Agatha Christie on writing

To celebrate the 123rd anniversary of the Queen of Crime’s birthday, I give you Agatha Christie’s advice on writing, as gleaned from her wonderful autobiography.

Aspiring authors will take heart to learn that Agatha Christie, who published over 100 novels, short story collections and plays in her lifetime and is the best selling novelist in history (on par with Shakespeare if Wikipedia is to be believed) had her first manuscript universally rejected.

She believed being ‘over-burdened with imagination’ served her well as a novelist, though admitted ‘it can give you some bad sessions in other respects.’

Up to a point I enjoyed it [working on a new book]. But I got very tired, and I also got cross. Writing has that effect, I find.

She never considered herself an artist but a ‘tradesman’. In a reflective segue typical of her autobiography, she discusses why she never agreed to the hundreds of requests she received to read manuscripts. First, she figured she’d be too inclined to impose her own style on an aspiring author (‘I don’t think an author is competent to criticise’). Secondly, she thought it preferable to do no harm rather than risk discouraging a potential genius.

But she did proffer practical advice to aspiring writers. Take account of the market. Write books of ‘a length which is easily publishable at present.’ If you want to get your short story published in a magazine, match the type and length of story to what the magazine routinely publishes. You can’t fault Agatha for telling it like it is:

If you like to write for yourself only, that is a different matter — you can make it any length, and write it any way you wish; but then you will probably have to be content with the pleasure alone of having written it. It’s no good starting out by thinking one is a heaven-born genius — some people are, but very few. No, one is a tradesman… 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.

The world’s most famous crime writer was staunchly ‘against the criminal and for the innocent victim.’ She never understood the appeal of hardboiled crime fiction, which she described as ‘the taking of sadistic pleasure in brutality for it’s own sake.’ She was always more interested in her victims than her criminals.

The more passionately alive the victim, the more glorious indignation I have on his behalf, and am full of delighted triumph when I have delivered a near-victim out of the valley of the shadow of death.

The irony of having been the one to put that victim into the valley of the shadow of death in the first place seems lost on her.

Writing her autobiography in her seventies, Christie believed she’d chosen the right career for herself because she performed better in private than in public.

The most blessed thing about being an author is that you do it in private and in your own time. It can worry you, bother you, give you a headache; you can go nearly mad trying to arrange your plot…but — you do not have to stand up and make a fool of yourself in public.

The same cannot be said of authors today, who are compelled to engage in the public sphere to promote the work they write in private. In a post on Publishing Perspectives, Goodreads Founder and CEO Otis Chandler suggests, ‘Increasingly, the author’s job will be two-fold: to write a great book and to keep his [sic.] readers engaged and interested while he [sic.] writes the next one.’

I despair that this is even possible — at least for a writer who is also a parent. It makes me long for a time when being a writer made you ‘a tradesman [sic.] in a good honest trade’ like it did for Agatha.

And you could afford a live-in nanny.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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17 Responses to Agatha Christie on writing

  1. Angela – What an excellent post! I’ve always loved Christie’s practical approach to writing. She’s absolutely correct that writing is a matter of learning the skills, honing them and creating stories. Without those competencies, even the most inspired ideas don’t get expressed effectively. She’s spot on about writing alone, too, or at least I find that to be so.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for your comment, Margot. The lone nature of writing is mentioned by several authors in their contributions to, If I Tell You…I’ll Have to Kill You: Australia’s leading crime writers reveal their secrets. ‘The profession of being a writer is a solitary one,’ says the inimitable Kerry Greenwood. ‘You spend more of your writing time inside your own head, and you may be surprised at what is lurking there. If you don’t like your own company, you could find writing a tad confronting.’

      I imagine what Dame Agatha would find ‘a tad confronting’ is the current requirement for authors to sell themselves as well as their books.

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  2. Angela, thanks for this post. It is goading me to pay Agatha Christie’s work more attention than I do now, especially since I still have a lot of her novels to read.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Prashant. While I enjoy Agatha Christie’s novels, I found her autobiography even better. Likewise, the memoir of her time spent on archeological digs with her husband, Max Mallowan, Come, Tell Me How You Live. While Dame Agatha’s attitudes are often unenlightened — she was very much a product of her time — the memoir offers fascinating insights into her life and parts of the Middle East currently off-limits to travellers.

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  3. Thanks for this interesting post. You’ve made me want to read Christie’s autobiography. Another autobiography I found great for advice was Stephen King’s On Writing. He even talks about the placing of the desk where you write.
    People often assume being a writer is not really work, that it’s like some sort of delightful hobby, in which you joyfully trip along when the muse takes you. I agree with Christie that you have to approach writing a novel much as you would working at a trade, undertaking the work until it is done, working to deadline and tying up all the loose ends. Writing is hard, and finishing a work of publishable quality includes extended periods of workaday slog. Unlike the tradesperson, however, you might never be paid for this work—and if you are, it might not be until years after you have actually undertaken it.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Caron, Stephen King’s On Writing is a work I’ve been meaning to read for years. I must try to get to it this summer. And I’d be happy to loan you my copy of Agatha Christie’s autobiography if you don’t mind the fact that it’s marked up with multiple sticky flags!

      I agree with you about writing being work. I like what author Elif Shafak had to say about this: ‘The only way to learn is by writing. Talent, as charming as it sounds, amounts to no more than 12 per cent of the process. Work is 80 per cent. The remaining 8 per cent is “luck” or “zeitgeist” – in short, things that are not in our hands.’

      Your point is very well made that unlike tradespeople, our work doesn’t guarantee us income. We need that element of luck, no matter how hard we work.

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  4. KerrieS says:

    Angela I have added this to this month’s Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Blog Carnival
    http://acrccarnival.blogspot.com.au/

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  5. Wasn’t she fantastically pragmatic? I really do admire that.

    I ca only imagine how difficult it is to be an author today – with the need for selling oneself and being a social media expert and lit festival darling – it seems to me two completely different skill sets which won’t often reside in the same person

    Eve though it’s a far less popular position now I’m still, basically, in agreement with Dame Christie in being more interested in the victims of crime than those who perpetrate the crimes – the lines are blurrier for me but I still find it hard to sit through genuinely hard boiled stuff and the noir I like is a very specific kind (and then not too much of it), While I can become intrigued by stories in which a basically ‘good’ person becomes a criminal through circumstance or a temporary aberration I find if almost impossible to maintain interest in stories that focus on people who set about being criminals as a job or people who derive pleasure from hurting others.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for your comments, Bernadette. You are right about the need for writers to straddle two different skill sets. And public speaking doesn’t come naturally to a lot of us.

      While I share your distaste for fiction that glamorises criminality — especially given what esteemed commentators like Justice Betty King have to say about criminals being, by and large, poorly educated and disadvantaged — I admit to having a soft spot for Garry Disher’s Wyatt novels and TV shows like Breaking Bad. When it’s well done, there’s something intriguing for me as a writer and reader with getting the other (criminal) perspective.

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  6. kathy d. says:

    I wonder how she was so prolific, but as opposed to most writers today, she didn’t have to work a day job and didn’t for most of her writing years. Also, she probably hired nannies to care for her daughter most of the time. She wasn’t juggling job, family, household and all that encompasses like most authors, especially women. But she did have energy and imagination.
    The New York Times mentioned on Sept. 8 that Christie’s books sold more than any other author’s worldwide.
    I am a bit of a curmudgeon here and I won’t belabor that, but when I was old enough to understand her viewpoints, I was turned off by her stereotypes about immigrants and Jewish people, so I stopped reading her books — although I do watch Hercule Poirot movies with David Suchet, the quintessential Belgian detective. The language is more acceptable in film.
    However, I recognize her popularity and also that she did not write about the villains but unraveling the murder mystery.

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  7. kathy d. says:

    On the other hand, it’s good that Agatha Christie set the bar high in the writing of a good mystery, a good story and a thorough investigation — for generations of crime fiction writers to come.

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  8. elainecanham says:

    Thanks for the post. One of the problems of writing for a living, is that people don’t think you do any work at all, and that the ms just magically appears somehow. The advice that Agatha Christie gives about looking at the market. is so spot on. I’m going to go and look for that Stephen King book now. Thanks again.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for dropping by Elaine. I agree that it can be frustrating when other people don’t get that writing is a job like any other. Even when they get that writing a book is work, other writing gets overlooked: I remember someone asking a couple of stand up comedians, both of whom had published memoirs, whether they were writing now — in the middle of a show they’d obviously just written!

      I agree that Dame Agatha’s advice re: writing for a market is sound, if a little disheartening. I wish people in Australia had the appetite for crime set in Asia that they do for crime set in Scandanavia. Will ‘the market’ stop me writing crime fiction set in Asia? No. But it makes me think about diversifying. Perhaps a trafficking ring will require my hero PI Jayne Keeney to visit Stockholm or Oslo…

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      • elainecanham says:

        Maybe the Scandinavian thing is because it is so removed from Australian life. I mean, I like reading cold stories (Jane Eyre, The Call of The Wild) when I’m on the beach and hot ones when it’s snowing outside. You could always try a Danish policeman arriving down under and being introduced to Aussie ways.

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