Writing Tips From P.G. Wodehouse, and a Contrast

It was just a silly idea that I had for a novel. It would have to get past the Wodehouse trustees to have any chance of publication. Perhaps if I made old Plum a leading character it would soothe their feelings. So I’ve been reading Robert McCrum’s brilliant Wodehouse: A Life – the paperback edition uses the same cover photograph as the earlier Donaldson effort.

(And there goes another novel. “I’m working on a novel.” “No, neither am I!”

But I did come away with some P.G. tips. And some other thoughts besides. Here they are.

  1. Focus. Wodehouse was determined from his schooldays that he was going to be a writer and nothing else. McCrum’s account of his early work habits remind me of Philip Larkin’s. The day job over, both men dedicated the evening and much of the night to writing. Wodehouse took one evening off every week, but would otherwise keep going until perhaps 2 a.m. Larkin would take a late-evening drinks break with colleagues – Wodehouse ploughed on through without stopping. Wodehouse had no hobbies apart from an enduring interest in Dulwich College’s rugby team, no love interests, no visible distractions at all. McCrum wonders if his case of adult mumps didn’t power down his libido, as it tends to do.
  2. Sell your work, try to sell your work, don’t hide behind a mask of “individuality” or “creativity”. Good stuff always sells in the end, but you have to keep going until then.  At one stage, while still holding down a full-time banking job, Wodehouse would be receiving in the order of eight editorial replies to his submissions per day. Clearly, most of these would have been rejections.
  3. Learn the trade. Wodehouse wasn’t Wodehouse from the beginning. The Jeeves era was a thing of middle and old age. Short stories, novels, writing for children, satirical verse, humorous fillers and columns – he wrote everything and anything. Of course, the fierce intelligence and talent was there, to an unusual degree, and this would have helped him, but Wodehouse is famous for more than clever butlers. It was school stories first, then “Your Food Will Cost You More!” in the 1906 General Election. Then pulp fiction in New York. Then writing lyrics for Jerome Kern. The unsung dialogue in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes is his (I remember an amateur performance where the orchestra  drowned out the singers, leaving us watching in effect an amusing Wodehouse play that was interrupted now and then by meaningless instrumental numbers). By the time he turned 40, Wodehouse knew in detail what he was good at and had earned both the right to focus upon it and the wealth to support him in the meantime.
  4. Keep professional notebooks. The entries in Wodehouse’s notebooks and commonplace books are numbered for future reference. It’s obvious reading them that he is always on the lookout for material, always combing his environment for ideas. If he makes some small observation that might not be useful for two weeks, ten months or five years, he doesn’t rely on memory to preserve it for him. He was a David Allen before the time.
  5. Work hard. Larkin never did make the jump to full-time professional writer, although after the publication of his Oxford anthology probably he was in a position to do so. But then, Wodehouse, who did, was not one of the twentieth century’s great academic librarians and reformers and builders, which Larkin was. But once Wodehouse did go full time – only two years after leaving school – he used the extra time available to him to repeat what had been his evening routine across the rest of the day. No shit in shuttered chateau he, and no doing his hundred words before spinning out the rest of the day in birds and booze .
  6. Wodehouse appears to have been willing to talk to almost anyone about anything. There’s a powerful curiousity there, especially in his earlier years. It’s an open, apolitical curiousity, positive, interested, and warm. Records of fly-by conversations cram his notebooks. I wonder if Ian MacEwan does this, or Julian Barnes?
  7. His stories and novels were always ruthlessly plotted before a word of text was typed. It’s this intense respect for the conventions of storyline that make his many novels each similar enough to attract repeat readership, but each unique enough to reward it.  That requires hard background work and deep knowledge of writing as craft.
  8. The notebooks are full of instructions to himself. They were going to be re-read. “Try this..” crops up time and time again.
  9. Draft and redraft. Wodehouse did between three and ten drafts of everything, and where necessary would start all over again on a piece.

“I do seem to have been monstrously productive” wrote George Szirtes here. And here he says “When I was twenty-five I thought nothing could be better and more impossible than having a book of poems published. It seemed desperately unlikely, given the circumstances: the transplantation, the second language, the lack of education, the necessity of making a living and supporting a family, the indifference of the literary world, not to mention my doubts about my talent. And all those years and years of luck it would take: the luck conspicuously missing from my parents’ lives.”

GS doesn’t mention that it takes hard work for years on end before you get to where he is now. If you don’t follow those links, GS is the subject of a dedicated exhibition in Cambridge, has just had one of those dreadful academic guides written about his work, and has just brought out a Collected.

But in all other respects, everything GS lists as being true in his circumstances was favourably different for Wodehouse. Wodehouse began his career when the demand for writing was at its height, demand from the hundreds of dailies, weeklies and monthlies that Edwardian England supported in the absence of radio and television. It isn’t easy, but it is more easy, to amount to Barbara Cartland levels of productivity when your world wants it. (In the Forties Wodehouse wondered out loud how young writers got started anymore..) By the time GS began his career, poetry’s popular audience had all but gone. And Wodehouse’s parents had been both lucky and rich; Wodehouse was born middle class English at a time when that was an even greater piece of unlikely fortune than it is now; Wodehouse was educated expensively by men passionate about his passions.

Well, autre temps, and autre pays.

I can’t close without reference to Wodehouse’s dividing the human race into poets and golfers. You feel the truth of this instinctively. And the golfers with so many centuries’ catching up to do.. My professional experience was that sports psychology worked better for the poets. Top golfers are hard, hard bastards with personalities of teak. Nor can I close without saying, once again, that Right Ho, Jeeves! is the best book ever written on human psychology. It may be shorter than those flappy textbooks in Psy 101, but it’s all in there, believe me…

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2 responses to “Writing Tips From P.G. Wodehouse, and a Contrast

  1. Tch ! For the love of loaf everthing was lost.
    But for Wodehouse it makes one wonder , how he quite gave up his regular bank job and gave himself to the finer art that we relish and adulate him so much for.
    A demi-God at that, things are best seen from perspective of mortal humans,which makes the worshiping of Gods possible.

  2. Plum rocks. No doubt about it. The fact that he was once in the league of you and me makes me admire him more.

    May his prose live forever. Amen.