Review: Elements of Mind by Walter Hunt

I picked this book up after seeing a Facebook conversation about it in which it was described as a Victorian romp with classic horror elements. An allusion was made to Stephen King, and by happenstance there was a picture of a statue I’d done an essay on for a Far Eastern Art class. I was deeply intrigued.

To be honest, the first few pages made me a little meh. How many books do the “we’ll hint at the ending on the first page and then drag you through the whole story anyway” thing? Plus, at first I found the heightened language of narrator’s voice to be a bit much. Oh, but oh was I wrong to judge so harshly so quickly. By the fourth page I was intrigued by where the story could possibly go, and by the tenth page I already knew I was in love.

First, there’s the method of storytelling. Fans of the horror genre know that multiple narrative voices, the use of letters, or fractured timelines are as old as the hills. Frankenstein is one shining example, Dracula is another. While Hunt pays homage to the old greats by using this method, which is as immediately comfortable as a pair of well-worn work boots, he does it in a way that is very unrestrained and clever. Instead of staying to a single form, such as letters, he uses letters as well as flashback narration and novelization in the protagonist’s current timeline. While other authors find themselves tripping over a confused central voice while balancing perspectives (Oh, Veronica Roth, we still need to talk) Hunt never misses a beat: the multiple voices in his story serve to dangle some information in front of the reader while obscuring other, helping to keep the pace consistent and the story full of layers of intrigue. I have the deepest respect for the work that Hunt must have done as a student of the genre before embarking on his journey as a writer.

The second is the setting. Stylized Victorian settings tend to make me itch, as they are endlessly problematic. I’ve seen, for instance, the kind of misogyny that female readers are all too uncomfortable with in the world of fantasy excused as “an artifact of the time” when written into Victorian style literature. It gets old, fast. How many one-dimmensional women can be thrown into horror stories just to give a pleasantly heaving bosom for the male protagonist to rescue and then unlace? But there is none of that nonsense here! I found Hunt’s treatment of his female characters (of which there are a pleasant variety) to be quite refreshing. The deference and respect paid to them by the male protagonist, Davey, made me smile. The best thing is the casual way in which he dismissed the less lady-friendly attitudes of side characters with Davey’s responses. In one instance, one character states that their expedition is no place for a woman, “particularly an Englishwoman.”

Davey responds, “I wish you luck in telling her so. If you have served Her Majesty here in India, you clearly have some measure of bravery; it will take all that and more to suggest to Mrs. Shackleford that she not go.”

Ah. Like a breath of fresh air.

Another thing that typically makes it hard for me to read genre fiction is how often writers rely on tropes. Now, I love a great trope. And as a writer, I understand how writing re-imaginings of the things you’ve loved in books past can be the fiction author’s equivalent of macaroni and cheese. You know, comfort food. So I get that everyone loves a good noble rogue and mysterious stranger and call to heroism. Sure! It’s older than written language itself! But a skilled writer will find a way to take the reader’s expectation, well formed from their familiarity with the trope, and shape it into something new and surprising. Hunt does this multiple times in quite clever ways. I won’t spoil the story by giving specifics, but I’ll just say that this book now includes my FAVORITE use of the Mysterious Stranger- when the big reveal happened, I squealed with surprise and happiness.

Then, there is the setting. Victorian India is a bit fetishized and has been since, well, a Victorian India first existed in Victorian days. But this book doesn’t read at all like fetish fantasy. For one, Hunt is obviously well schooled in actual history. The artifacts he discusses, the little illuminations of setting, and the dynamic of inter-relationships between characters all show a great deal of education and thoughtfulness. Reading this novel doesn’t result in the sort of magic realism that comes from suspending disbelief and accepting this version of reality as the one in the author’s head. Hunt’s India isn’t an acceptable alternative to the real place. Hunt’s India isn’t magically real: it is real, plain and simple. The taste of reality in the book makes the fantasy all that more delightful, as one imagines that this tale would be wholly believable to readers of the time, and is colored in all the colors of a world that once wholeheartedly accepted mesmerism and possession as a part of science as of yet unexplained.

I was absolutely delighted by this book and plan to pass several copies along to some of my favorite readers. Hunt has great command not just of storytelling as a craft, but a cunning balance of education and inventiveness to boot. I’m hoping that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are more convincing worlds and breathtaking tales to come. Highly recommended.

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Shifting Perspectives

Editing Honest Conversation is like going to a high school reunion.  Everyone is older, and just different enough that it takes a moment to recognize them.  “Hey, didn’t you used to…?”  But then the night wears on and like flipping a switch suddenly you realize that under the extra twenty pounds and new career somewhere in there is the same person, the same likes and fears, the same old problems.  It’s amazing how much time changes, and how much never seems to change with time.

I’ve decided to shift perspectives.  Not in the sense that I’m changing the purpose of the story or why I wrote it, but in that I’m trying to dig way deeper and write a story that is less linear in it’s execution.  Less, shall we say, pointed.  As I was editing the hard copy I kept writing in the margins “What is John thinking?  Why isn’t he ever really allowed to TALK?”

And then I realized something; you see, when I first wrote the story I was Zoe.  I didn’t really care what anyone else had to say because I was furious and disappointed that no one was really listening to me.  I wrote the story from first person to really go into what Zoe was thinking and feeling, and at the same time that choice blocked out all other voices.  John and Zoe would be having a conversation and it was almost completely one sided.  If I’d cared to, I could have shown Zoe wanting to understand her friend and pastor more, but at the time I was on a tear.  I only had one thing, one goal, that I was reaching towards.

This time around I really want to showcase all points of view.  The television show Law and Order, every so many seasons, has an episode where you see everyone’s perspectives but the truth behind the story can be almost impossible to understand, and when the credits roll you as a viewer have to decide how you feel about the final verdict.  This time around I want Honest Conversation to be like that.  I want people to identify with all of the characters, even the ones I happen to disagree with.  I want people to feel safe putting themselves in the story and asking, “in this tale, who would I be?”  It’s less about getting people into my head, this time, and more about getting into theirs.

So, after already having done a tremendous amount of editing, I changed my mind about some things.  I started over, going line by line.  Shifting the perspective from first to third person.  Filling in the other side of the conversation, showing the other characters, their little tics and foibles, their thoughts and fears.  Letting the reader decide who they identify with, and why.

It’s a process that has literally exploded the story, sometimes adding five pages to one page of original text.  But it is oh so worth it.  Let me show you with this section from the original:

John walked in and smiled at me.  I smiled back and motioned to the empty and sat down, immediately opening his briefcase and smacking his Bible down on the table between us.  “You didn’t bring yours?”

“I know well enough to bring a gun to a gunfight,” I replied.  “It’s in my purse.”

Compare that to this passage, from the revision:

Something caught the corner of Zoe’s eye, and she saw John walking around the corner with a leather satchel over his hunched shoulders.  A bright yellow umbrella contrasted with his dark blue trench coat. His hair was mussed and there was a distracted look on his face. If Abigail had been there she would have sent him to the bathroom to straighten up with a single glance. The door jingled as John walked in and he glanced around, looking past Zoe twice before he saw her. Zoe smiled weakly, gesturing at the empty seat in front of her. She was sitting at one of the larger tables, her pen and notebook already open to a page full of grim doodles. John walked over and left his satchel on the seat, shrugging his way out of his coat and propping the yellow umbrella precariously up against a table leg. “Let me go order something,” he said.

“Sure,” Zoe replied, her mouth already halfway buried in another long sip. A moment later John returned to the table, rummaging around to lay out his own notebook as well as his Bible.

“Where’s yours?” John asked, his fingers stroking the battered blue cover of his own Bible, so used to wear that the once silver lettering had faded to a shadow. 

“It’s in my purse,” Zoe replied. “I know well enough to always bring a gun to a gunfight.”

The difference ends up being not only in other characters having a voice, but also in showing Zoe in more of a fair light.  You get to see her confusion, her distraction, and even her pain more wholly.  I hope that at the end of the day that change makes her a more sympathetic character for the readers who thought she was close to unhinged the first time around.  Hopefully it makes the story more engaging as well, since the reader can get more of a feeling for the setting by experiencing it through more than one biased voice.

In any case, I’m loving the process, but also having to accept the fact that it may take far longer than I’d once envisioned.  My month of revisions may end up being six months or more.

But it will be oh so worth it!

Honest Conversations: Revised, Expanded, and being GIVEN AWAY!

“There is a love that is so deep it surpasses understanding. It is so enormous and boundless it could utterly destroy you with its force. It is a love like the ocean. In the shallows it looks harmless, but caught in the undertow it will drag you away from everything you know and enjoy and bury you in a world you’d never imagined.”

“This is God.”

Honest Conversation.  As I wrote yesterday, revising it has been a strange journey for me.  I came across the above passage this morning and it was one of those moments where I forgot having written something that still grips at my chest now.  Passages like that remind me of the importance of this book just as much as the passages about being a gay Christian do.  Why?  Because there’s a side of God that many people in the Church too easily overlook, the violently affectionate God who longs for all of his children, even the ones we’d rather not have be a part of the family.  This is why I wrote that book, and it’s why I still believe in it and want it to be successful.  I want to share a taste of the God who changed my heart and my life and brought me back alive when I was dead in my life, the God who dragged me out to sea like the undertow and brought me back to shore a wholly new person.  The God whose love in me has allowed me to see and experience things I would have never been able to in my own power.

So I’m going to be doing a giveaway of Honest Conversation.  The giveaway will be twofold:  first, I’ll randomly give away copies to two people who review becoming. on Amazon or Goodreads before January 10th (the prospective release date for Honest Conversation).  People who review it on both sites (copy and paste, y’all) will get entered twice.  People who also paste a link of it being reviewed on their blog to my author fan page on Facebook will get entered THREE times.  I’ll also be giving free copies of Honest Conversation to trustworthy reviewers.  So if you know someone who book-blogs and would be interested in reading Honest Conversation, please send them the link to this post.

One of the additional blessings of my Kickstarter campaign having gone so well is that I’ve got enough money to be able to afford this giveaway- so a big THANK YOU to everyone who contributed.

Plus as an additional happy part of the giveaway, I’ll be adding in some as of now unnamed goodies, so stay tuned!

***(Anyone who already has Honest Conversation coming to them as a part of the Kickstarter campaign can request another book of their choice.)

Honest Conversation: for sale now!

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40 days ago I embarked on a strange journey.  Given the content of the story, I find it ironic that my artificial deadline of 35 days ended up turning into a forty day journey… but that’s a story for another time.

Today I want to talk about my novel- my brave little book that is finally written.  It has all of the things that a novel should have- a start, a middle, an end.  It has them in the right order, as well as being possessed of a single cohesive storyline and a subplot that involves kissing.

I’ve discovered something.  Fiction is dangerous- it’s dangerous because you don’t always notice that you are being taught a lesson when you’re reading a story.  When someone is simply schooling you, you notice immediately.  And if they tell you something you don’t want to hear, you get defensive.  But when reading a story it feels safer to allow yourself to be questioned.  So while I was working on this book and realizing how many things I was saying that some Christians might find offensive, or flat out wrong, I decided I would change things up a little.  I’d say all of the words that I wanted to say, but I’d cleverly hide them in a story that forced them to look at the humanity about which the words are intended.

So instead of me, as the author, saying that I find it hard to believe that God would reject the service of a gay man who honestly believed that God had created him to love other men, those words are spoken by a character.  And throughout the story there are moments of revelation, tenderness and tolerance.  All of it to forward a single message:

The big question isn’t one of sin, it’s one of mission.  It’s one of God’s love.

So pop this subversive little story of gay acceptance and hetero romance on your coffee shop trade table, slide a few editions into your local church’s resources library…  You never know.

A good book can save a life.

Available on CafePress

::For people who want a personalized copy, contact me at linkees@gmail.com- the price for a single book will be $16, including shipping.  Bulk discounts and discounts for books that are to be donated can also be negotiated through me::