A Passion for Writing
As it appeared in the Columbia Missourian newspaper
by Kristina Sherry December 7, 2007 3:00 p.m. CST
Anyone driving alongside Kimberly Killion as she commutes to work from Jerseyville, Ill., to St. Louis on weekday mornings probably thinks Killion is crazy.
Behind the wheel of her 2007 Pontiac G6, she appears to be engaged in conversation with herself, talking, laughing and occasionally crying to no one in particular.
But what the other drivers on Interstate 270 might not see is her palm-sized digital recorder, which is capturing dialogue between a hero and heroine who “fight, play, laugh and sometimes say something so funny I laugh out loud,” Killion said.
“Life’s too short to spend so many hours on the road alone. Why not share it with someone, even if that someone is a fictional character?”
Killion writes romance novels, and the drive to work is just part of her daily writing routine.
According to the Romance Writers of America, romance is the largest selling genre in fiction. Killion is one of thousands of women (and a few men) across the country and hundreds in Missouri — accountants, teachers, engineers, stay-at-home-moms — who aspire to create their own happily-ever-after tales.
Kimberly Killion’s first published novel, “Her One Desire,” is a historical romance set in 1483 England to be released by Kensington Books in July.
It tells the story of a lord high executioner’s daughter who discovers a conspiracy that puts her in danger. The only man willing to protect her is the Scottish spy she frees from her father’s prison.
Romance novels like Killion’s are relatively brisk reads, as well as guilty pleasures — $4.99 impulse buys from the grocery checkout line that can offer escape from reality, companionship aboard an airplane or beside the pool or mind-numbing reward under cozy sheets after a grueling day.
But writing them is another story. The novels may be breezy or formulaic, but the process of becoming a published romance author is not. Killion’s nonstop artistic passion and exhaustive writing schedule offer a glimpse into the time, energy and emotional commitment needed to excel in the genre. Her typical day begins around 4 a.m. when she wakes up and writes until about 6, then gets ready for the rest of the day. Around 7 a.m. she puts her two children on the school bus, then leaves for work. Her commute offers about an hour each way to develop her characters.
Returning home from teaching graphic design at a St. Louis college, she sits down at the keyboard, presses “play” on the recorder and types away, producing somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 words of romantic fiction every day. She doesn’t turn off the lights until midnight.
“I usually put in about 10 to 12 hours per day writing,” she said. “I put in more time writing than I do for my ‘real’ job.”
For readers, romance fiction offers the comfort of a reliable formula. Although the settings, characters and sexual euphemisms may vary, behind each lusty cover image is this guarantee — an imperfect but likeable couple will meet early in the novel and coquettishly overcome obstacles together until they find happiness.
From Jane Austen to Nora Roberts, romance writers have played on this formula to the delight of countless readers (and publishing companies) for years. Georgette Heyer and Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, whose “The Flame and the Flower” is often cited as the most iconic romance novel, are others whose tales are imprinted in the emotional memories of their readers. Killion first began writing in 1998 because she liked to read and as an artist, she considered herself creative enough to tackle romance.
“You just read so much and you think, ‘Gosh, I can do this,’” she said. “I think that’s how every writer starts.”
She says her initial writing attempts yielded “slop,” which gradually began to improve once she joined several critique groups and discovered she “didn’t know anything about writing.”
“Head-hopping,” for instance, is a common mistake made by beginners. That’s when the narrative abruptly jumps from one character’s point of view to another’s, Killion said, which tends to make readers dizzy.
Properly pacing a romance novel is also important. “If your character is running from the villain, they shouldn’t be running for 10 pages,” Killion said.
Chapters should begin and end with a “hook” to suck the reader into reading just the next chapter ... and the next ... and the next.
Killion seldom knows what will happen in her story and often finds herself sobbing over her keyboard once she learns the fate of her characters. In romance circles, this means she is a “pantser,” plotting the story as she goes — writing “by the seat of her pants” — rather than working it out in advance.
Killion says the “I love yous” surprise her just as much as they do the heroine.
Her quick success and rapid turnaround in completing and publishing her first novel are not typical. Of the 65 current members of Missouri Romance Writers of America, only a dozen or so are published, most taking longer to get there than Killion did.
Shannon Butcher, who lives in Independence, completed eight books and began writing several more before she was able to sell anything.
Her husband, fantasy and sci-fi author Jim Butcher, coached her in the mechanics of writing. In 2003, she quit her job as an engineer and finally sold her first books, “No Regrets” and “No Control,” last year.
“So I was doing it, but it wasn’t like something I was getting paid for for those three years,” she said. Now writing full time, she writes six to 12 hours daily.
Karyn Witmer, who has written successful historical romances like “Moon in the Water,” spent almost five years on her first novel.
She was teaching elementary school art classes outside of Rochester, N.Y., in the 1980s when she sat down to write what eventually became “Love, Honor and Betray,” set on the Niagara Frontier during the War of 1812.
“It was coming. The thing he dreaded most in the world was going to come to pass. Seth Porterfield’s head buzzed with the certainty that the two countries to which he owed allegiance would soon be at war.”
Once Witmer wrote this opening hook, she said finishing the book became “an obsession.”
She devoted much of her free time during breaks and after school to completing it, even after she moved to children’s art classes at the St. Louis Art Museum.
In the early stages, she kept the book a secret from her husband. “It’s hard to admit what you’re doing at first because it’s such a fantasy. Everybody you talk to says, ‘I intend to write a book some day,’” said Witmer, who now splits her time between the St. Louis area and California.
Certainly, juggling writing with career and family can be a challenge.
Shirl Henke, who earned both her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from MU and has published nearly 30 paperback originals, began writing novels when her son was in grade school.
“I told my offspring unless it involved smoke or blood, Mommy was not to be disturbed while she was writing,” Henke said.
Michele Dunaway, who has written 16 books in less than eight years, will come close to writing five books this year. Her most recent novels, “The Christmas Date” (Harlequin American Romance Series) and “Hart’s Victory” (Dunaway’s first in the Harlequin NASCAR series), will be released this month. She is also a high school journalism teacher.
“I write in big spurts,” Dunaway said. “Lots of other writers have to write every day, but I’ll write for 10, 12 hours daily on the weekend.”
Having published so many books, Dunaway also has experience dealing with another curiosity of the romance industry: those steamy covers.
Describing the experience of seeing her Harlequin covers for the first time, she said, “It’s like giving birth to a baby. ... I don’t know what the cover will look like until it comes out.”
Although most publishers allow the authors to submit an “art fact” sheet, the final cover may still come as a surprise.
One of Killion’s heroines had strawberry-blonde hair, but the publisher selected a cover with a dark-haired beauty. So Killion had to go through her manuscript and change her descriptions to make the heroine a brunette.
Most authors would agree that publishers know what they’re doing. They can, for example, predict which cover art is likely to sell books.
“I have to say I’ve always had phenomenal, fantastic covers,” Dunaway said. “They know the market better than I do.”
In fact, many publishing companies have stock photos already on file of tightly sculpted abs or a couple riding horseback together. In other words, romance novels yet to be written have their covers ready and waiting.
Publishers also may suggest titles and even pen names.
Before agreeing to “Her One Desire,” Killion offered “The Executioner’s Daughter,” which she now realizes wasn’t “romantic enough.”
Also, “A reader wouldn’t buy the book if they thought the heroine was going to get her head cut off,’” she said.
Kimberly Killion is actually Kim Price, the name her friends, family and students use.
“Killion is my maiden name,” she said. “I’ve always thought it was cool, and Killion is Irish, which goes well with the whole Scottish theme behind my book.
“And let’s face it, ‘Kim Price’ doesn’t have a lot of pizzazz,” she added.
Karyn Witmer wrote “Love, Honor and Betray” when she was still teaching in a somewhat conservative school district and decided to call herself Elizabeth Kary (Elizabeth is her middle name).
When she moved on to a different publishing house, the first publisher retained contractual rights to Elizabeth Kary, so she became Elizabeth Grayson.
Recently, however, she returned to her maiden name to differentiate her historical novels from her newer contemporary ones.
“My most recent book came out under Karyn Witmer, and I didn’t really like that very well,” she said. “I kind of like being anonymous.”
Charlotte Hubbard, who has written inspirational fiction/romance novels like “Angels Embrace” and “A Patchwork Family,” also writes erotic fiction under the name Melissa MacNeal.
Her erotica credits include “All Night Long,” “Satan’s Angel,” and “Naughty Naughty.”
Hubbard was the keynote speaker at the monthly meeting of the Missouri romance group, held on a recent Saturday in St. Louis. Delivering a talk entitled “The Changing Face of Erotica,” she prefaced it by explaining, “Tomorrow by this time, I’ll be singing Ave Maria in church, but today I’ll talk about the smut that I write.”
Patricia Rice, who lives in the St. Louis area and whose books have appeared on the New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists, doesn’t believe anyone should feel ashamed of writing romance fiction.
“Aren’t we all out there looking for somebody we can connect with? This is what romance is about — finding that one relationship that works.”
Want to write a romance novel? Here’s advice from published romance writers in the Missouri area:
“I always tell people to follow your own voice. I love writing romance, but I know people who say, ‘Oh, those are formulaic – I’ll just write one of those to get my feet in the door.’ But then they try and find they can’t sell it or it’s harder than they think. You should write what you love, that’s what will sell.”– Michele Dunaway, “The Christmas Date” and “Hart’s Victory”
Find a critique partner. If you look at an author’s acknowledgements, you’ll find a lot of authors thank their critique partners for guidance and support.”
— Kimberly Killion, “Her One Desire”
"Read voraciously both in your market and out of it. It’s tough to break into publishing these days, so be persistent.”
— Karyn Witmer/Elizabeth Grayson, “A Simple Gift”
"You have to have skin 2 inches thick and more guts than a 500-pound hog. It’s a tough market. Everyone thinks she or he can write romance, but if you aren’t a reader who really loves the genre, you won’t write it well.”
— Shirl Henke, “Wanton Angel,” “The River Nymph” (which she co-authored with her husband, Jim Henke, a university professor)
“Make sure you have another job. It takes a long while to break into the market and an even longer while to make the sort of income you can live on.”
— Patricia Rice, “Mystic Guardian”
“Just keep working at it. There are a lot of people out there who want to write a book and they start it but never finish. It’s really just that stick-to-it-ness that gets you published.”
— Shannon K. Butcher, “No Regrets” and “No Control”