The Secret Sermon In Every Romance Novel

photo (7)Welcome once again to the fabulous Amber Belldene, Episcopal priest and author of the Blood Vine Series of paranormal romances …

Thanks so much for inviting me back to guest post on Wonkomance!

This essay is really just one extended metaphor, but maybe you will find it useful. It all started with an interesting post/conversation on the romance blog Dear Author about the desire to see characters motivated by religious and philosophical values in mainstream (as opposed to Inspirational) romance. I’ve advocated for the same thing, so I appreciated the thoughtful piece and equally thoughtful commenters, including a person late to the conversation who strongly stated a preference religion be kept out of books.

I’m sympathetic to this opinion. Religion can be very divisive. I’m a priest in the Episcopal Church, and people assume things about my beliefs, values, and behaviors all the time. I’m often grateful for the polite reluctance to discuss religion. Members of my large extended Southern family privately scratch their heads over me being both a priest and a romance writer. But when I visit, we simply drink wine and play viciously competitive cards, which is really altogether more fun than debating theology.

The Dear Author commenter, who signed her comment Pet, also expresses this concern:

I am afraid that some authors will lose their common sense and try to give in to preaching. It is a huge turn off.

I think what she means by preaching is proselytizing—that authors might try to convert readers to their own religious perspective, which would turn me off too. (That’s why I don’t read Inspies!)

But on another level, we’re all preaching. Not the Christian gospel, or the Buddha’s four noble truths, but Romance with a capital R.

Romance novels are full of values and philosophy with lots of bonus sexual tension which, like a spoonful of sugar, helps the big ideas go down. The romance arc is so generally compelling, most readers don’t even realized they are being preached to. And yet, every romance novel is making a statement about the nature of romantic and erotic love. What’s more—this is a bold, hopeful thing to do!

Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a lovely interview with the novelist Marilynne Robinson, who writes brilliantly about faith. There were a million quotable gems in the piece, but this one especially struck me:

A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things. Because…[of] the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’

Her observation made me so proud to write romance, and to be an enthusiastic reader and evangelist for the genre.

Literary culture disdains earnestness, especially about the most sacred things–love, sex and religion, probably because all three are so hard to write that, as Robinson says, the fear of getting it wrong prevails. But romance does not skirt the sacredness of each person, nor of the bonds that form between us. We are not afraid of a little sincerity! (Though, admittedly, a lot of sincerity makes me queasy.)

I know authors pen romance for many reasons—love of the genre, compulsion to write, unexpected detours from Literativille or Ivory Towers to Romancelandia. But it’s also because we share some core beliefs:

  • Romantic love is good, redemptive, a source of meaning and joy.
  • Sex is an important expression of love.
  • Self-acceptance and authenticity are necessary for one to find/keep love.

We could debate these semantics, and there are probably more core values, but the list of universal doctrine is ultimately pretty short.

Less foundational, but still important to the tradition, we have the tropes that scaffold our stories and sometimes make us the butt of jokes (like, say, The Italian Billionaire’s Secretary Mistress. I actually sort of love how the Harlequin Presents line doesn’t even bother with a titles, as if someone once unabashedly said, “Why not just call it 3 Tropes and a Setting?”). Underlying each trope is another bit of slightly less universal romance doctrine. For example:

  • Friends to Lovers stories uphold true love is worth risking a friendship.
  • Opposites Attract argues love can help us find balance or complementarity.
  • Boss/Secretary suggests true love is worth breaking the rules for.

I’m coming to think of each romance novel as a sort of sermon, shining new light onto a familiar truth, deepening our appreciation of it and our ability to live it out in our own lives. Those faithful readers of the trope-heavy category romances remind me of devoted church goers, longing for the comforting ritual of being told again in fresh words their most dear truth–that love heals, or that mistakes can be redeemed, that an ugly duckling is secretly a lovable swan, just as a seasoned preacher will tell you everyone needs to hear God loves them every Sunday.

Each writer has her or his own take on the romance doctrine, a distinctive world view which colors and flavors the way we tell these familiar stories.

Last year, Mary Ann and Ruthie wrote fabulous Wonkomance posts (which I refer back to every time I get bogged down in revisions) about how a romance novel is an argument in the sense of classical rhetoric. The argument is made up of logos, pathos and ethos. Their posts are well worth the read. I especially like how Ruthie offers the schema as a tool for analyzing our own work and why we may or may not like a particular book:

What’s so interesting to me, here, is two things: first, the idea that I might love an author’s work, love her characters, but hate her argument so much that I can’t even read her book…And second, the idea that I might dislike an author’s writing and her characters, her plot, and her style, and yet find her argument so fascinating, so convincing, that I can’t put her book down.

Later, Ruthie astutely points out that those masters of trope–category writers–are the experts at this kind of argument, and I would go even further to say if you don’t like a particular trope, you may be skeptical of its underlying dogma. (Ex. Maybe Boss/Secretary is never okay because you see the abuse of power as irredeemable, or both the billionaires you slept with were lousy in bed, as the incomparable Remittance Girl reports here, so you prefer to read about less wealthy guys).

A romance novel’s argument reflects the writer’s beliefs about romantic love and why it matters. If you write like me, you may not know what that belief is when you start a story, or that you even believed it until you finished your first draft.

Once I grasp hold of it though, I am most certainly writing to persuade you of it, to show you with all the logic, appeals to sympathy, and authorial credibility I can employ.

I am preaching!

I’m trying to convert you to my vision of love, trying to stretch your already spacious heart a little wider, to embrace to the kinds of conflict and affection that move me and turn me on because I believe it’s good for you and for the world to love this way (and by the way, I’m entirely open to being converted to your way, too!).

Maybe I think about writing this way because I cut my teeth penning sermons instead of fiction, but I’m convinced we’re all doing it. I can certainly understand readers preferring not to read books with religion in them. But to me, the romance writer undertakes that courageous task Marilynne Robinson describes, we admit we “sense sacredness in things” and we want others to sense it too. A romance novel is our attempt to persuade. The story of a conflicted romantic couple is an ideal, page-turning, heart-tugging, arousing medium to argue for our take on this sublime truth.

Counter-culturally, romance novelists resist fear, irony, and cynicism to profess love matters. But it’s okay lots of readers and writers think it’s just a story. It’s way more fun for all of us to pretend we aren’t really preaching, we’re “just” writing a romance novel.

Darling Serena Bell suggested I end this post by asking, “Can I get an amen?” But it feels more right instead to tell you that when I finish one of your books or any truly well argued and sublime romance novel, my whole body hums with that ancient word:

Amen. So be it. The affirmation of, the assent to, the beliefs that unite a community.

Love is good. It matters. Now go back to your life and make it real.

About Amber

Amber Belldene grew up on the Florida panhandle, swimming with alligators, climbing oak trees and diving for scallops…when she could pull herself away from a book.  As a child, she hid her Nancy Drew novels inside the church bulletin and read mysteries during sermons–an irony that is not lost on her when she preaches these days. 

Amber is an Episcopal Priest and student of religion.  She believes stories are the best way to explore human truths.  Some people think it is strange for a minister to write vampire romance, but it is perfectly natural to her, because the human desire for love is at the heart of every romance novel and God made people with that desire. She lives with her husband and two children in San Francisco.

Amber writes scorching and smart paranormal romance and quirky-hot contemporary romance–all of which draw on her interests in spirituality and sexuality.



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The Outsider: A Guest Post by Bonnie Dee

We’re happy to have wonktastical author Bonnie Dee back this week with another guest post, this time on “The Outsider, a mythic romantic figure.” Take it away, Bonnie!


A fish out of water tale is just about my favorite subject to read in romance or any other genre. I love a story containing a clash of cultures or anything in which someone considered an outsider is forced to deal with a foreign-to-him group. This trope can take a number of different forms, and there’s something to enjoy about each one.

Time Traveling. Can’t get much more out of water than that. As long as the older time period is depicted more-or-less historically accurately, I’m satisfied, but the grittier and more realistic the better. This way you get a historical and a contemporary rolled into one. Sort of like Certs. I could go the obvious route and point to books like the Outlander series or The Time Traveler’s Wife, but I’m going to suggest some less familiar reads.

The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser entranced me in the 70s, and Time and Again by Jack Finney was a big favorite in the 80s. I want to also recommend some writer friends’ books: Summer Devon’s Futurelove about a sexually repressed visitor from the future, and Totally Tubular by Gwen Hayes, in which a girl is transported to her mother’s high school experience. Good times!

The Social Outcast. Cinderella is a prime example. She didn’t really belong at that ball, though it could be argued that her lineage due to her father was purer than that of her stepsisters and their questionable social-climbing mother. People love seeing the rise to power of someone who’s been cast down, the revenge of someone kicked to the curb, or the triumph of any social reject. Variations of Cinderella’s story are always popular. My OC (tv series) obsession was in large part because of the theme of the outcast (Ryan Atwood) trying to make a place for himself in a society he’s not familiar with (Orange County social scene).

My own writing niche includes many social outcasts, such as Jim in A Hearing Heart, Tom in Bone Deep, Jason in New Life and Mason in Beloved Healer. Hah, I just realized I gave them rhyming names, and their girlfriends are, respectively Anna and Ava. Real original there.

Cross Cultural. I’m immediately hooked by almost any book that has East meeting West or some other combination of cross-cultural connection. Check out the charming Indian Maidens Bust Loose by Vidya Samson… Ah, I see why I couldn’t find the link at Amazon, the author retitled it Prince Charming Wanted. Probably a good idea, but I liked the original title. When a traditional Indian woman’s cousins from Canada come to visit, cultures clash big time.

I don’t know exactly how cross cultural this next one is, but I really enjoyed The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington for its depiction of a former monk who moves into the apartment below a single mother. Romance ensues. My own romance Captive Bride features lovers coming to each other from very different cultures, China and the U.S.

Bad Boys. This is a variation on the social outcast, but in addition there’s an element of redemption for former bad deeds factored in. I love my bad boys of fiction to have been seriously BAD, no mere lip service. I want to see them have to really dig their way out of a very dark place to come to the light.

I know a lot of romance readers need that “he’s nice to puppies” moment early in the story to convince them this is someone worth saving. I’ve even written that moment when I really didn’t wish to for readers’ sake. But for myself, I actually don’t need to see that touch of grace in an anti-hero—at least not until later in the book when it illustrates growth. A prime example of a baddie who was a stone-cold killer is Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He had no redeeming qualities, except maybe extreme loyalty (read “obsession”) to whatever woman he was in love with, and yet many viewers adored this character. And at the end he achieved complete redemption, sacrificing self to save the world. *sigh*

I won’t even begin a list of Bad Boy books. This seems to be the most popular outsider type of all, and such bad boy heroes are too numerous to list.

So, there you have a number of seemingly different tropes all tied together under the umbrella of the outsider seeking their place in the world. I think the theme speaks to that square-peg-round-hole feeling we’ve all experienced. A little outsider lurks in everyone, whispering we’re not good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, nobody likes us.


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How to Survive Authorhood

I had a weird sort of slump for the past month and spent a lot of time refilling the well, so to speak. And out of those many odd hours of doing random crap just to pass the time, I spent one or two reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned as a writer. Now, I’ve only been officially published for ten months. I know I still have a lot to learn…and these lessons aren’t even that serious, even though they’re mostly true. But above all else, I’ve learned that in the world of publishing, just as in any other endeavor, there will be ups and downs and, in the end, those peaks and valleys make for a much more fulfilling ride. So…

…here it is, my list of lessons learned, entitled How to Survive Authorhood.

Lesson 1: Don’t compare yourself to other authors.

Comparing yourself to others is a recipe for unhappiness. Sometimes you’ll be on top. Sometimes you…won’t. But your success as an author isn’t actually a reflection of your value as a human being. So don’t do it. Don’t compare. Just be you.

Lesson 2: For the most part, editors are your friends.

Sometimes it might not feel that way, but–again, for the most part–editors really do want you to succeed. They really are trying to help you. They really are your friends, at least in the professional sense (just go with it). So don’t abuse them.

Of course, there will also be editors you don’t get along with. There will be fellow authors you don’t get along with. Hell. There will be readers you don’t get along with.

But the world of publishing, and especially romance publishing, is tiny, which brings us to:

Lesson 3: Don’t be an ass.


Lesson 4: Don’t be a pushover, either.

Sometimes, you’ll be asked to do things to and with your book that make you uncomfortable. Sometimes, those things are for the best, and you should totes break out of your comfort zone. But other times, they’re wrong wrong wrong and you should Just Say No and go do whatever you feel like you wanna do.

The thing is, writing is a difficult, unpleasant, and lonely job. It can consume you if you’re not careful, so…

Lesson 5: Make sure to prioritize things so that you have time off to do something every day other than watch your soul bleed out of your fingers write.

Speaking of feeling murderous…

Lesson 6: Don’t read your reviews. Especially if you think there is any chance at all that you might respond to, comment on, or feel any less valuable as a human being (see item 1) if you read a review that is less than stellar.

This is not new advice. Many, many authors before me have said this. There is legitimacy to this suggestion. And with any luck, you will have so many reviews that you won’t even have time to read all of them. But in the meantime…back away from Goodreads, y’all. Go have a cup of coffee and chillax. Mmm, coffee.

Lesson 7: Coffee will become your mascot.

It doesn’t even matter if you don’t like coffee. If someone offers you a cup when you’re on deadline, you will stop what you are doing and drink it at any moment during the day and night. You will be excited to go to sleep at night simply because it means that you can wake up and have coffee again in the morning.

Lesson 8: You won’t make any money.

At least not at the beginning. Or maybe even ever. Sorry.

But you know what? A lot of other authors are in the same boat. And what’s great about Romancelandia is that it is full of smart women who are capable and wonderful and interesting and so many other great things!

There will be many whom you look up to and adore and fangirl all over at conferences. And without being creepy…

Lesson 9: Go ahead and tell them that they’re fab. Don’t hold back your kindnesses.

Because when it’s your turn…when you get a “good job” note from your publisher, an “I like you” message from an author you respect and admire, or fan mail from a reader, you feel like a fucking boss.

Lesson 10: Save those messages. Come back to them.

You will need them, even on good days, because they mean you’ve touched someone with your words. It means that your work meant something good for a fellow human being. And even though the success of your work doesn’t dictate your value as a person, it still feels really, really good.

And with any luck, you won’t just survive. You’ll thrive.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 13 Comments