Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do You Have a Soul?

Or rather, does your novel?

Yup, I've got a few extra minutes this morning, so I'm going to take advantage of this day I normally reserve for a day off.

I got a couple books out of the library last Saturday (I know, I know, but you must always find time for reading) and I read one of them over the weekend.  The book was crafted extraordinarily well.  The style was unique and pushed me along to read more.  But there was something else about this book that kind of made that little lightbulb go off in my head and find the connection between this book and a few others I've read.

They all had souls.

These rare gems rise above their peers with true life and vibrancy.  Not only do they reveal their secrets within the pages, but they force their readers to do the same.

And I think having this life and vibrancy, this soul, goes beyond merely stringing words along correctly and telling a good tale.  There are some wildly popular and entertaining novels out there that haven't quite reached soul status.  That's not to say they aren't good.  In fact, there are many on the NY Times Bestseller List that are crafted beautifully, but they lack that additional umph to make them truly come alive.

It's much like that guy who painted the campbell's soup cans (sorry, can't remember his name) being compared with Leonardo da Vinci.  That guy was hugely popular and his art still is.  But though it may be appealing to the eye and even a little out there, it kind of just stays there on the canvas.  But Da Vinci?  Now, his art makes you take a look at your own soul.

The same is true with writing.  We can do everything right--obey all the writerly rules (or break them only in the best of places), craft fun and exciting characters in fun and exciting worlds, and even come up with something truly out there, something people have never seen--and still have no soul.

I don't think it's possible for a writer to be able to tell if his/her own work has this extra umph.  I know I can't.  I'm pretty sure I've strung a good story, but I don't know if I've brought up issues and presented them in that little extra way that will make people go "wow, now that speaks to me."

Besides the book I read last weekend (which I will review next Monday), there is another book on my mind that was right there with the clicking lightbulb, getting connected with all the other books that have touched me in the past.  This is a book that I have consistently tried to figure out just why I loved it so much.  So many people have told me I should hate it and I could kind of see where they were going with their argument...if writing was math and I was a mathematician.


Yeah, here we go again.  But I'm only bringing it up again because I think that if I explain what I mean with an actual book, you guys will understand me better.

Twilight was riddled with adverbs.  Let's just get that out there.  But, who cares?  Honestly.  It worked!  And isn't that the point of writing?  But more than that, this book convinced me--and I am sure convinced millions of others--that I was falling in love all over again.  It didn't just tell me about Bella falling in love with Edward.  It convinced me--me, Emily--that I was falling in love.  That's a book with a soul.

Discussion:  Can you think of any books you've read that spoke to you above and beyond entertainment?  And what about your WIP?  Do you think it's possible to purposefully try to put soul into it, or do you think it's just one of those things that happens?

~Emily White


  1. Great topic! Soul, huh? I've never thought of it like that, but it makes perfect sense. And you're right, some books have it, and others don't--even a lot of those that make the NYT list. Twilight definitely had it for me. Mistwood by Leah Cypess, Fire by Kristin Cashore, Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I hope my work does--I try to make it a little haunting--but I agree. That's subjective, and how can we possibly evaluate our own work? I've critted a couple manuscripts by fellow writers lately that I know have soul and I can't wait to see them in print so I can see how much other people love them too!


  2. And soulless needed a second l!

    Gah. I'm stop spamming your wall now. My apologies :p

  3. Excellent post Emily! And you're right! Some books have soul & others just fall flat!
    My fave book with soul is Sold by Patricia McCormick, that book has so much soul about such a soulless topic, sex slave trafficking. I, like you, hope that I can weave some serious soul in my work because it's so important. And for the record, I love Twilight! Adverbs & all! :)

  4. i think the thing that makes the soul evident is a connection you feel with a book.
    this connection is subjective.
    that's why brad and you can disagree about warhol and twilight and both be right.
    all art has soul. (i'm not talking about work a person pounds out to make a dime- but art that's an expression of self). soul is the very definition of true art.
    whether we connect and understand the meanings- that's all individual interpretation.
    i hope, hope, hope my writing can connect with people. i hope it will haunt them, and make them think and FEEL.
    but soul is subjective and that makes it very hard to quantify or pin down. :)
    lovely post em!

  5. I still haven't cracked open Twilight. I don't care so much about the adverbs or whether it is written well or not. The characters just have no appeal to me.

    I loved The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman. That book was full of adverbs and adjectives, long sentences and descriptions. But the story captured me with the concept that an 80-year old woman from New Brunswick, New Jersey, bored with old lady activities, would act on a old dream of being a spy and apply to the CIA. And get accepted.

    The most recent story that spoke to me was The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale. I could have used that book as a tween. Or even through my late teens. I loved how Miri applied her Diplomacy lessons.

    Books are such a matter of taste.

  6. Thanks for all the comments, guys! Yes, soul is definitely subjective. There are numerous books cherished by millions that I just didn't "get."

    I truly hope people will connect with my books someday. All I can do is put all of myself in them and hope for the best.

  7. I agree that truly great writing has soul.

    I think that the way for a writer to tell if his/her work has soul or not is to ask themselves: Does this make me look into my own soul? If the answer is yes then they've got a winner.

    Only when WE believe in our writing can we make others believe it.


  8. Great point and post Emily. I can't discuss this about my WIP because the underlying theme is supposed to be a shocking surprise.


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