Originally from England, Tom now hangs his hat in Boston, Massachusetts; with occasional spells in such faraway places as London and Luxembourg. Tom has a degree in Computer Science, and he claims to speak three languages: English, American, and Visual Basic. Before turning his hand to fiction, Tom had a successful career as the CEO of a systems consulting company, conference speaker, and writer of industry articles and business books.
Tom Weston on the Artistry of P.G. Wodehouse.
My favorite writer, P.G. Wodehouse, the genius who created Jeeves and Wooster, published 99 works, beginning with the Pothunters in 1902 and ending with Sunset at Blandings in 1977. He is regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English Language, no easy matter considering that his chosen genre was light comedy. Evelyn Waugh said that he had, “grown up in the light of his genius.” In Russia, he was revered by many above Tolstoy. And I think that he is some sort of deity to Indian Computer Programmers.
Yet, although he was someone who never had to compromise between quantity and quality, he began each work like the rest of us – with nothing but optimism. Coming from an age that predated the word processor, his tools were an old typewriter and a stack of blank sheets of paper, but there is much in his methodology that is to be emulated. In fact, it is his disciplined approach to writing that was the basis for both his productivity and his brilliance.
Wodehouse would begin each novel by gathering about 400 sheets of paper. He would then enter his office and spread out the paper on the floor, up against the base of the walls. Then depending on whatever thoughts were going through his head, he would pick up a piece of paper and scribble notes or type a bit of action or dialogue on it, and then put it back on the floor. Sometimes he would rearrange the papers into different orders, as the chronology of the novel was starting to take shape.
After scribbling and typing and transferring the work in progress to a new piece of paper, when it was sufficiently fleshed out, he would take the page from the floor and pin it to the bottom of the wall. As he continued to refine each page, he would pin it higher up the wall, and the pages would compete with each other in a slow race up towards the ceiling.
This gave him a great visual aid into the status of the work: what was coming along nicely, what still needed work and how much work overall was still left to do. It also allowed him to develop his ideas and novels in a non-linear fashion, which is how most of us think anyway; and to see the interaction between different parts of the story, between set-up and punch-line. After all, in comedy, timing is everything.
When all the pieces of paper were pinned to the top of the wall, Wodehouse knew that the work was finished. Not only that, he knew that each page in the book was as good as it could be, and that no page was more important than any other.
It’s probably this last factor that is most essential to good writing, but the one that is easiest to overlook. We put these critical things in our books: the unique characters, the plot twists, the snappy bits of dialogue, etc. Yet we tend to focus on these things, and then we pad the in-between with filler that hasn’t received its due attention. A book may have great attributes, but, like a chain, it is only as strong as its weakest link. P.G. Wodehouse’s genius was in using a technique that made each link as strong as possible.
Tom Weston is the author of the fantasy novel, First Night; and is currently working on its sequel, the Elf of Luxembourg.