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Celebrating 135 years of good writing

Timeless craft tips from our archives, featuring Margaret Atwood, Walter Mosley, Isabel Allende, Ursula K. Le Guin, and more.

A lightbulb is illuminated behind an illustrated typewriter, symbolizing a bright idea found while writing.
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On sci-fi and fantasy

“Science fiction stories are successful only if the protagonist – no matter what he/she/it looks like – behaves like a human being.” 

—Ben Bova, 1977

“The best science fiction springs from a wild imagination wisely leashed.” 

—Jack Womack, 1989

“[Science fiction] starts with an act of the mind, a step from is to if, a reach of the imagination into the non-existent. But it is not a leap into the impossible or the absurd. Indeed, SF dreads absurdity and loves logic almost as much as Mr. Spock does.” 

—Ursula K. Le Guin, 1981

On thrillers & mystery

“There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse, the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice.” 

—S. S. Van Dine, 1939

“Think of your story as a test pilot would think of a new plane while it is still on the ground. Check everything, double-check everything before you take to the sky.” 

—Q. Patrick, 1942

“A suspense writer must be at the same time an artist and a criminal.” 

—Patricia Highsmith, 1964

On historical fiction

“For the sake of the story, it may seem necessary to make some actual figure out of the past behave in other ways than the facts about him would indicate, to deny the nobility of some humble spirit, to show as a man of integrity some famous person who was actually mean and small. Never is such a variation wise or honest; it will betray the writer far more surely than it does even the artlessly credulous reader.” 

—Cornelia Meigs, 1938

“Immerse yourself in the period – paying close attention to speech patterns, vocabulary, and current events. Read everything you can on your subject. (You won’t use everything you find, but you can always plug what’s left over into another project.)” 

—Beverly Jenkins, 2015

On empathy

“How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being? He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage. How can you create a character without love and the struggle that goes with love?” 

—Carson McCullers, 1972