move into the next stage of work, I need to secure additional funding above and beyond a potential publishing advance in order to keep working let alone cover the fixed costs of things like the podcast. I am researching and pursing grants and funded fellowships like the Rockefeller Bellagio Residency and Smith Richardson Foundation, but would LOVE to hear about other opportunities I should pursue!
I genuinely considered the likelihood of me writing a book to be equal to the likelihood of me getting a non-honorary doctorate: a maximum of 0%. But, jokes on me because I am having entirely too much fun.
The more time and energy I put into Non-State Actress, the more convinced I am by my own pitch. I’m an out processor and since I need to edit, refine, and finalize some stuff right now I figured I’d out-process an update on the book. It’s easier for me to talk through the project in a post than it is on a Word document - largely because you all give me such wonderful feedback! I am excited to find out what you all see can be strengthened, and am particularly hopeful that sharing my key considerations in selecting chapter topics will generate some brilliant nuggets for further research.
Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency - Learn more about the brilliant Jess W., her colleagues, and see what kind of projects they are interested in. Who knows, maybe you’ve got a book in you too!
Goat Rodeo - My brilliant collaborators and supporters for the podcast portion of Non-State Actress
Women save and make democracy. There is so much research on this, and it’s the chapter I’m working on right now so my brain is applesauce. Learn more on Google for now :).
There is a certain kind of man who constantly shows the national security apparatus who he is and mostly only women believe him. We have such a finite definition of expertise and who ‘fits’ in national security (predominantly white men with military or military-connected experience) that they can literally sit in the office and talk about how much they hate America and *no one bats an eye.* Last year, I was contacted by a background investigator to confirm employment for someone waiting for a clearance. The candidate is a Taiwanese-American woman and the first person in her immediate family to be born in the United States. I spent nearly an hour on the phone with someone who wanted to know how I ‘knew for sure’ this person could be trusted. This is the tip of the iceberg.
In addition to all the reasons I’ve already listed, ‘Cakes, Crafts, and Crimes’ provides for two things:
A unique opportunity to dig into the many different kinds of work done by federal law enforcement agencies outside of deporting people and an entry-point into multilateral organizations in a way that further proves Jewish Lizard People Don’t Run the Government.
A wonderful example of the interplay between foreign policy and national security, and how the priorities of one can shift the priorities of the other. Tracing America’s historic disinterest in prosecuting or at least combatting antiquities trafficking to it becoming a key priority to find it has nothing to do with how frequently it occurs is a doozy.