Writing Romance When Your Marriage fails ~ Kit Wilkinson

Kit Wilkinson is a former Ph.D. student who once wrote discussions on the medieval feminine voice. She now prefers weaving stories of romance and redemption. Her first inspirational manuscript won the prestigious RWA Golden Heart and sold to Harlequin’s Love Inspired. She is currently working on her fourth novel.

Besides writing, she loves hanging out with friends and family, cooking for lots of people, and spending time in the sun. She, her two children and one extremely energetic Border Collie live in central Virginia.

Writing Romance When the Real Romance Fails

How do you write a happily-ever-after when your own story has turned into a tragedy?

When I landed my last novel contract, frankly, it was the first bit of good news I’d had in a long while. I’d prayed to be able to write this book for a few months, thinking it would be just what I needed to take my mind off of what was going on in my real life—a divorce.

I was so thankful when it came through. I read through my editor’s notes immediately and sat down at the computer. I couldn’t wait to bury myself in this new story. But instead of pouring my energy into the new book, I found, for the first time ever, that I couldn’t write at all. Not only could I not write, I loathed sitting in front of the computer. I found myself doing anything else—bathing the dog, painting rooms, cleaning the garage, all sorts of things I REALLY hated to do. And, if I did happen to get in front of the computer, I was emailing my lawyer, trying to negotiate the sale of my home or figuring out whose weekend it was with the kids. Even emails I feared would be full of bad news. And I especially avoided staring at the blinking cursor on the white page of my very incomplete manuscript. The document sat minimized on the dock of my desktop.

My deadline came and went and I’d barely squeaked out half of the story. I started wondering if I could finish. I started wondering, if I could even write romance anymore. I mean let’s face it I was a failure. I’d failed as a wife. And now I was failing as a writer… What next? I was afraid to think about tomorrow.

Desperate for inspiration, I pulled out writing books and plotting outlines. I went to my favorite writing spots. I tried using Scrivener, thinking something new to look at would inspire me. I set little daily word count goals and failed at those. I even tried to use some of my confused feelings to “get into” my story, but while sorrow and depression might inspire some artists to abandon themselves into their work, I was stuck with the worst case of writer’s block ever. My ability to focus on anything had vanished and I didn’t know how to fix it. Depression hung like a cloud in my mind and my fingers were paralyzed at the keyboard. Even with great family and friends and a whole lot of prayer, there were days when I wanted to crawl in a hole and come out in a year or two when all the difficult stuff was over.

It was in the midst of all this that I found myself at a writer’s conference sitting on a panel of “pro” writers (something I’d agreed to do a long time before all the other life turmoil began). I looked out into the audience at other authors and even at my editor who should have been pointing at her watch and glaring at me for the late manuscript I owed her, except that she’s way too nice for that. I was feeling like a total fraud when someone in the audience asks, “What are inspirational romance readers looking for?” Great question. I repeated it for recording purposes then promptly passed the microphone to the author next to me because…well, I had no idea… I couldn’t write anymore.

It was author Margaret Daley who sat next to me. She leaned up to the microphone and without a second of hesitation said, “HOPE. Our readers are looking for hope.”

Hope. Now there was a nice little four-letter word that I’d forgotten about. A romance story needed hope. Or wait…maybe I needed hope. Because how can I give my readers hope when I have none of my own? If I wanted to finish my story—and I did—I had to find a way to remember my hope. I was determined.

But it didn’t happen overnight. It was slow—one minute, one hour, one day at a time, I stole back that hope that sorrow taken. I’d find hope in my children’s eyes. I’d find it in a friend’s voice. I’d find it in God’s promises. I’d find it in doing something for someone else. And the hope began to trickle over into my work…

I quit trying to write the story as fast as I could. I’d find a few quiet minutes here and there and I’d write a page. Many times that was it—one page. But then two or three and slowly, so slowly those characters worked their way to a happy ending. In some ways, I felt like I was healing along with them.

Of course, real life doesn’t stop at page 385 like a storybook romance, so I won’t end here by saying I got my own happy-ending. But I do have all I need to expect many more happy chapters. I have God’s promises and perfect love. I have friends and family and two beautiful children full of life.

And soon I’ll have more stories to tell of romance and love and hope.

Writing A Series

My next fiction project may be the first novel in a series. I started my career as a novelist that way years ago with two stories about the same protagonist. The third novel didn’t work out. I haven’t tried to write another series since then but I still like the idea for several reasons, so recently I asked some of my author friends for advice on doing it successfully this time around. Here’s what they told me: I need to begin by deciding if my series will be open-ended, or self-contained. A true series is “a number of things or events of the same class coming one after another in spatial or temporal succession” according to Webster’s. That means each novel is independent of the others in terms of plot and the series as a whole has no end in mind. The Sherlock Holmes novels are a good example of the open-ended series. Each Holmes short story or novel is independent of the others. There’s no theme or character development which grows across the series. This open-ended approach may have more potential financially, because a successful run can last for dozens of titles spanning decades. Plus, they’re easier to write for two reasons. First, they usually involve a formula which readers come to expect and love. Second, the lack of over-arcing character or thematic development makes it easier to produce individual novels that stand alone, which is very important to readers. But because novels in an open-ended series do tend to be formulaic, writing them could become boring after a while. The self-contained kind of series should probably be called a “serial” to be technically correct. Webster’s defines a serial as “a work appearing (as in a magazine or on television) in parts at intervals.” So this kind of series involves several novels each of which tells part of a single, over-arcing story. The serial type of series has more potential for character and theme development than the open-ended series. In fact, one could argue that the self-contained serial approach has more literary potential than most stand-alone novels, because the author can take a thousand pages or more to explore a character or idea, whereas the days of reader acceptance for thousand page standalone novels are mostly gone. Of course, with all the character and thematic developmental potential, the self-contained serial type of series is more difficult to write. They require a complicated plotting effort, because the story must develop over multiple novels to reach a satisfying conclusion in the last installment, while each novel must also have its own fully self-contained plot and resolution, in order to avoid “cliffhanger” endings which leave readers frustrated. So I’d have to first think through the long-term story arc, then divide it into stages, each of which would be a separate novel, and then on top of that I’d have to think through short term or self-contained story arcs for each of the novels. Fortunately, I do tend to plot and outline my novels before beginning the first draft anyway. A “seat of the pants” type of author probably shouldn’t try the self-contained kind of series. Next, I need to decide what’s going to hold my series together. There seem to be four options: using the same protagonist in every story, using the same setting, the same event(s), or the same secondary characters. Many novels use more than one of these possibilities. If I go with the same protagonist, my choices will be guided by the open-ended versus self-contained decision I already mentioned. In an open-ended series, the protagonist usually won’t change very much from book to book. Readers expect him to be a strong character with little or no apparent need to grow (think of Holmes again). In fact, part of the fascination of this kind of series is the main character’s nearly super-human ability to rise to any challenge and win the day unfazed. To carry reader interest over multiple titles, this unchanging protagonist had better be much larger than life. Also, it helps if there’s something mysterious about his backstory. How on earth did this person end up this way? A glimpse of the answer in every novel is usually enough to keep fans reading. Without occasional hints of something deeper in the background, it’s possible this kind of character will become boring for readers after a while, since a big part of the fun in reading most novels is watching characters grown and change in response to conflict. Also, writing this same of character over and over could become boring. (Of course if I’m called upon to write about a character so often I get bored it’s because readers want more books about him, which is a nice problem to have.) On the other hand, if I go with the self-contained, serial kind of series, my protagonist should start with serious personal issues that need to be addressed as the series goes along. Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is one example. Harry Potter is another. In Frodo’s case, there’s the mystery of why he was chosen, and the question of whether he’s up to the challenge. In Harry Potter’s case the issues are much the same. Both Frodo and Harry have intermediate goals which they achieve in every novel, but the biggest questions aren’t answered until the end, and by the time they get there, they are much changed from who they were at the beginning of book one. The one drawback I can think of to writing a developing character in a self-contained series is the fact that it’s very difficult to continue if the series is a big hit. Once the ring is destroyed and Frodo is back in the shire, what’s left? And once Harry is all grown up and graduated, his young readers may lose interest. There are always prequels and spinoffs, of course, but they are much more risky than simply continuing a series that was intended to be open-ended in the first place. Of course, it’s also possible to bundle novels into a series without following a single protagonist from book to book. Successful series have been unified by settings, such as an Amish community. Others rely on secondary characters for continuity. I’m told this approach is particularly helpful in the romance genre. In that case once the girl gets her guy readers lose interest, so the girl’s best friend might pick up the lead in book two, with the girl stepping back to a supporting role, then the best friend hands over the lead position to yet a third girl in book three, and so on. Events, such as a war, historical episode or a significant tragedy have also served to unify a series. Deborah Rainey is currently working on a number of novels which revolve around a single fire, for example. She tells me the fire appears early in some of the novels, and later in others, but in each case the lives of characters in the same small town are changed by that one event. It’s a fascinating concept. No matter what kind of series I write or how I choose to tie it all together, I’ll have to be very careful to keep good records. Continuity is going to be hard, because a series will always have many more details to keep straight. So I’ll build files on every character, with a photo from a magazine which I can use for descriptions, plus a defining backstory so I can keep track of motivations, a family tree, and a list of habits, personality traits, preferences and tastes. On top of that, I’ll need to draw maps of all the primary settings so I can keep the geography straight. If I’m writing a self-contained series I’ll need a time line to remember what season of the year it is so I’ll get the weather and holidays right, and to be aware of how old everyone is getting to be as time goes by. If it’s an open ended series timelines aren’t as important. Some “strong” protagonists are virtually ageless, such as Robert Parker’s “Spencer”. One thing that concerns me about this idea is the fact that many of my author friends report declining sales for the last few titles in their series. From our discussions, I think this is due to a couple of factors. First, readers who were there at the start may lose interest after a few books. Not everyone has the attention span required to stick out Frodo or Harry’s entire journey. (I gave up on Harry after book three.) Second, new readers who might be willing to try an unfamiliar author’s stand-alone title aren’t interested in getting involved in the middle of an ongoing series. They assume they’d have to read the prior titles to get up to speed. This is one advantage to an open-ended series. The cover copy usually makes it clear that each book stands alone with language like, “Athol Dickson’s lovable Joe Blow is at it again in this newest installment in the series.” It’s tougher to convince prospective readers of the stand-alone merit of novels in a self-contained series with cover copy like, “In this third novel of the Smith trilogy, Jane Doe once again faces big trouble.” Still, the success of long-term series authors like Robert Parker, John D. MacDonald or Sue Grafton proves it’s possible to retain readers if the author avoids over-complicating the character’s relationships and avoids a large, confusing cast of characters. It’s also important to explain necessary backstory details as organically as possible. This is where “show, don’t tell” becomes extremely important. I think it’s best to just leave out as much backstory as possible. And it can’t be overstated that every novel in a self-contained series needs a particularly strong plot-driven reason to read that one novel, something which doesn’t rely on understanding all the inter-relationships and backstories from prior titles. Finally, one thing I’ll never do is leave my readers with a cliffhanger at the end of a novel. A reader who isn’t satisfied when she finishes the last page of a novel won’t want to repeat the experience with the next title in the series. There’s no doubt writing a series involves a lot of work and thinking that doesn’t apply to writing a stand-alone. But if I can create a fascinating world with characters my readers will learn to love in book after book, it will be worth the effort. And if I manage to pull it off, it will be largely due to the fantastic advice I’ve gotten from my fellow authors and friends who helped me think through this decision. If you’re interested in reading a great series, please click on their names below to visit their websites: Deborah Raney Mindy Starns Clark Sibella Giorello Hannah Alexander Bonnie Leon Robin Lee Hatcher Beth White DiAnn Mills Dorothy Love Erin Healy Athol Dickson is a novelist, teacher, and publisher of the popular DailyCristo Christian news and information website. His novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.

Guest Blog ~ Mother-Daughter Reads ~ Lisa Bergren

Lisa T. Bergren is the author of over 35 books that have sold over two million copies combined. You can connect with her on Facebook (Lisa Tawn Bergren and River of Time Series), Twitter (@LisaTBergren) and online .


by Lisa Tawn Bergren

I always thought that mother-daughter reads were a good idea, but when I couldn’t get my daughters to crack a book without begging, bartering or demanding, it became a mission. For years, the only books my girls would read were those they “had” to read for school and maybe one or two others a year. And this from kids who were daughters of a writer, girls who were both in advanced English. I started to wonder just what was going on out there—were we losing the way to find and capture young readers? Or just mine?

I brought home book after book, hoping it’d be the one to draw my teens’ fervor—the one that would open their minds to the power of story and the mind-sharpening work of imagination (with no sweat involved other than reading). Even Harry Potter didn’t meet the mark. Stacks, I’m talking stacks of books came and went at my house. And then came Twilight.

I’d heard it was all the rage. I’d heard it was about vampires, but was a surprisingly moral tale. Most importantly, I heard teenage girls were rabid about it. So I rushed out and got a copy for Olivia. I think I bribed her to read the first twenty pages. And magically, blessedly, she was hooked. She read the whole thing in a week, staying up late at night.

So then I was curious. I wanted to know the formula: XX characters + XX plot = reading bliss for my teen (and later, to some extent, her younger sis). Turns out, it was romance. Romance with a serious obstacle that seems insurmountable. With a lot of action and suspense. And a drool-worthy hero and a heroine that could be any American girl. Ahh, I thought. Okay, I get her reading bent now.

We went on to read the whole series, and went to the first movie together. We talked about things we both loved—the other-worldly aspect of the Cullens (and later the werewolves), the suspense that made our hearts beat fast, the passionate—but largely chaste—romance. We also talked about what I didn’t really care for—principally falling for a man who fights the urge to kill her (“I don’t want you to think that the love of your life, your hero, is the man you fear.”) We talked about what made a man a true hero, what made a man worthy of a woman’s love. They were good, formative conversations.

Since then, we’ve gone on to read a lot of other YA novels together. I buy those I think will likely garner a good Bergren Girl Rating, and pass along those I know they’ll like—if not love. Pre-reading allows me to address anything I’m not really comfortable with—and I’ve begun to write reviews with any red flags for parents and younger readers (you can find them on my web site ). There are a lot of alarming characters and situations in today’s YA fiction—as well as wonderful characters and challenging situations that are great for readers to “try on” and think through via fiction—but it’s best if parents can discuss the Big Stuff when they’ve finished the last page. That’s the beauty of fiction…we get to “experience” difficulties and obstacles in a fictional setting, helping us to be prepared when/if we face those things in real life.

What a lovely portal into a teen’s mind and heart, right? To ignore the opportunity is to miss a significant chance for meaningful connection and development.

Happily, youth fiction has gotten pretty sophisticated. I find a lot of it engaging for my mind and heart, as well as my daughter’s. They say that a teen’s time of life has a lot in common with midlife—reexamining priorities, goals, relationships, identity. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a great genre for mothers and daughters to read together.

I’ve heard from lots of teens—and their moms—since my new YA series, The River of Time (Waterfall, Cascade, Torrent) began to release. And that makes me so happy. But truth be told, I wrote it first and foremost, for my own girls, Olivia and Emma. Which reminds me…I need to discuss a few points with them about it…

2011 Christy Finalists include Novel Journey’s own Gina Holmes!

The 2011 Christy Award finalists:

Contemporary Romance:
Blood Ransom
by Lisa Harris (Zondervan)

by Kristin Heitzmann (WaterBrook Press)

Sworn to Protect
by DiAnn Mills (Tyndale House Publishers)

Contemporary Series, Sequels, and Novellas:
The Reluctant Prophet
by Nancy Rue (David C. Cook)

The Thorn
by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House Publishers,
a division of Baker Publishing Group)

The Waiting
by Suzanne Woods Fisher (Revell Books,
a division of Baker Publishing Group)

Contemporary Standalone:
Almost Heaven
by Chris Fabry (Tyndale House Publishers)

Lady in Waiting
by Susan Meissner (WaterBrook Press)

A Season of Miracles
by Rusty Whitener (Kregel Publications

First Novel:
Crossing Oceans
by Gina Holmes (Tyndale House Publishers)

by Anne Elisabeth Stengl (Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group)

A Season of Miracles
by Rusty Whitener (Kregel Publications)

Chosen: The Lost Diaries of Queen Esther
by Ginger Garrett (David C. Cook)

For Time & Eternity
by Allison Pitman (Tyndale House Publishers)

While We’re Far Apart
by Lynn Austin (Bethany House Publishers,
a division of Baker Publishing Group)

Historical Romance:
The Girl in the Gatehouse
by Julie Klassen (Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group)

She Walks in Beauty
by Siri Mitchell (Bethany House Publishers,
a division of Baker Publishing Group)

Within My Heart
by Tamera Alexander (Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group)

The Bishop
by Steven James (Revell Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group)

The Bride Collector
by Ted Dekker (Center Street)

by Terri Blackstock (Zondervan)

To Darkness Fled
by Jill Williamson (Marcher Lord Press)

Konig’s Fire
by Marc Schooley (Marcher Lord Press)

The Last Christian
by David Gregory (WaterBrook Press)

Young Adult:
The Charlatan’s Boy
by Jonathan Rogers (WaterBrook Press)

The Healer’s Apprentice
by Melanie Dickerson (Zondervan)

Motorcycles, Sushi, and One
Strange Book
by Nancy Rue (Zondervan)

Congratulations to all the finalists! 
I’ll see you at the Christy Awards! I’ll be the one cheering.