Walking HigherWalking Higher: Gay Men Write about the Deaths of their Mothers

Edited by Alexander Renault
Xlibris, September 2004

Paper 400 pages, $24.95
ISBN: 1-4134-5603-0
Hard cover 400 pages $34.95
ISBN: 1-4134-5604-9

Walking Higher is a collection of the voices of 30 men dedicated to exploring their relationships with the women who gave them life, and managing the aftermath of their mothers' passing. Ten to twenty years ago, gay sons were predeceasing their mothers in alarming numbers as out-of-sequence deaths from AIDS ravaged an entire generation.  Now that AIDS is a treatable disease in the developed world, more gay men are surviving their parents. Hence, it seems timely to offer a series of reflections on the special and unique relationship of mothers and their gay sons from the perspective of the surviving sons.

Below is a helpful article written exclusively for The Independent Gay Writer by Alexander Renault, appropriately called "Stumbling Forward." If you have ever tried to put together an anthology and have it published, you will appreciate Mr. Renault's insights.

Alexander Renault has published in multiple genres from pet magazines to feminist newspapers, on philosophical issues from freedom of speech to the intersections of religion and sex, on human subjects from survivors of the Holocaust to popular music’s rock goddesses.  His journalism has been published in the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa.  Born on his mother's birthday, Renault is a tenacious Gemini with penchants for feminism and psychology.  He has been working in the mental health field for 15 years.  Renault lives with his partner in a little ranch house in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, with their two Boston terriers, Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi.

His erotica will be published in several pending anthologies, while his essay "Beneath the Glitter Ball" will be included in the anthology I Do/I Don't: Queers on Marriage from Suspect Thoughts Press, scheduled for release later in 2004.

Renault is the editor for Walking Higher: Gay Men Write about the Deaths of their Mothers. He invites you to visit him at AlexanderRenault.com
Email: AlexanderRenault@earthlink.net

Alexander Renault
will be appearing
October 2
7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

345 South 12th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107
(at 12th & Pine Sts in Center City)

Tel: 215/923-2960 • Fax: 215-923-0813

Stumbling Forward
by Alexander Renault

    When I was asked to write an article about my experiences while editing a self-published anthology, Walking Higher: Gay Men Write about the Deaths of their Mothers, I was not sure I wanted to take the challenge.  It was such a difficult process that I feared any essay might be a collection of complaints and no one likes a whiner.  Then a friend asked me if I was sorry I ever started the project.  The question was surprising and I replied that I was never once sorry because I believe deeply in the project.  I might have something valuable to say about the process and its end results.

    Putting on an editor’s hat for the first time was a scary prospect but the idea behind the anthology was a winner.  The same friend who encouraged me to write about my experiences is the same person who gave me the idea for Walking Higher.  I am freer to say what a great idea it is because I am not boasting; the original concept was a gift.

    Being a first-time anthology editor is much like traveling to a foreign country without an interpreter.  I had to learn the basics of the language, the okays and the don’ts, and how to structure my time.  There are rules of professionalism and you must remain on guard against manipulation. 

    I was surprised to find that no anthology with the theme of Walking Higher had been published, at least not that I could find.  The closest is Mama’s Boy: Gay Men Write about their Mothers, edited by Dean Kostos and Eugene Grygo, published by Painted Leaf Press in 2000.  I liked Mama’s Boy because the theme was interesting and I tried to take the concept a step further into murkier and more complicated waters.  I was also happy to snag two contributors to Mama’s Boy for Walking Higher.  

    I soon learned why such a book has not been attempted.  My detailed book proposal was rejected by over 50 publishers in both the mainstream and GLBT presses.  We seem to currently be trapped in a kind of crisis point in publishing and those in charge are not interested in anything that might not sell well.  No one seems to be taking any chances on new ideas, new writers.  If they are, I am unable to locate them.

    Some of the reasons for the rejections are as follows: no one buys books about death; no one in mainstream society buys books about gay men; anthologies do not sell as well as other sure-hitters; the topic is morbid and ungainly (one publisher called it “ghoulish”); and after receiving the submissions call, one popular website for gay men added a note that the only politically correct stance regarding such a book would be to never bring up the topic to begin with.  This is the same website that ran a picture with the submissions call of a mother reading a book to a child with the caption, “Now you’re in for it, bitch!”  Some were offended that I only included gay men and not lesbians, bisexuals, or transgender persons.

    The response to the submissions call was incredibly strong as I received manuscripts from all over the U.S. and Canada.  For all the initial criticism the topic received, gay male writers had plenty to say about the deaths of their mothers. 

    I was not surprised by the proposal’s rejections and quickly moved into my back up plan of self-publishing and decided to use Xlibris out of Philadelphia.  I originally planned for Walking Higher to be the maiden voyage of Renault Publishing, Inc., but soon realized that to create the book as I wanted it to be, I had to go with an experienced team of professionals, or I would end up with a book printed on tissue paper, with a boring cover.  I wanted a custom designed cover plus black and white photographs of writers’ mothers in the interior.  The only way to accomplish this was to bankroll the project myself and pray that I might break even someday.

    The profit margin for self-published books is extremely low for both the author and retailers.  Many bookstores will not even purchase self-published books because they are often not returnable and shipping costs can be elevated above the traditional expense.  This is why marketing for self-published books is best aimed at niche markets and individual groups (academic, social, or professional) rather than book retailers.

    Writing and publishing, or I should say attempts at publishing, can bring about what I call the Saint Bernard effect.  Those are the snowy mountain dogs with barrels of brandy around their necks, which save people trapped in the snow.  Every once in awhile the trainers and caretakers of these canines have to plant moles, real live people in the snow.  Otherwise, Saint Bernards will typically find only dead people and this leaves them enervated and sometimes too depressed to perform their normal functions.

    It is the same with writers.  When you go for long periods of time without success, it can leave you despondent and filled with self-doubt.  The best way to combat this is to remain active, keep writing, and above all else, submit your work relentlessly.  Writer John Gilgun told me, “I live at the post office.”  He has been successful because of his tenacity. 

    One of the absolute highlights of editing Walking Higher was being able to tell writers that I loved their work and wanted to use it.  I know how seldom this happens for writers, so many were pleasantly surprised to get the nibble.

    Here are a few things I learned along the way while editing Walking Higher:

    #1)    Writing and editing is a dance of focus and energies:  It is easy to waste energy by not learning from your mistakes, not knowing when to try an alternative course of action, or becoming stuck in negativity. 

    I have seen rebuttals published by writers who are bitter about a poor review of their work.  Here the author focuses energy on defensiveness instead of perceiving any value from the criticism.  If it is a simple, unfair hatchet job, then it is the reviewer’s problem.  Avoid pouring vital energy into that corner.  Conserve your energy and expend it wisely.  Dealing with an editor is also like any other form of communication—you are responsible for half of it.  Make sure you communicate clearly. 

    #2)    Rudeness is unwise: Editors wield much power because they are in creative control of a particular project.  The stories I have been told, and some of my personal experiences as a writer working with editors, are shocking.  There is a lot of ego in this power dance, and where there is power, there is trouble. 

    Editors should realize that some of their writers have been badly burned by editors in the past—it goes with the business.  Editors need to be firm but professional.  Writers also need to remember that editors are not mind readers, nor are they omniscient.  I made rather large, clunky blunders during my initial editing performance with Walking Higher but am still surprised by how unforgiving some writers can be (my only consummately rude writer is, ironically, a health and human services professional, but after working in the field myself for so many years, it remains hardly surprising for quite a number of disturbing reasons).  If you disagree with your editor, tell him or her how you feel in a clear and professional manner, and tell them why you disagree with their decisions.  A good editor will work with you.  If you cannot work together, you might want to consider withdrawing from the project.  Editors receive a plethora of submitted manuscripts for any given project. 

    Editors should remember that every manuscript they receive is a piece of someone’s life, a creative offering.  With Walking Higher, this was taken to a Zen level due to the subject matter.  People were opening emotional veins.  Rejections were extremely difficult but I made them as personal as possible.  There is nothing more demeaning than receiving a pre-printed rejection note on slip of paper, except perhaps not receiving any reply at all, which seems to happen more and more frequently these days as competition for limited publication opportunities and space dwindles.

    Writers should remember that editors are incredibly busy people and are not infallible.  Do not stew and then overreact because it is a waste of time for your editor and a waste of your own energy.  Let your editor know your thoughts but be polite.  Being rude to the editor is unwise because nothing good will come from such behaviors—it will most likely make matters worse for you, the writer. 

    Editors deal with many personalities in the course of a single day.  I worked with 29 writers throughout the anthology creation.  Most were pleasant, professional, honest, and a pleasure to work with.  At the same time, my background in psychiatrics was an excellent precursor for managing the sea of passive-aggressiveness inherent in the writing and publishing fields.

    One writer threatened to sue me over editorial changes.  Rather than overreact to what I sensed was a twice-bitten response, I simply asked him, via email, if he wanted to withdraw from the project or work on coming to an editorial compromise.  It turned out that he had been burned before by an editor who changed his work drastically before sending it to print, after the writer had signed the contract.  We worked out the situation and I was glad to have him remain part of the project.

    Another of my contributors seems to have a penchant for snippy emails.  Here is a word of advice-- unless you’re in the midst of a rapid, complex exchange of ideas via email, and using single phrases to express yourself, include a polite salutation in your email, and sign it.  Otherwise, you can come across as a real asshole and this is  counterproductive for both of you.  It is also unprofessional and the editor may never want to work with you again (although if the writer is behaving in such a manner, he or she likewise must not been keen on the idea, either).

    Another writer never forgave me for some of my mistakes and even stated in an email that he was sorry he ever got involved with the project in the first place.  My only response to him was four of the truest words I’ve ever written: “I know the feeling.” 

    #3)    Successful Book Publishing = Spending $$$:   Self-publishing a book is beyond challenging.  It takes an incredible amount of work to see the finished product but even more work is necessary in marketing yourself and your book.  Ignoring your marketing, or leaving it up to others, is unwise.  No one will sell your work better than you because people always look after their own children a little more closely and carefully than someone else’s.  This is part of the secret to writer David Sedaris’s success—he has always had control of his own promotion.  If you hate marketing then wait until a publisher will do it for you.  You may have a rather long wait.  Expect to spend at least $3,000 marketing your book.  All your hard work, or the work of your contributors, will hardly matter if no one reads it. 

    #4)    Make Timely Decisions:  Almost anything can be accomplished with enough perseverance, faith, and hard work.  This involves a delicate balance of all your energy, solid social and communication skills, and a hunger to succeed.  It also involves walking a tightrope of decision-making.  In the end, it is the author’s, or editor’s, name on the book cover, whether self-published or pushed with a huge marketing budget.  Every decision you make will have exactly one of two effects: it will help your project or it will hurt it.  You can take the professional approach or be unfriendly, you can be timid or assertive.  You can be proactive and take control of a project or sit back and wait.  You can develop your professional networking skills or become everyone’s barnacle and burden.  Also, if you try to keep everyone happy, you will fail. 

    The biggest challenge with editing Walking Higher was managing my decisions.  I asked the most successful and respected people I could find for advice throughout all phases of its production, from potential contributor manuscript acceptance to book cover imagery to legal concerns to marketing.  The most difficult aspect was deciding when not to listen to others and follow my own instincts.  You’re on your own there.

    #5)    Seek legal counsel:  Have a knowledgeable attorney review your contracts, photograph release forms, and interview release forms.  Find out the best ways to protect yourself and your work.  Invest time in learning all you can absorb about entertainment law and copyright issues.  Have your attorney keep all your important records, including contracts and photograph or interview release forms, at his or her office.  All of this is far less expensive than regret. 

    #6)     Take chances:  One of the scariest elements about publishing a book is that everything you write can and will be used against you.  Like a chain only being as strong as its weakest link, when unkind reviewers go after your book, they will find its weakest point and ram it home.  It is often painful.  But like the cliché reads, no guts, no glory.

    #7)    Manage rejection well and get used to it:  I have received some of the meanest, most outlandish rejection notes you will ever find.  A few actually made me laugh out loud, like the time the editor for an “excellence in education” newsletter let me know he was not at all impressed by my essay on censorship of literature in public schools and colleges.  He wrote, “Trite!!!” across the cover letter and sent it back in my SASE. 

    I emailed an inquiry to one highly popular erotica website concerning a non-fiction piece I was working on at the time.  One of their editors responded quickly with a friendly email to let me know that she would be happy to read it.  Twenty minutes later, I received another email from that editor’s supervisor, to let me know they were not at all interested in seeing anything I had written because she had never heard of me and I was obviously a “nobody.” 

    You have to be able and willing to let all of this go and continue to move forward. 

To order Walking Higher call 888 - 795 - 4274 ext. 276, order online at www.xlibris.com, www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com, or visit your local bookstore.

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