THE BLOG
01/23/2012 05:27 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2012

The Genus of a Novel

The genus of a novel, for me, is simply an emotion.

There are roughly two camps of authors when it comes to writing novels - those who plot, and those who don't. The plotters are the draughtsman, the architects, those who work for days or weeks on the intricacies of where the novel will go, the twists and turns, the denouement, and before they really even set pen to paper, they have a clear and solid framework within which to work. They know the perpetrator, they know the crimes to be committed, they see the end, and they know how they will arrive.

The second camp, within which I resolutely and stubbornly reside, are those who do the opposite. I have never written a synopsis in my life, and I don't believe I ever will.

The primary purpose of non-fiction is to convey information. Of course, non-fiction can generate an emotional response. It can provoke indignation regarding injustice, resentment and anger toward corrupt officials, dismay at the simple lessons we have failed to learn from history, but - essentially - non-fiction is there to deliver information of a factual nature to the reader.

Fiction, we have been told, serves to entertain. I disagree. I believe fiction serves its greatest purpose when it evokes an emotion.

So, what is the point a novel begins for me? It begins when I read of something, or perhaps am involved in a conversation, or see a film, and something happens that provokes an emotional response in me. There is the seed of the thing.

I read a newspaper article, it sparks something. I have a conversation with someone on an unrelated issue a week later, and all of a sudden there's an idea that attaches itself to the original spark. The thing seems to take on a life of its own It grows, absorbs other thoughts and ideas. I overhear a conversation on a plane, and it reminds me of a scene I saw in a film when I was a child, and yet again another facet is added to the basic idea. There is enough material there to actually start the thing. I can see an opening scene. I do not know precisely where it will go. I have no certainty at all as to how this idea will become a fully-formed novel, or where it will end, but I am clear on one thing: I know precisely the kind of emotional response I want to create in the reader. Whether or not that precise response is generated is beside the point. Every reader reads differently, and every reader experiences a novel in a unique way. But I am aware of the effect I am trying to create; I have a compass bearing. With A Quiet Vendetta, I knew I wanted to write a book that spanned the history of Italian-American organized crime in the twentieth century. However, the real hook for me was the idea of writing a novel about the very worst human being I could think of, and yet creating that character in such a way as to have the reader seduced by him. By the time they turned the last page they would more than happily have him over for dinner, and yes, one time he could even mind the kids. That was the feeling I wanted to create, and all the convoluted and complex levels of the story itself came in after that initial hook.

Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels. There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened. A puzzle or an unresolved question was presented in the opening page or chapter, and then you followed a tortuous maze of clues until the denouement. Such novels are compelling, and the urgency with which you have to reach the end is remarkable. You need to know what happened! Having read such a book, however, you might be asked some weeks later whether it was a title you had encountered. You would pause for moment. "Remind me again what it was about?" you would ask, and that simple question would say all that needed to be said about the level of emotional engagement inherent in such a book. Wonderful plots, clever twists, but not a book to change your preconceptions about life.

The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description.

The truly great books - however - are the ones that accomplish both.

I was asked one time how I would define a 'classic'.

A classic is a book that presents you with a narrative so compelling you can't read it fast enough, and yet is written so beautifully you can't read it slowly enough. You are caught in limbo. You want to know what will happen, but you never want the journey to end. By the time you leave the book behind, you feel that you are saying goodbye to friends, even enemies, but people that you will remember for a good while to come.

So, for me at least, a book starts and finishes with the very same thing: the emotion it generates, and it is no more complex than that.

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