Writing with Heart and Soul by Kelly Starling Lyons

KLSS_Lyons_bookcover_001Before I became a children’s book author, I wrote newspaper and magazine articles. I looked forward to feedback from editors that would help my stories shine. But one day, I received a note that made my shoulders slump in shame. “This has no soul.” I don’t remember what the story was. But I remember that critique.

I prided myself on being a writer who put her all into her work. But my editor was right. Technically, the story did the job. I included the who, what, where, when, why and how. My beginning worked. I wrapped the story up with a bow. But my piece didn’t make you feel. It had “no soul“ – no beating heart.

When I think about how to describe heart, I hear my favorite songs. I love ballads. Full of emotion, they make you smile or tear up in remembrance, catch your breath or sigh. As you listen or sing along, you feel everything that’s happening. You connect to the songs, because they speak to something deep inside.

How do you create stories with heart and soul? You start by putting yourself in your characters’ shoes and using your words to make music that will linger. Remember the joy of singing with abandon as a child. We didn’t worry about being on key or who was listening. We let it all out. Give yourself permission to feel everything. Use your senses. Show with your words. Go where the story takes you and bring your reader there too.

Creating stories with heart can be tough. Early drafts of my historical fiction picture book, Hope’s Gift (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), were so focused on accuracy that the pulse was missing. I forgot to make readers long for freedom with Hope, feel her pain, root for her and her family. My editor reminded me that stories fall flat without feelings. She told me to put the history aside for a moment and just focus on Hope’s emotions. She’s enslaved. Her father has run away to help liberate their people. He gives Hope a conch shell and a promise that freedom is coming. All she has left are that gift, her mother and brother and her faith.

As I revised, Hope and her family became real. I pictured her looking into her papa’s tear-stained face as he said goodbye. I imagined her clutching the conch shell he gave her, listening to the swooshing and hearing the echo of his words: “Nothing can keep freedom from coming.” I saw her comforting her little brother Henry like I used to comfort my younger brother Kevin when something made him cry or shudder. I immersed myself in her emotional journey of sorrow, hope, disappointment and joy. The characters lived not just on the page, but in my mind.

Another way to create heart and soul in stories is by studying those who do it well. Check out the work of gifted authors like Jacqueline Woodson, Angela Johnson, Sharon G. Flake and Carole Boston Weatherford to name a few. Read their work for the joy of their stories first. Then, analyze their books and glean tips to help your characters spring to life.

A last tip is to consider your own reaction. If you’re not welling up as you write, feeling a knot in your chest or your heart pounding, readers may not either. Look for internal cues that you’re making music that will resonate and play on.

kellyheadshot (1)Kelly Starling Lyons is a children’s book author whose mission is to transform moments, memories and history into stories of discovery. Her books include chapter book, NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal; CCBC Choices-honored picture book, One Million Men and Me; Ellen’s Broom, a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book, Junior Library Guild and Bank Street Best selection and Tea Cakes for Tosh and Hope’s Gift, Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Her latest picture book is One More Dino on the Floor. Learn more about Kelly at kellystarlinglyons.com. And follow her on Facebook by clicking HERE.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Kelly’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

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150 comments on “Writing with Heart and Soul by Kelly Starling Lyons

  1. judyrubin13 says:

    Kelly, thank you for sharing your ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a beautiful post and one that I will remember. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ashley samson says:

    Fantastic! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. cburillokirch says:

    Wonderful post- thank you so much for your insight and thoughts. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lori Mozdzierz says:

    Great advice! Thanks, Kelly 😆

    Liked by 1 person

  6. DebbieLubbert says:

    Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. bucklessclass says:

    Thank you for a very helpful post! Lots of great advice!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. laurielyoung says:

    Kelly, your books are so beautiful and full of heart, you have truly mastered this.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Mavis Penney says:

    Here’s to reading my own work with my heart pounding, and through my own tears. Thank you for reminding me what that feels like!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Susan Schade says:

    So true. Lovely advice! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Natalie Lynn Tanner says:

    THANK YOU, Kelly, for this WONDERFUL post! “The characters lived not just on the page, but in my mind” — and I would also add: HEART!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I sometimes find it hard when I write a picture book biography to inject some soul into it due to my focus on the facts. Thanks for the tips.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Jenifer says:

    Enjoyed your post. Everyone enjoys stories that touch their hearts – Writers and Readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. svaisnoras says:

    Great suggestion….thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. writeknit says:

    Terrific advise! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. marlainagray says:

    This is so beautifully written! Thanks, Kelly!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. fireurchin says:

    Appreciate this personal heart-share. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Deborah Allmand says:

    Kelly, great post on enhancing your manuscript with heart. Loved the idea of the ballads helping to find the soul or heart. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Caroline says:

    Hi, Kelly! Great to see you here. Great post, and much-needed advice. I tend to be more factual on my first drafts, too, so I love hearing a bit about your process here. (And totally agree with all of your awesome author recommendations!) Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Kim Pfennigwerth says:

    Thank you Kelly. Rounding out our characters with emotion is a great reminder to keep them from being flat.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. yangmommy says:

    Thank you for the inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. shirley Johnson says:

    Good insight. Thanks for sharing this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Keila Dawson says:

    Such great advice. Writers must feel the emotion. Love the exercise you shared. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Powerful post — thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Kirsten Bock says:

    I have to disagree with that editor because your books are full of soul! Thank you so much for this inspirational post.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Thank you Kelly, for the reminder of writing using the the five W’s & how–plus heart and soul.
    ~Suzy Leopold

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Judy Sobanski says:

    Thanks for the great post, Kelly. Feeling the emotions your characters are experiencing is very important.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Thank you for your post. I think it was important that you mentioned that the first drafts might have been missing the feelings that the later drafts shined with. I think the fear of not achieving it all in the first drafts can be something that stunts the writing process.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Juliana Lee says:

    Heart and Soul. So important and often left out of kid’s stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. kimchaffee1007 says:

    Thanks for your post. Always a good reminder that you want your reader to really feel something while reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Kathy Levy says:

    Great post and great reminder that all our characters have heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Debbie Austin says:

    Thank you, Kelly, for reminding us to feel what we are writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. kdveiten says:

    That’s exactly how I want to write! Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Kristen Browning says:

    Thanks for the great advice. This is an area that I am working on in my writing. I will definitely check out your author recommendations.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Andi Osiek says:

    Perfect reminder that we sometimes need to stop overthinking and focus on the heart of the story. Thanks for the great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Kate Giard says:

    Oooo…this is a fantastic reminder. Thank you for sharing the authors too.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Sharon Giltrow says:

    Thank you Kelly for your wonderful post very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. Aimee Haburjak says:

    Great point on using our internal emotions as a check and balance for heart and soul.
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  39. Sam Altmann says:

    Thank you Kelly!

    Liked by 1 person

  40. Kelly, my favorite line from your blog is “using your words to make music that will linger.” Those words are already lingering with me. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  41. rupalimulge says:

    Well said. I have to list the mentor texts and feel the pulse. Thanks so much for sharing the tips.

    Liked by 1 person

  42. Lauri Meyers says:

    I love the advice to take note of how you are feeling as you write, to well up when the heart gets big or to laugh aloud when writing the humor.

    Liked by 1 person

  43. Angela Turner says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope I can improve putting heart and soul into my stories.

    Liked by 2 people

  44. Leah Heilman Schanke says:

    What a great post. I can get caught up in the accuracy of a biography or historical fiction story and appreciate these tips. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  45. Kristen C.S. says:

    Thank you for the reminder. I’m definitely guilty of dropping the emotion plate while I keep the character, detail and plot plates spinning. One of these days my writerly life will stay balanced. I just know it will! =)

    Liked by 1 person

  46. csheer18 says:

    JUST what I needed for what I’m working on right now. Thanks, Kelly!

    Liked by 2 people

  47. Lynn Alpert says:

    Great advice, Kelly!

    Liked by 1 person

  48. Fantastic post. It’s easy to fall into the accuracy pit. As long as we stay with our characters, live under their skin, their heartbeat rings in our ears. Thank you for sharing this. Awesome.


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