I've been working toward this idea that might turn out to be a novel. I'm not sure yet. I haven't actually written anything except scene notes and characters' names and ages. I'm still trying to let the big picture work itself out in my head. Dreamstorming (instead of brainstorming). I'm trying this based on advice from Robert Olen Butler's book From Where You Dream. I recommend it.
I've been on a reading kick the last couple weeks, too. The Illumination, Train Dreams, now Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Next I want to read Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding. Trying to study how characters come alive on the page, and how voice and action bring that about.
One of my tendencies in fiction is to summarize action in analytic, explanatory terms rather than using concrete, sensory details and in-the-moment action to let the reader jump into the story themselves. I'm too much "in my head," as ROB would say. Which breaks the fictional dream for the reader and puts them in their head too, rather than in the fictional world of senses and feelings. One of my other problems is writing stories where the characters aren't really longing for anything. Or what they long for is a tired, easy version of a deeper, more nuanced longing. So as I read, I'm also paying attention to what the characters lack, what they yearn for, what drives them and makes me feel with them.
The novels I've been reading lately all happen to share a strong affinity to place--especially Train Dreams and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. And Swamplandia! before that (another of my recent favorites). This story in my head also happens in very specific places, places that affect and change the characters. So I'm alert to how the environment matters in these novels I'm reading.
Mostly, though, I've been reading for the aesthetic pleasure of it. I've been aware after-the-fact of not having read these books so much "in my head" as in my heart. But I'm still learning a lot about writing from them. When I was in the MFA program, I read primarily "in my head," which is valuable for learning how to learn from great writers. I had to write 8 craft annotations per semester, so I got a lot of practice reading in my head. But, again to paraphrase ROB, I can't learn to write without being in my head, until I read without being in my head. Maybe this is one of those "you have to follow the rules before you can break them" deals.
So, my work in progress. I stopped myself this morning with this thought: What am I doing, trying to write a novel? I've barely grasped the short story form. Besides, everybody says they have 4 or 5 crappy novels before they finally write the one that they're proud of, that gets published. Why all this work if it's just going to be one of my "drawer" novels?
But then this: Whatever I write next will be better than what I wrote last.
It may not be publishable, but it will be my truest work yet. Provided I keep tuned into the voices of the characters and the true, deep yearnings I hear in the world all around me. Provided I keep reading and keep learning how to see, hear, and communicate those yearnings most effectively.