WHEN STEPHEN KIESLING, Yale '80, entered college, he remembers thinking that he wanted to dedicate himself to doing "one thing as well as it could be done." Rowing was something he planned to take up--his older sister was on a Yale crew--but, as a novice in the sport, he figured that academics was where he was destined to excel. Declaring a philosophy major, he threw himself at first into his studies. However, it soon became apparent to him that his attention and energy were being claimed more by the call of the wet than by the library.

In the middle of his junior year, "fed up with the philosophy department," Kiesling realized he needed to analyze his motivations. "Why was I spending all this time in the water --up to four hours a day--and why was it so much more important to me?" The answers can be found in The Shell Game, subtitled Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence (Morrow). This, originally his senior project, was suggested to him by a professor to whom he'd explained the conflict he was experiencing. Writing about rowing--describing and meditating upon the pain and exhilaration-- meant that this athletic endeavor could have an intellectual dimension.

"Rowing is a good cure for writer's block," Kiesling explains. "Concentrating on trying to perfect a stroke freed my mind and by the end of the practice I would have all kinds of syntheses. Things would just pop together." Did he have any models, other works which combined sport and literary substance? Not really, but the two books which most influenced him, he says, were Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. (And, of course, Kiesling adds a bit mischievously, that last "is about going up a river too.")

The self-described "youngest and least experienced" oarsman to qualify for the 1980 Olympic team, Kiesling spent the summer after his graduation, when the boycott prevented the U. S. from competing, in Europe. "We raced against everyone we would have raced in the Olympics, although it's kind of hard to say how we would have done in Moscow." Returning from abroad, with no plans for immediate employment, he made contact with New York agent Roslyn Targ who thought his Yale senior project was worth trying to sell. Now, The Shell Game has gone back for a second printing, and the 6-foot, 4-inch Kiesling is an associate editor at American Health magazine whose slogan is "Fitness of Body and Mind." Currently at work on a novel, Kiesling is asked if it's about sport also. "No," he laughs, "it has to do with breaking free of sport." ROMANTIC WASHINGTON AND ENVIRONS

RECENTLY, EDITORS FOR HARLEQUIN, the swoon-makingly successful romance publisher, crisscrossed the country, looking for new talent. Washington, however, was passed over, something that won't happen again. Just organized here is Washington Romance Writers, a chapter of the national Romance Writers of America, a group whose membership stands at well over 1,000. According to author Claire Harrison ("Book Report," November 15, 1981) who was instrumental in getting the WRW together, 35 local romance writers and would-be romance writers have joined while word-of-mouth keeps turning up new names. Planned for September is a panel discussion by romance editors; Jacqui Bianchi of Mills and Boon Ltd. in England, the hardcover firm which originates Harlequin's titles, is coming over just for this event. And next year--in June, appropriately--the 3rd National Conference for Romance Writers will be held here at the Mayflower.

Meanwhile, on the pseudonymous front, in Columbia, Md., four women writing jointly under the name Alyssa Howard have sold their first romance to Silhouette and one-half of that team, calling themselves Alexis Hill, has sold another to Dell. Yet another Columbia writer, Chassie West, writing as Tracy West, will have the first Silhouette Young Love (that's their young-adult line) title featuring black leading characters. The reason for all the romantic goings-on in Columbia is because a new literary agency has opened shop there, the Columbia Literary Associates. The brainchild of seven Columbia residents (one actually works there but lives outside), it's a mix of teachers, editors and writers who are pooling their contacts. Other Washington-area pen-names in the romance category include: Valerie Sherwood, Karen Van Zee, Nora Roberts and Dorothy Mack (she writes regency novels).

Watching all this activity enthusiastically from the sidelines is Waldenbooks' Frances Perrine, a senior clerk and mass market buyer at their Montgomery Mall location. She's been designated "Romance Book Expert" for this Waldenregion, which stretches from D.C. to Florida. Says Perrine, "I was reading romances way before there were any paperback ones. Writers like Grace Livingston Hill, Faith Baldwin and Emily Loring. Barbara Cartland now and then," she adds, for emphasis, "is like two different people." Nowadays, she explains, "about 65 different books in the various romance series come through each month"--and she reads them all. Unsure exactly how management intends to use her in her new position, Perrine presently advises about 50 regular customers as to selection. ("I even have some men who say they're buying the books for their wives.") If she's any bellwether, romance readers are "buying only on recommendation now." Herself, she's been with Walden a mere 3 1/2 years. Before that? "I was reading." SIDE BETS JOHN CHEEVER'S FIRST published story, "Expelled," ran in The New Republic on October 1, 1930. This fact, mentioned in the author's obituaries, alerted TNR literary editor Jack Beatty to the existence of this piece of juvenilia in the magazine's files. Finding that it had never been reprinted or collected, The New Republic offered it again to their readers in the July 19 issue. Written when the author was only 17, it's autobiographical: the narrator, like Cheever at the time, has just been kicked out of prep school... . 2 10 Who Killed Sal Mineo?, a novel based on the actual murder of the young actor best remembered for his role in the James Dean vehicle, Rebel Without a Cause, was published by Wyndham Books in April. The author, Susan Braudy, a former Ms. editor, was then a major Hollywood studio's vice president for East Coast production in New York. Suddenly, she was no longer. Could, some observers wondered, her job have come on the line because of the portrayal of homosexuality and movieland immorality in the book? . . . Some authors actually make money at it without producing mass-market best sellers. Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet and essayist, for example. Publishers Weekly reports that his total earnings from literary prizes over the past two years amounts to $190,000. That's the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (approximately $25,000), a Spanish award, the Cervantes Prize (approximately $90,000) and the Ollin Yoliztli, a Mexican prize (approximately $75,000)