My first novel, the romantic comedy The Frog Prince, is by far the most beloved of all my books. In fact, much like Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters” and Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Cumberbitches,” fans of the book often refer to themselves on social media as being proud members of “The Frog Nation.” Immediately following the release of The Frog Prince, I was inundated with requests from Frog Nation readers (some might characterize them as “desperate pleas”) for a sequel to The Frog Prince, an appeal I’ve consistently rejected over the years. Why? There were lots of different reasons, really, but my most common response to those who asked was as follows:
“Leigh Fromm and Roman Lorraine von Habsburg will never be happier than they are at the end of The Frog Prince. They will never be more in love, never have better sex, and never be in better shape than they are in Chapter 32. What happens next? They get married, he starts leaving his dirty underwear on the floor, she never puts the lid on the toothpaste, they both let themselves go, and over the next twenty years, they slowly start to despise each other. If they have children, it happens in half that time.”
The real reason I didn’t write a sequel was that I couldn’t think of an interesting way to continue the story. And when I’m not intellectually and emotionally invested in the writing of a novel—mind, heart, and soul—trust me: that shit ain’t gettin’ written.
And then something wonderful happened. It came in the form of an email from a fan who had just read and fallen in love with The Frog Prince. Predictably, she asked if I was planning to write a sequel. I gave her my boilerplate response which she countered with what seemed like an odd question: “Have you ever read Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun?”
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Midnight Sun, it’s theTwilight story…told from the point-of-view of Edward Cullen, Bella Swann’s adolescent-appearing, vampire love interest. Meyer abandoned the novel about halfway through, choosing instead to share the uncompleted draft with fans on her website. Since I am in no way a literary snob, I’ll admit that I found Twilight to be an intriguing series, but I also must confess that I enjoyed Meyer’s half-finished Midnight Sun much, much more. (Well, once I was able to deliberately box up and set aside any moral squeamishness I might’ve had over what is essentially the story of a centenarian vampire’s pedophilic obsession with a teenage girl). In my opinion, being in the head of 104-year-old Edward and discovering his motivations for courting the somewhat dreary 17-year-old Bella Swann made for a far more interesting read than the other way around.
In any case, my new Frog Nation fan suggested that instead of a sequel to The Frog Prince, I try a Midnight Sun-like project—in short, a novel from The Frog Prince’s Roman von Habsburg’s point of view. And so the seed for Gilding the Lily-pad was planted. I published Gilding in October of 2013, describing it as “a companion novel to The Frog Prince,” mostly for lack of a better term for the project. (Meyer refers to Midnight Sun as “an exercise in character development that got wildly out of hand,” a description that definitely lacks the oomph needed for a book jacket.)
My writing methods are somewhat unconventional. Instead of penning an entire book before turning it over for editing, I take an unusual “edit-as-you-go” approach. Once I finish the first chapter of a novel, it goes to a group of a dozen randomly chosen “beta-readers” before moving downstream to a team of professional editors and proofreaders. In this way, I can address critique as I write, before I get too far down the rabbit hole with a huge mess of a story.
In the case of Gilding the Lily-pad, it was a damn good thing that I did this, because I learned one very important truth right out of the gate: no matter how much women claim the opposite, they absolutely, positively DO NOT want to know what men are thinking.
One beta-reader didn’t even make it through the first chapter before letting me know that, although she’d found Roman in The Frog Prince (written from Leigh Fromm’s POV) “charming,” she felt the Gilding Roman was “callous” and “unsympathetic.” Furthermore, she was disturbed by what she felt was the inordinate amount of time that Roman spent “checking Leigh out” at their first meeting and during subsequent encounters.
Here are a few excerpts from Chapter One, just to give you an idea of what was so troubling to this reader. Keep in mind that you’re reading from the man’s point of view:
I turn around and instead of an elderly woman, I find her—the tall, hot brunette. I stand there, frozen in my tracks, staring at her like a gape-mouthed moron, using every ounce of willpower I have to keep my eyes above her neckline. All I can do is hope that I’ll be able to look away before she catches me ogling her.
I look over the back of her from head to toe. Her hair is long, about halfway down her back, and she’s tall. I glance at her feet. Okay, I think, so she’s wearing heels. Still, she’s got to be at least five-nine, five-ten. I’m discreetly (I hope) checking out her ass when a man’s voice interrupts my appraisal.
Based just on these two excerpts, the beta-reader’s opinion of Roman von Habsburg was basically that he was a skeevy pervert. Honestly, I was shocked by her reaction, especially since it was my belief that I was practicing restraint to a degree that stretched belief. Why did this particular beta-reader and I hold such dramatically different opinions on the matter? Probably because I’m what’s known as “a guy’s girl.”
After I graduated from high school, I joined a volunteer fire department. Now, this was in the early 90s when fire and rescue was an almost exclusively male-dominated profession. The guys in my battalion (Bat 4, yo) did almost nothing to rein in the man-fest in progress, even after women began infiltrating their ranks. Their lewd behavior and blatantly raunchy comments shocked me at first. But after six years of running calls with those guys, enduring their juvenile antics and ribald jokes, I had transformed into “a guy’s girl,” a chick who could give as good as she got, and who always had a tart rejoinder on the tip of her tongue, loaded and ready to fire at any man foolish enough to take her on. In the years that followed, I found myself in one male-dominated profession after another—everything from underground utility locating to clinical research to writing thrillers—which served to open the door to the mysterious male mind even wider (for better or for worse).
And here’s what I know for a fact: even if a man is outwardly kind and respectful to women, even if he’s the very pinnacle of human decency and the strongest proponent of women’s rights alive, 75% of his inner thoughts—beginning roughly at the age of 13 and ending roughly when he draws his last breath—go something like this: Nice ass. Great tits; wonder if they’re real. Who cares if they’re real? Where did I leave my phone? Oh, heeeeey, check at the legs on this one! They’d look even better wrapped around me. Mmm-MMM! Why is this goddamn coffee taking so long?
In other words, if I were really writing a man, the majority of Roman’s internal dialogue would basically consist of: ‘Stop looking at her tits. Stop looking at her tits.’ Look at it another way: Edward Cullen, vampire extraordinaire, spends the majority of Twilight stalking and gawking at Bella Swann in locales ranging from flower-filled meadows to school cafeterias—“checking her out,” as any 104-year-old man with easy access to a Viagra prescription is wont to do. Edward’s fixation with Bella spans three novels, but his bloodlust is just a literary fig leaf for what he’s really thinking about the entire time: SEX. Meyer was able to pull off Edward being consumed by physical fantasies of Bella Swann—even though the book’s audience is Young Adult—because Edward didn’t want Bella “that way.” He only wanted to eat her. (Heh.) It is no coincidence that the Twilight series spawned the fan-fiction-turned bestselling phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey. It was simply a matter of removing the literary fig leaf, and letting the true nature of the story—sexual obsession—stand up and firmly demand to be counted. (Ahem.)
Anyhoo, with few exceptions, readers of Gilding the Lily-padended up adoring “the man’s side of the story.” I had so much fun writing this companion novel that I’ve decided to go on and write The Frog King, which will have the odd distinction of being a sequel to two novels which are not sequels to each other. So whose point of view will The Frog King be from—Leigh’s or Roman’s? Since fans were so delighted by Roman’s version of events in Gilding, I decided that I would write The Frog King chapters with alternating POVs, with Chapter One being from Leigh’s, Chapter Two from Roman’s, and so on.
And yes, even after a whirlwind courtship, a romantic engagement, and nuptials on the horizon, Roman will still be checking out Leigh’s ass while she’s not watching. When it comes to “writing a man,” some romance authors embrace reality whole-hog, while others prefer to dial back a man’s obsession with sex. Which begs the question: if an author fails to document a male character’s desire to check out a woman’s breasts, does that man still sneak a peek at her cleavage?
Trust me, you don’t want to know.