Finding my Ko – or How Nearly Getting Kicked Out of the Military Made Me A Better Writer

December 2005 – I had just been pulled off training early and recalled to the office of the Commandant of the Australian Defence Force Academy. At any moment now I would be called into then-Commodore Goldrick’s office to explain exactly why I should not be booted from both the military and the university.

I had failed half my classes that year. I also had – and still have – a ton of respect for now Rear Admiral (ret’d) Goldrick, so it was a pretty horrible feeling waiting to be called through. I didn’t have a particularly good excuse, though I did have a bit of an idea of why I had failed.

I hated every class I was in. Not the lecturers or the students, just the content. The only reason I had chosen Aeronautical Engineering was because I wanted to prove to everyone just how smart I was. Which I did, ironically, when I failed.

It’s also why I feel pretty damn good about getting a High Distinction for the most recent subject in my Master of Letters, Creative Non-Fiction.

In that meeting, the Commandant was calm, reasonable, and offered some sage advice that I didn’t fully recognise until years later. Perhaps I still had something to offer the military. Perhaps I could contribute something significant. Perhaps I was just in the wrong place to do that. Perhaps he didn’t want to boot me after all, but wanted to nudge me towards a more appropriate career path.

Years later, I recognise the meaning of his words- what he was actually saying, in the undertones of his wisdom, was Know Thyself.

Knowing who I am, how I operate, recognising my own patterns of thought and how to convey those thoughts, as well as identifying my own strength, weaknesses, and passions helped me immensely in the latter stages of my Navy career. But it also helped me find areas of study I could simultaneously enjoy and excel at, become a better writer, and most recently, helped me find my Ko.

The first time I ever seriously sat down to write a novel – working title Ko – I hit about 80k words before I realised it wouldn’t work. Or at least, it wouldn’t work yet.

Still, I pushed on to about 130k, and even that was rushing the climax and conclusion.

But back then, I couldn’t make it work. I tried everything I could think of and I couldn’t make it flow.

Then I tried something a little bit crazy – and reached out to a writing mentor. I owe a lot to Chris Andrews of Creative Manuscript Services who helped me not only in my writing, but also by intorducing me to the wider writing community.

I haven’t looked back since. But I also haven’t finished that first manuscript.

Ironically, the thing that got in my way was also the thing that kept me writing. Through podcasts, conventions, courses, and writing groups, I had become intimately aware of just how terrible my writing was. Of course, as a result, I tried to fix it.

I tried new stories. I tried changing genres, different lengths, and different styles. I tried reducing the complexity of a story – and completed a manuscript for Bardling, I tried going into a more contemporary setting and wrote about 20k of Unforgettable, which has a premise and characters that I love. But in the end there were too many sensitivities that I want to get right rather than pushing forward for the sake of getting progress.

I tried sci-fi and cli-fi with SoulSteel, a Mulan meets The Departed meets Dresden Files action novella, and an unnamed story kind of like The 100 in reverse; the remnants of humanity stuck on a storm-ravaged planet and trying to escape skyward with tech never intended for aeronautical use. Like the subject matter of the engineering degree, none of them really stuck though.

Surprisingly, the most success I had was in the shortest form. One of my 2019 commitments was to entering the Australian Writer’s Centre’s Furious Fiction competition for twelve months straight. Most of my entries are on my Writing page (except one – to be perfectly honest, I just didn’t like it, and didn’t want it out there in public with my name attached to it) , and it was through these that I noticed a bit of a theme. Not an overarching message like a thematic metaphor, or a similar plotline or characters, but when put under the pump, when working to a short deadline, everything came out darker.

I tried to write more positive stories, tried to write something more hopeful, but it just didn’t feel like my writing. I didn’t enjoy it, and if I don’t enjoy it I can’t expect any readers to do the same.

So, like my conversion from studies more suited to my passions and interests, I’ve made the decision to embrace that darker style of writing. Coincidently, and completely unrelated, I also took out Ko for the first time since 2017.

This title comes from a particular belief in the story. The idea that everyone has a Ko. A core truth to which they hold. The only way to reach Ko though, is for an individual to externally be and represent what a person is internally. For a person’s rhetoric to match their true nature. Someone who knows their Ko acts to reflect the nature of that truth.

Now, that might sound all nice and wonderful – but what if the true nature of that person was not anything positive? What if a psychopath was raised in the worst situations, abused, and then given near ultimate power? What if everything they learned of the world was wrong? That fear was the same as respect, that a mother’s love set him above all others, making them lesser beings, and that power existed only for self-gratification?

His Ko is the action of these beliefs. It is about as far from positive as can be reached.

Then what if his Ko could not – or would not – be changed? Meet Rogath, my long-term antagonist that allows me to see just how much of ‘dark’ also equals ‘interesting’.

When I went back to this manuscript, I saw that this question had been introduced and I hadn’t even realised. I read it with the separation of someone who hasn’t spent every day neck deep in the words, trying to fix a bunch of little issues to try and make it better.

Then I looked at my uni work from previous subjects. Again, both dark (side note, the Creative Non-Fiction piece was about family, and was anything but dark – it can be the exception).

Through writing the shortest stories I’ve ever done, then looking across my most successful short story The Safe Place, and reading again through The Survivor, Indecision (not posted), and Ko, which was and continues to be a story I just love writing, I came to realise that my natural writing – my ‘happy place’ – was writing dark. Maybe they’re not as dark as they could be, but definately trending that way.

The external expression of the stories I want to tell come out best, most coherently, when knowing that truth, knowing myself as a writer, and knowng that Ko.

So I’m setting this as a bit of a challenge to myself; I’m going to work on that original manuscript – the prologue (and probably least dark section) of which can be found here – and I’m going to embrace that dark twist on the themes, plots and characters and see where they go.

There is every chance that the story may yet change – the joys of being a pantser – and may yet turn more positive again. But after trying a bunch of different methods, genres, and styles, I think I’ve found my Ko.

So, I guess the take away from this is twofold. First of all, as a writer it is important to know yourself. Knowing what you write, why you write, and finding the stories that come naturally to you can only help your writing.

Secondly, if you are here for the reading instead of the writing, prepare for future stories to replicate my coffee habits. . .and keep getting just a tad darker.

And third, a special take away just for me: when you finally get a decent grade at uni, celebrate the proper way with the drink of psychopaths – a summer-y lime and mandorin infused G&T. Cheers.

~Nathan

 

 

 

 

 

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