Agatha Christie: Quotes on Writing


From, Agatha Christie:  An Autobiography

1.  “I myself was always recognized, though quite kindly, as ‘the slow one’ of the family.  The reactions of my mother and my sister were unusually quick- I could never keep up.  I was, too, very inarticulate.  It was always difficult for me to assemble into words what I wanted to say……It  is probably one of the causes that have made me a writer.”

2.   “There always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of creative work before you can in any way evaluate it.”

3. “You start into it, inflamed by an idea, full of hope, full indeed of confidence.  If you are properly modest, you will never write at all, so there has to be one delicious moment when you have thought of something, know just how you are going to write it, rush for a pencil, and start in exercise book buoyed up with exaltation.  You then get into difficulties, don’t see  your way out, and finally manage to  accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time.  Having finished it, you know it is absolutely rotten.  A couple of months later you wonder if it may not be all right after all.”

4. to a friend who wished to be in one of  her novels, “I don’t think I could put you in.  I can’t do anything with real people.  I have to imagine them.”

5.  “It is awfully hard for an author to put things in words when you have to do it in the course of conversation.  You can do it with a pencil in your hand, or sitting in front of your typewriter- then the thing  comes out already formed as it should come out- but you can’t describe things that you are only going to write; or at least I can’t.  I learned in the end never to say anything about a book before it was written.  Criticism after you have written it is helpful.  You can argue the point, or you can give in, but at least you know how it has struck one reader.  Your own description of what you are going to write, however, sounds so futile, that to be told kindly that it won’t  do meets with your instant agreement.”

6. “Your criticism is bound to be that you yourself would have written it in such and such a way, but that does not mean that it would be right for another author.  We all have our own ways of expressing ourselves.”

7.  ” An early story of mine was shown to a well-known authoress by a kindly friend.  She reported on it sadly but adversely, saying that the author would never make a writer.   What she really meant, though she did not know it herself at the time because she was an author and not a critic, was that the person who was writing was still an immature and inadequate writer who could not yet produce anything worth publishing.  A critic or an editor might have been more perceptive, because it is their profession to notice the germs of what may be.   So I don’t like criticizing and I think it can easily do harm.”

8.  “The only thing I will advance as criticism is the fact that the would-be-writer has not taken any account of the market for his wares.  It is no good writing a novel of thirty thousand words- that is not a length which is easily publishable at present….You have got something you feel you can do well and that you enjoy doing well, and you want to  sell it well.  If so, you must give it the dimensions and the appearance that is wanted….It is no good starting out by thinking one is a heaven-born genius- some people are, but very few.  No, one is a tradesman- a tradesman is a good honest trade.  You must learn the technical skills, and then, within that trade, you can apply your own creative ideas; but you must submit to the discipline of form.”

9.   “The disadvantage of the dictaphone is that it encourages you to be much too verbose.  There is no doubt that the effort involved in typing or writing does help me in keeping to the point. ”

10.  “There is a right length for everything.  I think myself that the right length for a detective story is fifty- thousand words.  I know this is considered by some publishers as too short.  Possibly readers feel themselves cheated if they pay their money and only get fifty-thousand words- so sixty- thousand or seventy-thousand are more acceptable.  If your book runs to more than that I think you usually find that it would have been better if it had been shorter.”

11.  “When you begin to write, you are usually in the throes of admiration for some writer, and, whether you will or no, you cannot help copying their style.  Often it is not a style that suits you, and so you write badly.  But as time goes on you are less influenced by admiration.  You will admire certain writers, you may even wish you could write like them, but you know quite well that you can’t. If I could write like Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Sparks, or Grahame Greene, I should jump to high heaven with delight, but I know that I can’t, and it would never occur to me to attempt to copy them.  I have learned that I am me,  that I can do the things that, as one might put it, me can do, but I cannot do the things that me would like to do.”

Published in: on May 5, 2009 at 6:29 pm  Comments (33)  
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33 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent comments and well worth following.

  2. Hey Ralfast,

    Glad you like the comments. I’m reading her autobiography for the first time and it’s really fascinating. I hope to travel to exotic locales and place my stories too in them, like she did.

  3. I so agree with her on #6 & #7. These are the main reasons I dislike the idea of critique groups. Most of the people in them (not all, certainly)are in no position to criticize another person’s work.

    I’m especially going to be bearing those two in mind over the next few weeks 😉

  4. I feel the same way, DD.

    A lot of writer’s can’t separate objective from subjective. When I beta, I always remind myself it’s their story, not mine. Their writing style, not mine.

  5. #3, #5, #8 — perceptive observations! You can tell that Christie understood her craft and the business of making oneself publishable. Christie autobiography is duly noted for a future read. Thanks for mentioning this. 🙂

  6. I love all of these. What I like best is that she says a lot of perceptive and profound things but does so in incredibly simple, straightforward language. Not always an easy thing to do. This goes on my list as a future read as well.

  7. I especially resonated to number 4. I may steal bits and pieces from real people but I also feel the need to, as much as is possible, of course, completely imagine my characters. Whew! I’ve heard over and over the dictum that you should base characters on real people so to read that was very refreshing.

  8. I love these quotes!!

    And I love Agatha Christie’s books. My favorite character of hers is Hercule Poirot.

    #6 is so true. I have just sent an ms out to readers, and I will have to remember #6.

  9. Hey JGlane,

    Yup. #3 is so true. All those different highs and lows you feel while writing. “This is great!” “I suck.” “Uhm…this is sort of okay.”

    In case you do want to pick up her autobiography, it’s simply tiled, “Agatha Christie, An autobiography”. Not to be confused with, “Come, tell me how you live”- which, evidently, is a short work regarding some of the archeological digs she went on with her husband. (though I’m sure that’s a cool read,too)

  10. Hey Venus,

    The whole autobiography is great. She comes across very perceptive, sharp, yet down-to-earth, and warm.

    Someone I’d just love to sit and have a great chat with. Tea and scones, included.

  11. Hey Jenna,

    You’re definitely not alone. I never use real people, either. Well, at least, they’re not real on *this* plane. They pop in from somewhere and land in my little head.

  12. Hey Jewel,

    Poirot is my favorite character, too. So brilliant, funny, and caring all rolled into one. He’s definitely a sentimentalist. And I love Suchet’s performance of him. Brilliant!

  13. Suchet’s portrayal of Poirot is sheer brilliance. He makes him (the character of Poirot) so fun to watch. My favorite in the books though is Miss Marple. She’s something, the little one, with all her simple, village charm and cunning woven into one. I adore Miss Marple. She would be hilarious to have as an aunt or a friend. Poirot is idealistic about murder while Marple is jarringly realistic about people’s flaws & vices. She accepts them. Therein lies Agatha Christie’s genius because when you look at these two characters as people and not detectives they are amazingly different.

    Can you tell I have every single Agatha Christie book, pocket companion and so on and so forth and have read them multiple times? Love.

  14. Hey Venus,

    When I first started reading Christie, Miss Marple was my favorite. Although Poirot has taken the number one spot for me, it’s very close. Your description of her is right on. I love how she notices *everything* while she’s sitting there knitting.

    Speaking of the show- Joan Hickson was great. I haven’t liked the last two actresses in the role. Have you seen them by any chance?

  15. Wonderful quotes. I’m always amazed, even though it happens over and over again, when I discover that famous authors had/have the same battle with their thoughts as I do. I can relate to what Agatha said about having difficulty talking about what she was writing – I find it so incredibly difficult to articulate this when people ask. About characters – mine often just appear from somewhere, but I do have a few loosely based on interesting people I know. Generally, by the time I’m done, there is not much resemblance to the real human, but some of the character traits remain the same. The exception is Swimming North, in which two of the main characters, although they have undergone major revision from their ‘real person templates’ actually say things that the real people said.

  16. I love the one about not using real people…I know a lot of writers who do the opposite, but I love to create my own characters, from scratch…they are always better “characters” that way!

  17. #10 is really the rule for me. Let the story define the length no the other way around.

  18. I didn’t know Dame Agatha had written an autobiography — I’ll have to look for it. These quotes are great!

  19. We love you, Agatha Christie!

    I just want to hug the stuffing out of her, after reading those quotes. : )

    I’d love to spend the afternoon over tea and cookies and just exchange ideas with her.


  20. Thanks for the quotes, Tasha!

    “I learned in the end never to say anything about a book before it was written.”

    She was a wise woman.

    What I most liked about Agatha Christie’s books (after the brilliant plots) was her use of chemistry and toxicology. These days that’s nothing unusual, but in the 1950s, how many respectable ladies read up about strychnine and thallium for fun? And wrote so well about the latter that someone actually spotted a real-life case of thallium poisoning thank to the book? (Yes, that actually happened.)

  21. Hey Uppington,

    That’s a huge reason why I love to read about authors. First, I find it inspiring; and second, it’s comforting to know that every writer goes through the same things.

  22. Hey Colby,

    Yup, as mentioned, I also create characters from scratch.

    Just a preference of mine. Whatever works for the individual writer. 🙂

  23. Hey Ralfast,

    I totally agree. There are fantastic short novels and fantastic long novels.

  24. Hey Unfocused Me,

    I’m still reading it, and it really is great. She makes that whole era come alive.

  25. Hey Em,

    Pull up a chair and join us. I have the tea and buscuits ready. And clotted cream. Agatha *loved* clotted cream. 🙂

  26. Hey Marian,

    Thank you for that info. I didn’t know about the poisoning case. Very fascinating.

    In her autobiography, she did say one of her favorite reviews came from a scientist/medical magazine praising how authentic her writing on poisons were.

  27. These are so awesome. I can’t work with real people, either. LOL Interesting comment on word length and the price a reader pays for the book. That really made me think!

  28. Hey Gypsy, I missed your comment earlier – Joan Hickson was and is the best Miss Marple. I saw only one episode or movie with one other actress but can’t remember who it was. Did not make much of an impression. Who are the two new actresses? I may have to do a search and check them out but when I close my eyes and think Miss Marple I always see Joan Hickson just as I always see David Suchet when I think of Poirot.

    Hope your revision’s continuing to go well!

  29. Hey Dawn,

    Glad you liked her quotes.

    Her words regarding length and the price people wish to pay, seems even more relevant in our time of supersized everything.

  30. Hey Venus,

    After Hickson, Geraldine McEwan took over the role from 2004- 2009; now Julia McKenzie is playing her.
    I thought McEwan was way too young and they “updated” her image. From the little I’ve seen, Julia seems too sweet. Miss Marple was a tough, cynical little bird. But the reason I dislike the new ones so much, is that they are adding Poirot and Miss Marple into novels that Agatha never had them in; and changing major plot elements like whodunnit.

    All the Marples are on youtube if you want to check them out.

    Revisions are going along well. Thanks for asking! 🙂

  31. A sweet Miss Marple would be devastating. That’d be like a cynical Pope. Why? I am off to check YouTube but I have a feeling I am probably going to get annoyed… Thanks for letting me know.

    Glad to hear the revisions are going well.

  32. Yes, very good quotes from a very good constructor of stories.

  33. Hey Isaac,

    Glad you liked the quotes. 🙂

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