You can have amazing skills with wordsmithery and fail to write a good novel. You can create memorable, lovable characters that stay within the readers' hearts. You can have a killer concept that is timely and engaging--but you won't get a book out of it until you own every inch of what happens in that plot.
And there's a difference between knowing what happens in your story and owning it. When things happen without absolute engagement between you and your characters, you're dropping the reins. When two characters interact and you describe how they look at each other, you're probably disengaging--you're watching them in a movie, not controlling their every move. And every move has meaning. Every movement, every moment, every sip of tea needs to be rooted in your intellectual and emotional understanding of the story, of what things really mean in your text.
You make the world. Your characters don't just do things on a whim. They are not the authors. You are. Unless you disengage and let things slide.
Learning to spot the moments where I have let things slide is the best thing I have learned over the past year. I don't catch everything--thank god for my amazing First Readers--but I am starting to catch my personal symptoms of disengagement. For me, here are some tell-tales:
- 3-sentence paragraphs that sound like Hollywood.
- moments with a lot of action and little emotional response from the characters
- passages of amazing dialogue with descriptions of how people's voices sound
- traveling, eating or drinking scenes
There are more, but they become specific to the work itself, and they happen on every page and sometimes every paragraph. I'm getting better at catching them. I don't even have any advice for others at how to catch the points of disengagement yet, because it's such a new skill for me. I can only guess that it is something that comes with writing for hours on end and begging someone to critique my work. Writing short stories has been an invaluable lesson in creating characters that I bend to the meaning of my story. I am learning how to pin each detail into place to make it sing. It's like a miracle.
So even if you're a lover of the long form, I can't recommend short story writing enough. Take a moment every week to challenge yourself to create some kind of short fiction. Pay attention to what you repeatedly screw up doing. After a while, you'll see those spots and you'll slap the words around until they cut through the expected, slice through the psyche and punch your reader in the gut.
You'll make them do it. After all, you're the writer. You pwn those words!