A Friendly Reminder (from Tolkien)

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Every time we open the first page of an unfamiliar book or sit down to watch a new movie, we are indirectly changing our own lives. How, we do not know quite yet, but it’s certain that something will happen.

I believe that is one of the reasons why we enjoy watching films, reading books or listening to music. We are changing our lives in some ways, tweaking it little by little into a more colorful, broader view on life and ourselves.

We might gain a new perspective on life, on the world history or on a value we hold dear or knew nothing of. We learn how other people think, feel and react to different things and where their reactions take them. We become more empathetic.

In addition to that, we are reminded of what in our lives is good, what to keep, value and respect.

For me, such an experience was seeing the film Tolkien.

I didn’t know what to expect after seeing only a short teaser trailer about the film, so I just went to the movie theatre with my two sisters, sat down and opened my mind.

The film had many beautiful scenes in it and in my opinion, the film crew succeeded in depicting Tolkien’s fantasy, to explain where he found inspiration and ideas to the stories of Middle Earth.

However, the most important and valuable thing I got out of the film was two friendly reminders.

The first one was about the courage writing requires. Taking action, taking the risk to abandon many other things to be able to write and write quite seriously, to aim to become a published author – it takes courage.

It is so important for a writer to take his or her writing seriously, to believe in them and in the fact that there’s currency in my creativity. 

According to the film, without his wife Edith, Tolkien might not have begun writing The Hobbit. I wonder how the fictional world of books would look like today if Tolkien’s stories wouldn’t have seen daylight.

And that was the other reminder: how important it is for a writer (or any person, for that matter) to be surrounded by a supporting network. People or even just a person who has belief in my work, words and imagination, and who don’t think my eventual success would come on their expense.

As we walked out of the movie theater with my sisters who were talking about Tolkien’s life and how they enjoyed the non-chronological order of the scenes, I had my thoughts on what the movie told about writing and what thoughts I took with me:

The beauty of words and the meaning they can give to people.

How lucky I am to be able to write daily both fact and fiction.

And, most of all,

How incredibly lucky I am to have a partner who encourages me to write and get my writing published, to cheer me on and be happy on my behalf when I succeed.

He got a kiss when I got home.

Why Fan Fiction Could Be Good For You

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During 2007 and 2011 I wrote over one hundred fan fiction short stories that I published on a Finnish writing forum. The stories I wrote were a way for me to stay a bit longer in the beloved world of Harry Potter after the books had been released, but it was also an opportunity to try writing alternative histories, throw the characters into new sorts of adventures or make them go through something I myself had experienced.

The active years I spent there helped me develop as a writer as I read several hundred, if not up to a thousand, good pieces of fan fiction and got feedback for my own stories as well. Also, I loved finding a community that shared the same passion for the fandom and for writing.

A bit over a month ago, I wrote about my wish for finding good writing company. I was feeling reluctant to return to the same writing forum and start writing fan fiction again as it felt like I had outgrown it, but after some thinking and browsing through the familiar forum I noticed an HP short story idea starting to form inside my mind. Something I thought would be worth publishing.

So, after an eight-year-long break, I decided to make a comeback. And it was nice to return.

Developing as a Writer

During the past few months of my fierce and stressful thesis-writing, I’ve had Yellow Tails resting on the shelf (quite literally, it’s on the highest shelf of my wardrobe). I didn’t want to have two big projects going on at the same time because I was certain I couldn’t give them both the high quality energy they deserved, so I opted for one of the two.

Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to keep my mind off fiction writing. A writer needs to keep on writing and therefore, instead of writing novels, I’ve been putting my creative energy into something where the stakes are a bit lower: fan fiction.

I’ve spent the past months reading some great works, both one-shot and longer, and I’ve practiced giving feedback to writers on their stories. I have also written and published a short story with four parts (1,000 words each), and at the moment, I’m working on another story that will have five parts. Small things – but things, nonetheless.

Ten years ago, when I was a newbie in fan fiction, I used to write fan fiction almost on a daily basis and as soon as I was done with a piece, I would usually publish it right away and eagerly wait for some feedback.

Today, however, I have become more tolerant with my work. I give it the time it needs after the story is done before I start editing it and read it through several times before publishing it. I focus more on the reader’s experience and try to make the story as easy to read as possible.

Things I don’t think I even considered ten years ago.

What I wasn’t expecting upon my returning is that, as time has gone by, I notice how much I’ve developed as a writer.

The Many Benefits of Fan Fiction

In the same way as I see my own progress, I’ve also noticed the many things how writing fan fiction can help probably anyone develop as a writer.

Back in the days writing fan fiction was only something I did for fun. Today, as I see writing almost as a science, I’m making a comeback to the writing forum with a clear aim and for a purpose: to become a better writer.

So, these are the pros with fan fiction I believe will improve my writing skills:

  1. Just like reading books helps one to develop as a writer, so does reading fan fiction. There are so many great works online! By reading all those short stories and novels, one can learn a great deal about writing. It also helps to realize what makes fan fiction good – and what does not, something one can probably translate to writing original stories as well.
  2. When the world and the characters are familiar, it is easier to develop your plotting skills and focus on creating an intriguing storyline. There isn’t the same kind of pressure in writing fan fiction as there is in writing something original: when half of it is already there, you can direct your focus on the things that need it the most.
  3. However, just because the world and the characters are familiar doesn’t mean you get to be sloppy with them. It’s a fine challenge to try writing about the world and the characters everybody already know as authentically as possible. The world needs to feel real and the character’s actions must seem realistic, in-character. This way, writing fan fiction helps a writer to find ways to think about the characters and the world on another level: what are the qualities of this character, how does he or she think or feel in this kind of situation? How does the world actually work, what would be a suitable explanation for this thing that is happening?(A good example is an HP fan fiction work called Manacled (K18 / NC-17!) that I’m reading at the moment: the characters and the world feel so authentic I’m amazed by the writer’s skills)
  4. At least on the writing forum I’m active at, there are several different writing challenges anyone can join. For instance, there’s a challenge where writers are invited to write fan fiction about forced marriages. Another challenge offers the opportunity for the writer to write a story where one uses their knowledge of a certain topic, e.g. Biology or Political Science, in the story. In this way, the writing forums offer new ideas to write about and an opportunity to try writing something completely different.
  5. One of the best things about writing fan fiction is that the stakes aren’t that high. The audience can be demanding but no one will banish you from the forums if you write something less intriguing. You are writing and publishing on that forum for one reason: to develop as a writer. Therefore, it is also an opportunity to try one’s wings on new genres or writing from an odd character’s point of view.(I’ve done this more now than before: the story I wrote and published in early April was written from an 11-year-old boy’s view, something I’ve never done before, and the story I’m now writing has some detailed sex scenes in it. I’m really walking on strange land here)

The only downside about fan fiction writing I can come up with is that it can become very addictive to write fan fiction only because it is easier than writing something of your own. After a while, writing something original can become too daunting, and that is a thing to be aware of.

***

Have you written fan fiction / are you writing right now / could you consider writing?

Help for Heroes – Or How To Realise an Idea

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I was standing on the platform waiting for a train to take me to another city. A woman in her thirties walked past me. Her style and the way she walked, proudly, made me think she was an advocate for something. She was wearing a black hoodie with a text written in white on it that said Help for Heroes.

Still with minutes left to kill before the train would arrive, my mind started thinking about the words it had seen. Help for Heroes sounded exciting and immediately a thought, an idea, started forming inside my head. What if there was a person in the world who would not be a superhero herself but would come to the aid of superheroes – in a way, she would be the superhero of the superheroes?

How would the story look?

For instance, would the hero of this story, the helper of the superheroes, have an office where she would sit on one side of the table and Hulk on the other, the green giant holding back tears because the puppies were just so cute so he got distracted and that’s why he failed to save the world? And the helper would tell Hulk that ”Hey, puppies are your soft spot, Hulk, and you just have to learn to be okay with it. It’s unnecessary to keep putting energy on wondering how the hell the puppies ended up in the warehouse in the first place. More important is to discuss how you can deal with your weakness and make it into a strength.”

In that moment, I got into the wonderful wheel of spinning on ideas. It’s a great feeling and for me, it’s one of the best things about writing – coming up with ideas, creating more ideas around them and creating a new world of everything that is exciting. But then I got hit by a wall – a wall I’d like to call too mainstream. While standing on the train platform, I saw the whole Help for Heroes enterprise build in front of me – the movies, the comics, the miniature toy figurines. And that made me realize that my idea was so identical to so many of the superhero movies and books that are published today – and in that moment, the idea lost its appeal.

And that made me think of this: if I wanted to make the idea wonderful and unique, I’d have to find a way to use the idea in an unexpected way. But how does one realise an idea without it becoming a copy of everything that already exists? How to make an idea unique?

Learning from Others

This question of realising ideas has been boosted by the literature I’ve come across during the past month. I decided to alter my reading list and switch from adult books to young adult literature. So, in the library, I walked to the young adult section and picked out books with a catchy name and an interesting back cover.

I like YA as a genre; the books tend to be hopeful with a valuable lesson to learn and the characters can be great role models for young readers (and why not for older readers as well). But the best part, what I noticed while browsing the shelves, was that the ideas for YA don’t seem to have any limits. I mean, speed dating in space? I’m in! People having nine lives instead of one? I want to know more! The ideas are daring and awesome – and I was intrigued to see how the idea would take form in the story.

However, as fun and even a bit crazy these ideas are, when I started reading the books I noticed how the idea only takes the book so far. These novels were built on a good idea but had such weaknesses that exhausted the power of that idea: there were too many characters or they were too weak; there were too many subplots that didn’t seem be important for the main plot; the storyline was foreseeable which made it boring and so on.

It feels like many books are built on a great idea – but the execution doesn’t do justice to that idea (or vice versa but that’s another topic). So, how to write a story that presents the idea in the best possible light?

Make It Your Own

As there are certain ingredients needed to bake a cake, so are there for writing a novel. The story gains a good deal of structure when it follows the classic story structure of a hero’s journey. A story needs a set of characters and some subplots to engage the reader and create feelings of excitement or sympathy for the characters.

But a writer needs to find a way to make the novel stand out from all the other novels that are written. It is said that every story is unique because no one will write the story in exactly the same way as you do. And it’s true. But on top of the things already mentioned, the idea that gives life to a new novel needs to be realised in a way that will leave people, in some way or the other, amazed and surprised.

How to do that? I don’t know – but I can guess. This is what I’ve come up with:

  1. Don’t get too excited creating tens of characters and subplots for the story just because they give a fun twist to it or show new sides of the idea. Instead, focus on crafting a strong storyline that thrives on the idea without becoming too much of everything.
  2. Don’t cut the corners while crafting the storyline, i.e. don’t settle for the typical, foreseeable story structure most of us have learned to recognize. Instead, try to analyze the story structure points in a new way, in your way. Can a mentor be something else than a person? Can ’the darkest moment’ be interpreted in a different way?
  3. Think about the idea through your own values or the life lessons and experiences you’ve gained. What values or lessons do you want to pass forward to the reader through the story you’re writing? For instance, in Yellow Tails I’m trying to show the reader the difficulty of change – something I’ve learned first hand. This will make the story even more unique because it becomes more like you.

So, sure, your story needs structure, characters and subplots to work and realise an idea – but do a favor for yourself: don’t cut the corners while working on your idea. Do the analytic work. Kill your darlings. And make the idea work for you; make it your own.

To come back to that moment on the train station: although the primary idea for Help for Heroes feels very mainstream, I’m certain that I can find the twist that makes the story more complex, unforeseeable and, most of all, unique. But to manage that I need to be willing to do the thinking work it requires. We’ll see where it will take me.

***

How do you go about when realising an idea?

Working With Flow

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A few days ago, me and my partner got into a conversation about flow. You know flow, right? That highly enjoyable feeling of being completely absorbed and focused on one activity and everything else disappears around you?

What triggered the conversation about flow was something as simple as meal times in our household. Both me and my partner prefer routines because they make life easier and simpler as doing the same things every day in the same way requires less energy and thought compared with irregular sleeping rhythm and unplanned meals. But when flow comes into the picture and starts bossing around, me and my partner are somewhat different.

We both experience flow more or less regularly, and for me, interrupting my flow state when lunch hour is coming closer is no problem. I can stop writing then and there, maybe finish off the sentence but then save the thing and put my laptop to sleep. For my partner, however, nothing else seems to matter when he deep-dives into his thought processes and writing.

From time to time, this leads to conflicts. Most often, it’s me asking him to interrupt his flow for the sake of lunch, dinner, bedtime or any other routine we have – and it isn’t always with a happy agreement he stops writing.

But how to deal with this kind of issue? Is it completely wrong of me to ask someone to interrupt his or her flow in order to do something quite mundane? Isn’t flow like something sacred, something to value and appreciate and, most of all, not interrupt when it decides to pay a visit?

Or how are we supposed to work with the flow?

Many Can’t Afford It

Many dream of it, many seek for it – the mysterious feeling where time disappears and magic is created. But there aren’t too many who can afford to wait around for flow or for the inspiration to strike in order to work on their craft. There are of course some, but may it be painting, writing, composing or crafting, most creatives rely on every-day routines to get their work done. They learn to work with flow or without it.

For instance, in The War of Art Pressfield writes about Somerset Maugham who told a curious someone, that ”I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” And Daily Rituals by Mason Currey showed that most creatives in this world have relied on routines to get their work done.

But all who have experienced flow know that it is so much more wonderful to produce words, music or works of art when one is completely absorbed by the moment rather than relying on the everyday habit of working. Creating that comes as a result of a habit can be extremely painful at times, even forced and awful – wouldn’t one opt for creating in the state of flow rather than according the constructed routine?

And therefore, when the flow embraces us, should we for once forget about everything else and let it take over completely? For once, create in the happy, magical state of concentration where the words flow like a river and every brush of paint is perfect?

Or should we treat flow with a cold hand and say, ”Hey, you’re not here most of the time. Just because you decided to visit me today doesn’t mean I’m throwing all my routines away to adjust to your wishes”? Because what if we don’t embrace it and, instead, let it go – will it come back?

Can we afford not to take advantage of flow?

The Cutest Puppy

As I wrote in the beginning of the post, most of the time I have no trouble interrupting my flow to follow my regular routine. When I become fully focused on creating worlds and stories, I can enjoy it while it lasts and then break free from it when needed.

What I’ve noticed is that although I break free from it, the flow state comes back when the circumstances are right. For me, that is usually the moment when I have a few hours of unplanned time in front of me, there’s nothing on my to-do list and I get to return writing an enjoyable story.

So, for me flow is like a muscle, something one can train and work on in order to become better at reaching that state. Therefore, I don’t see flow as anything sacred, anything too special that one needs to discard everything when it appears.

I’d even like to think of flow as a cute little puppy you take home with you. It’s adorable, you love it and embrace it and its funny ways – but if you don’t stay in control and teach the puppy to behave from day one, it will chew your cables and furniture when you aren’t paying attention.

The flow is something greater than good, something to strive towards and embrace when it comes to you, but at the same time it shouldn’t be greeted with overly open arms. For me, it feels important to stay in control of the flow, to be able to embrace it but also to push it away when needed, in order to not feel empty when it leaves you again. Because flow is fickle and you can never really be sure when it decides to pay you a visit. Therefore, maybe one should live as if there was no flow and be pleasantly surprised when it does visit one’s creative mind?

***

What are your thoughts on flow and how to deal with it?

 

Still Life Sunday: A Moment’s Notice

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31 A Moment’s Notice

I was in the middle of an article about the new education reform when a short clink sound of the letterbox interrupted my reading. Frowning, I looked at the table where a low pile of letters had dropped through that same letterbox only a few hours ago. Did they deliver mail twice nowadays?

Leaving the newspaper on the table, I walked out of the kitchen to the entrance hall and crouched to pick up the freshly delivered letter. The light blue envelope felt smooth under my fingers, the surface reflecting the light in the ceiling. The envelope had our address on it but the first line told it was meant for my wife to read and not for me – or us.

I turned the envelope to see if there was a return address on the backside but there wasn’t, of course not; mysterious, hand-written letters like these never had return addresses.

The letter was thick, heavy with information that was not meant for me.

There was no one in the yard and even the street looked deserted as I peeked through the window in the door. Neither the mail-carrier or the mysterious letter-carrier could be seen, but then again, of course not. Why would the person stay around to see if the letter found its receiver? If there was a doubt about it, he or she would have rung the doorbell and given it to the receiver directly to be sure. But this person didn’t; clearly, he or she was certain that the letter would be opened in the right hands.

“Darling!” I raised my voice so that it would reach my wife who was brushing her teeth in the bathroom (or more likely in the bedroom, staring out of the window naked, because that was just one of her quirky ways of being). “Come downstairs, will you?”

While waiting for her, I returned to the kitchen. The newspaper was left on the table, the political article completely forgotten. My curiosity for the letter’s content exceeded greatly the new education reform which was still in the planning phase and might not even see the light. My eyes were focused on that envelope that now leaned against the vase of colorful Spring tulips. Who had written her a letter and why?

When my wife walked into the kitchen, fastening the silk belt of her dressing gown and her brown wild hair still all over the place as it was in the mornings, her eyes locked on the letter immediately. She let out an excited shriek, as if she knew exactly what the letter held, and had been waiting for it.

“It came after the usual mail delivery”, I said and took the letter into my hands, looking at it again. “It’s for you. What is it?”

My wife walked to the table and reached out her hand towards the letter. As I gave it to her, I noticed the slight quiver of her hand and the eager way she grasped the letter. Suddenly, I felt a twinge of doubt in my chest. This letter seemed so important to her – why hadn’t she told me anything about it?

“Honey?”, I tried again, as I hadn’t gotten an answer on my question. “What is this all about?”

“Oh”, she said, her eyes gleaming with excitement as she looked at the address written on the envelope. “It’s a…”

She sighed as if she didn’t know how to explain.

“I’m getting worried”, I said and chuckled gently. “What is it, an invitation to Hogwarts?”

My wife gave a small laugh but didn’t answer. She turned the envelope and opened it gently, careful not to break the paper. I watched her take out the letter, the many pages folded in half, and followed the movement of her eyes as she began reading the words. It seemed as if she had forgotten me, as if she was completely unaware of the fact that I, her husband, was there, and had asked her question.

She stood in the middle of the kitchen, her feet bare and probably getting cold from the cool kitchen tiles which she usually disliked – but she didn’t seem to mind. Clearly, there were more important things in her mind right now. But what? The curiosity inside me was slowly turning into a worried doubt. A fear for the anonymous writer and what he or she had written on those pages my wife was now eagerly reading, page after page, was starting to get a grip of me.

I wanted to know but at the same time I wondered if I really wanted to – if I really wanted to make my life shift, because that’s what it felt like in that moment as I sat on the kitchen chair, looking at my mesmerized wife.

After five long minutes, I started getting tired of my own restlessness and my wandering eyes that tried to focus on the newspaper again but glanced at my wife’s face every fifteen seconds or so. I stood up, took the one step to my wife and covered the content of the letter with my hand. I saw the handwriting – a woman’s, surprisingly.

“What is this letter?”

My voice was harder now as restlessness had taken the place of my earlier patience. My will to understand and accept the letter and its content had turned into a steady determination to know what was written on those pages.

“Well?”

My wife seemed to be struggling with words. She seemed enchanted by the content in the letter, couldn’t take her eyes off the pages although my hand was covering it.

Just as I was about grab her arm to get her attention, her eyes focused on me.

“I’m sorry, honey, but I need to leave for a few days.”

“What?”

“Right now. I’m sorry, I really am. But I need to go and pack, I’m in a hurry.”

Her voice was filled with hopeful determination which should have meant that I had nothing to worry about. But from what I knew, I had everything to worry about. I tried to follow in my wife’s steps out to entrance hall and the stairs but she closed the door to the kitchen behind her. And although it wasn’t locked and I could’ve easily followed her, I stayed put. I felt numb, powerless against that letter. What the hell was happening? In the corner of my eye, I saw the envelope that was still on the kitchen table. I didn’t want to touch it, not even look at it. The whole thing felt cursed.

Only a minute later, I heard my wife rush down the stairs. I waited for her to come to the kitchen to explain or to say goodbye at least, but I only heard the outdoor opening, the empty coat hanger clanging a few times against the wall, and then – the outdoor closing.

I watched her from the window. She didn’t take our car. Instead, she started walking briskly down the street towards the main road, carrying with her a backpack and, on her arm, her light blue jacket.

She didn’t look back. When I couldn’t see her anymore, I felt a silence take over the entire house. I was alone and had no idea why.

Writing In Good Company

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I’ve been quite cautious about my book project. For the past year, when someone has asked me how I am or what I’ve been up to, I’ve just told them about my thesis or, well, not told them much more than ”I’m fine, how have you been?”

There’s only a handful of people out there who know about Yellow Tails (if you don’t count Instagram and this blog, of course). You might wonder why I’ve kept quiet about it, and the answer is this: I believe in the idea of silent success.

Many people announce their 30-day detox from social media or from candy or from alcohol to their friends and family in order to keep them to their word. The silent success, however, is about starting, executing and finishing a project in silence, and telling about it first when you’re done.

There are at least two good things about keeping your success to yourself: 1) the pressure and expectations comes from you, and you only, and 2) you do not have to deal with the people who have difficulties being happy for other people’s happiness and development (something I have first hand experience on, unfortunately).

But silent success wasn’t precisely what I wanted to talk about today. Rather, I’d like to write about the opposite. Being successful – and telling about it.

(But only to a few)

The Happiness of Telling

Last Tuesday, a friend of mine called me. The last time we talked was a few years ago but in a few weeks we’ll actually be working together which why she called to ask a few questions about the up-coming work week. But those questions took only a few minutes. After that she asked how I was doing, what I had been up to for the past months. I told her about the thesis – and I told her I had written a book I was now editing.

And she was so excited for me!

The best part was that she told me she’s also a writer, that she’s been writing for years, but that it’s been only a thing, not a career or anything. For me, it didn’t matter. I was simply filled with some sort of calm happiness for knowing that I had a writing friend in the same city. We had a fun conversation comparing our writing routines and how we plot or not our stories.

It really is true that writing is a lonely job and that friends who write are golden. But I don’t think one realizes it before finding a true writing friend. For me, it happened last Tuesday, and I noticed how much I’ve desired for one.

Searching for Community

After I decided to take a longer break from Instagram, which was a few months ago, it’s been quiet on the writing community side of my life. On Instagram, there were so many writers, aspiring authors and writing coaches who were there every day to cheer you on and share the happiness and pain of being a writer. But as I’m not there anymore, I haven’t really been cheered on by so many.

However, as I’m not very excited about going back to Instagram and everything it entails, I’ve been thinking about what other options I have. A writing group? A writing forum? A writing course or an entire education?

I write this blog in English and write my Master’s thesis in Swedish. However, Finnish, which is my mother tongue, is the language I write my journal in and also, my fiction. Therefore, as I’m thinking about my options, I’m restricted by my language.

Finland is a small country with only 5.5 million people. This means, at least when compared to many other countries, that there are even less writing people and that the likelihood of me finding them is, well, small. Plus, that I have no idea where to start looking if I wish to hold on to my principle of silent success.

At the moment, attending a writing course or enrolling in University for another degree, this time in creative writing, isn’t an option. I’m busy with finishing my current degree and after that I have other plans.

That leaves me with writing forums. But I’ve been reluctant to return.

Considering a Comeback

There’s nothing wrong with writing forums – it’s just that I haven’t been on one since 2011 and hadn’t thought about going back. At the time, I wrote mostly fan fiction and was all about writing love stories between Hermione Granger and Draco Malfoy, Susan Bones and Terry Boot, and Lily and James Potter. Today, however, I’m not returning too eagerly to fan fiction because it feels like I’ve outgrown it. Therefore, I didn’t even think I’d have any business on those forums again.

But the call from my friend had a curious timing. Her excitement, encouragement and support for my book project gave me a boost of energy and motivation, something I didn’t experience getting from Instagram. This made me think that maybe I could return to those good old forums – but publish something original instead.

As I’ve noticed a longing for a Finnish-speaking writing group, this thought seemed to get wings the moment I decided to give it some actual thought. Ten years ago, when I was publishing at least one story per week on these forums, I got a good deal of feedback and cheers from fellow Finnish writers. But today, as I’ve been writing Yellow Tails by myself without publishing it anywhere or having anyone read it (yet), I don’t know how other people see and feel about my writing. It could do me good to write something shorter, try out different styles and in that way, develop my writing skills.

I haven’t done a comeback yet. But I did go and check if my old username still worked – it did. So maybe I’ll start drafting something in the coming weeks. Nothing too big, no full-length novels, but maybe a short one, something like the Still Life Sundays I’ve been publishing here, and see where it takes me.

After all, I’d guess a writer never turns down some feedback and writerly support from other writers?

***

Where do you publish your writing?