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. Thank you. ‘Making music’ on the page is a great prompt to keep in mind when writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. dbyatt says:

    This is the exact post I needed to jumpstart revising my own manuscript! I received similar feedback on mine about how the reader just simply wouldn’t care about my protagonist – there’s no emotion there. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I feel the “heart” in your post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Marge Gower says:

    Thank you for the heartfelt advice. We always feel we’re putting heart into our story, but many times fail. The soul of the story is needed, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. idzalg says:

    Thank you for this helpful post, Kelly! I love your advice to look for internal clues to gauge what the reader might feel.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Martin Segal says:

    Thank you for the great post on feeling and emotion, Kelly! Great advice to put ourselves in our character’s shoes!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ooh, I can’t imagine being told something you worked so hard on had no soul–way to go on rebounding from that! Love the authors you recommended. A few are unfamiliar to me. I will add them to my list of people to investigate.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for the great post! Thanks also for the reminder that when having trouble feeling heart and soul in a piece, it is best to read those authors who do it well!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Claire Bobrow says:

    This post really hit me. Sometimes the words flow out and you realize they are empty, with no real emotion. Thanks, Kelly, for reminding us that digging deep to express true emotion is the key to heartfelt tears and heartfelt laughter, and stories that resonate.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Maria Marshall says:

    Thank you for taking the often generalized “It’s flat” or “It has no heart” comments and not only explaining them but showing the way to curing them. Great advice, Kelly.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Monique says:

    Thank you for this post. I rewrote a manuscript to the point it lost all its soul. I think your excerise can help me pick it back up and try again.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. doromass says:

    Great blog, Kelly and I love your mission statement. You’ve encouraged me to look up some of the authors you mentioned (I’m from the UK, so none are familiar) and to work on creating an author mission statement of my own.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. megcason1 says:

    Thank you so much! Very inspirational!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Patti says:

    Thanks for the wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Such sound and logical advice to put ourselves in our characters shoes. so often, I picture my characters acting out a scene as I write. It makes better sense to become the characters we are writing to life. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Great post and definitely something I need to work on

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Sheri Radovich says:

    I started off thinking of a revision of a story this morning that was from a character’s pov that was different but with heart and leaving the the illustrator to finish the child’s rural surroundings to his/her imagination. I hope it has the impact of heart and humor I was going for. Now I need to see if my critique group gets it.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Tim Canny says:

    Another great Summer School post! I think I need to look a little deeper into my characters. Thanks Kelly!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Shelly says:

    Thank you for that heartfelt bit of advice – exactly what I needed to hear today!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Sue Frye says:

    Beautiful advice, Kelly 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I love this advice

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Hi Kelly, thanks for sharing this wonderful insight! I still smile when I read One Million Men and Me! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Diane Nizlek says:

    Great points, Kelly. I especially appreciated your mention of focusing on the historical aspects of Hope’s Gift, instead of emphasizing the reader’s emotional connection to the characters. As someone who is working on a historical middle grade, I see how easy it is to get wrapped up in the history!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Michelle Leonard says:

    Thanks for sharing your tricks, Kelly! Teacakes for Tosh and One Million Men and Me always make me cry! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Alice Fulgione says:

    I really liked your post, Kelly! I definitely have to work on the heart and soul of my stories. Thanks for your suggestions!

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Thanks, Kelly, for this heart-and-soul post. It’s something I need to think about when revising my stories. Great advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. topangamaria says:

    VERY helpful advice. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Karen Leiby Belli says:

    This is a wonderful post. Thank you for such insights.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Sandy Perlic says:

    Wonderful tips for ensuring our stories have soul. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  30. janebuttery says:

    Kelly, this is a wonderful approach.Thanks so much. I have written about a freed slave’s son in 1845-7 Amherstburg Ontario and I love what you say about emotions as my Josh was bullied,simply because he was a good student. I love this sentence:-” I immersed myself in her emotional journey of sorrow, hope, disappointment and joy.” That’s the way to bring a character alive.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. ericaanne2000 says:

    I’ve noticed that when I’m reading, if I can’t feel what the character feels then I don’t really care what happens to them. I’ve had difficulty writing scenes when I haven’t experienced what the character is experiencing. But something I learned in a dance class (of all places) is to transfer emotion, to find what you feel and put it into the dance (or scene) even if it is an unrelated emotional experience. You see what I’m saying?

    Liked by 1 person

  32. This is great! Thanks for the reminder about not just getting our stories technically right, but giving them heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. theresenagi says:

    Kelly thanks for sharing your writing journey. You have motivated me to rewrite my manuscript and put more soul in it. Your post really resonated with me on how important heart and soul are to manuscripts.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Kelly, you’re so right that the writer needs to have their emotions invested as they write the story. I know it makes a difference in my writing. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Heart is what makes stories shine. Loved the advice, Kelly.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. writersideup says:

    This is so true, Kelly! I remember when writing a particular scene, I was actually tearing up. It’s the “feel”–the heart and soul. It’s what I ache for as a reader and want to achieve as a writer, for sure. And a few names that sprang to mind are Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Neil Gaiman and, without question—J. K. Rowling. I am reading THE CURSED CHILD and am so compelled it thrills me!

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Thank you for sharing. Such great advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. kirsticall says:

    Thanks for reminding about how to add heart to a story…sometimes we do forget about the feelings when we’re working on the mechanics of a piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  39. Angie says:

    Love the tips! Thank you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  40. […] Source: Writing with Heart and Soul by Kelly Starling Lyons […]

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  41. Sara Gentry says:

    As a musician, your post really resonated with me. Thank you for your suggestions.

    Liked by 1 person

  42. eightpawswriting says:

    Yes. I’m in full agreement. If the author doesn’t make me feel, I get bored with the plot and don’t enjoy the story. I cried for two days as I ended my first novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  43. Elizabeth Saba says:

    Thank you for the advice and for your books.

    Liked by 1 person

  44. laura516 says:

    Heart can be so elusive. Thank you for sharing your writing tips!

    Liked by 1 person

  45. Lynne Marie says:

    Heart is so important. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

  46. gweddle says:

    Thanks Kelly! I like the suggestion to allow yourself to “feel everything.”

    Liked by 1 person

  47. Thank you, Kelly, for the tips to give the soul to our stories. You are inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  48. Juli Jones says:

    Thanks for helping us grasp how important emotion is for us as writers and our readers in order to feel the heart of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  49. phyllis chery says:

    Searching for the soul of a person or an event is never easy. Your questionnaire is very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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