The No. 1 Tip From Writer’s Digest Mag in 2009, Courtesy of Stephen King (And, Get Published in the Magazine)

Without further adieu, I give you my selection of the No. 1 Tip from WD in 2009:

No. 1: Details, Plausibility and the Flipped Trike

An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.

Stephen King, as interviewed in the May/June 2009 issue of WD (click here to check it out).

Enigmatic? Anticlimactic? To give deeper context to a quote I love and wouldn’t mind making little printable versions of for my computer monitors, here’s King again:

“Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything. Or a broken billboard. Or weeds growing in the cracks of a library’s steps. Of course, none of this means a lot without characters the reader cares about.”

To take things a step further, here’s author Steve Almond on plausibility, from our March/April issue—

“The question of plausibility is central when it comes to fiction. Can you induce the reader to believe? More precisely, to suspend her disbelief? All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies. Such is the basic goodwill contract made the moment we pick up a work of fiction. … The lesson is this: Readers will happily suspend their disbelief (even in the face of space aliens and angels) if they feel their emotional and logistical questions have been addressed, and if the world they encounter feels internally consistent. In the end, plausibility in fiction isn’t about adhering to the facts of the known world, but the imagined world.”

Plausibility. If we don’t have it, we might not have anything. I suppose an overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood really can stand for everything.

Thanks for sticking around and reading the tips over the last two months! To browse the other 19, click “Top 20 Lessons From WD: 2009” to your left. And consider taking a crack at our magazine’s Your Story prompt (we run one every issue; it’s an open contest in which one story, selected by forum members and WD editors, runs in the magazine).

In 750 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring, post your story in the comments section of Promptly, and it will be automatically entered in the contest, or e-mail it to (There’s only one entry allowed per person, and you have until the Jan. 10 deadline.) Should your story win and you posted it here, I’ll contact you for your name and mailing address when the time comes. Good luck!

Your Story No. 23

Something bizarre occurs at the table next to a couple on their first date.

—From the Writer’s Book of Matches (click here to check out a digital version) by the staff of fresh boiled peanuts: a literary journal

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  1. Karen A, Winters Schwartz


    “So, you’re really into this whole Buddha thing?” he asked. Josh smiled his best smile and admired the curve of her lips as she sipped from her wineglass.

    She put the glass down and tilted her pretty head to the right, causing the tips of her long blonde hair to sweep towards her bread plate. “Well, I wouldn’t choose to describe my search for peace and enlightenment as ‘Buddha thing.”

    Uh-oh. He cringed internally. He glanced ever so briefly and desperately at the amazing swell of her breasts, then he was right back to her face. “Hey,” he said, giving her his best sheepish-boy-grin. “Buddha, enlightenment — it’s all good.” Is that the best he could come up with? Fifteen minutes into their first date and already he’d screwed it up. He searched his brain for some semblance of a relevant remark. Enlightenment — what-the-hell did he know about enlightenment? He was saved by the waiter, coming up suddenly from behind, placing the salad first in front of Emily and then in front of him. “Wow,” he said, looking down at his salad. “This looks edifyingly fulfilling. A tranquility of green . . . Progressively healthy.” To his great relief, Emily smiled.

    Josh stabbed a cherry tomato and contemplated its round redness as he held it in front of his face. “If not now? When?” He popped it into his mouth, and Emily laughed. Josh chewed happily, his eyes scanning the restaurant. His mouth came to a sudden stop.

    Emily turned to follow his gaze. “What?” she asked.

    His eyes went back to Emily. “Oh!” He waved the air in dismissal. “Nothing.” She frowned. He shrugged. “It’s just my ex.”

    Emily turned back to the other table a few yards away and to their right. He watched as she studied the two women settling into their chairs. “Which one?” she asked.

    Josh sighed gently and looked at the two women. His ex, looking as beautiful as ever with her dark straight hair pulled gently up and away from her face, her long legs nearly bare, her black skirt only slightly covering her upper thighs. She crossed those luscious legs as she leaned towards her friend and said something; and he just couldn’t help the stirring between his legs. And then her friend — tall, blonde, startlingly sexy — laughed in such a way that made him glad he was sitting down. He licked his lips, shifted in his chair, making subtle adjustments, and said flatly, “The brunette.” Emily nodded her head slowly, her eyes still on the women.

    “So, you work in advertising,” he said. “That must be interesting. Is it anything like that show? What’s it called? Mad Men?”

    Emily’s green eyes turned back his way. “Who broke up with whom?”


    “Who broke up with whom?” she repeated.

    He looked at her blankly. Who broke up with whom — was that even right? Should it be: who broke up with who? Certainly, whom broke up with whom, didn’t sound correct . . . Emily raised her eyebrows slightly. “Well,” he swallowed. “It was, you know, a mutual thing.” Which was an outright lie. It had been all her doing. He was still laid flat out and recovering. And this dinner, this woman — this blonde enlightened bombshell of a beauty named Emily — was part of his twelve step plan. He looked down and negotiated a piece of endive onto his fork.

    As he brought the fork towards his mouth, his eyes naturally drifted back to the table. “Aw, Jesus . . .” he uttered, and had to bend slightly at the waist. He watched Emily turn back towards the table and take in the scene he’d just witnessed. The two women were leaning over the table, their tongues playing on each other lips, their fingers tangled in each other hair. He sunk a little deeper into his chair.

    Emily turned back his way, her eyes wide and then narrowing, “Mutual, huh?”

    Josh brought his fingers to his forehead. His favorite college buddy joke — show me any lesbian, I’ll set her straight . . . Now he’d apparently done just the opposite. Jesus . . .

    And then, as if reading his mind: “My brother, Ethan,” Emily said. “He can be a bit of a jerk. Always claimed he could ‘cure’ women who wanted women.”

    Josh laughed. “Well. That’s ridiculous!” And he put the lettuce into his mouth.

    And now what? Where to go from here? Continue to date — ridding the world of heterosexuals, one woman at a time? He was so rattled, he doubted he could make it through the main course, and much less to Emily’s place, and then on to step number ten. He’d have to add more steps! He swallowed his food and a reached for his wine. Alcohol! Maybe that was the answer. Then he felt the warm pressure of her hand on his knee and she was smiling at him.

    “Hey, Josh. Buddha, enlightenment, lesbianism . . .” She paused, her eyebrows rising suggestively, “. . . heterosexuality . . . It’s all good.”

  2. Martha W

    Whew. That WIDE open prompt left me staring at a WIDE open blank screen! Love how this one turned out though.


    Linda waited outside the restaurant for Don to arrive. She knew the burger joint didn’t warrant dressing up but she couldn’t resist. It was their first date.

    She’d donned her best dress – the red one with matching heels. Her make-up was minimal with only blush, mascara and lip gloss. Not over done because they were at a burger joint after all. Painstakingly, she curled her blond hair so that it feathered perfectly with little tendrils whispering around the nape of her neck. She looked damn fine, even if she said so herself.

    She glanced at her watch, fifteen minutes after eight. Linda bit the inside of her lip, should she go inside and get a table? No. She’d wait.

    "Linda?" A whiny voice from behind her inquired.

    She paused before turning. "Yes." Her own voice was a little nasally but people always told her that her personality overcame that quick enough.

    The man flinched, "I’m Don."

    Linda faced her date and assessed the situation. He had plain brown hair, nothing special there. His brown eyes were friendly but they were set in a freckly face, not at all what she had expected. And he was the same height as she was. Five-foot-six.

    He lifted an eyebrow at her silence so she conjured up a smile. "Shall we go in?"

    "Sure." Don gave her a smile and her breath hitched. That simple gesture transformed his face, lit him from the inside out. Pulling the door open for her, he placed his hand at the small of her back to usher her inside.

    They sat at a small booth toward the back, out of the way of on-lookers. As they ate, they chatted about their lives, their quirks, their passions. Things were progressing wonderfully.
    And then it happened.

    Linda was about to take a drink of her soda when a loud horn sounded directly behind her. She squeaked in fright, squeezing her cup. She saw it in slow motion as the lid popped off, sending the Coke splashing over the side. All over her best dress.

    Horrified, she looked around for the source. Next to them sat a man dressed in a school-bus-yellow jumper with red and white striped arms and legs. Big red shoes leaped out at her from under the table. Her gaze moved up from the floor, not stopping until she reached the top of his fuzzy red hair. His knowing eyes stared back at her while a grin tipped the edges of his red plastic lips.

    She knew she was going to murder that damn clown. His days were numbered.

    "Linda? Are you okay?" Don leaned across, holding out napkins for her.

    "Yes, yes, I’m fine." Snatching the wadded towels from his fingers, she attempted to salvage her outfit.

    With a sigh of regret, she glanced from the clown, who was still staring at her, to her date. "I need to go."

    "Can I see you again?"

    "No. I’m a pretty big believer in signs – and as far as signs go, this is big one." Linda gestured at her lap, spearing a look at the clown again.

    "Okay. I’m sorry it didn’t go better." His voice cracked and he stared at the table, looking devastated. She started to reach across to him but the clown picked that moment to thrust a balloon animal under his nose.

    Don perked up immediately. "Thanks!"


    Linda stalked into her apartment, attempting to slam the door on her best friend, Jake, but his big red shoe stopped the projectile before it could attract the neighbors. He chuckled a bit and then started peeling off his costume.

    She tapped her foot, staring expectantly at him.

    "What?" He peeled off the wig and wax lips, letting his own wavy black hair drift down to settle just below his collar.

    Tears watered down her reply. "Why did you do that?"

    He shucked the jumper, leaving him standing in just a tank top and jeans. He really was stellar, even for a best friend. Kicking the pants away, he stalked over to her and stopped a breath away from her. She didn’t miss the spark of anger in his blue eyes.

    "Why?" He ran his hand through his hair, the silky tresses dropping back in disarray. He gripped her chin like a vice with one hand and jerked her against him with the other. "Because you belong to me. That’s why."

    And her heart skipped a beat as his lips claimed hers.

  3. Mark James

    Nice one Zac. I tried to put in some overturned tricycles. It’s HARD work.

    “Sorry I’m late.”

    I took it slow, couldn’t scare her, turned to her nice and easy. “No big deal. Had any trouble finding the place?”

    She looked around at the empty tables. “It’s a little hidden.”

    It was hard to keep my eyes off the three pearl buttons on the front of her black dress. The top one stopped right at her throat.

    “Hard to find a place in the city with no crowds this time of night,” she said.

    “I like it quiet.”

    Her eyes swept the small wood tables, the candles, the brick walls. “Do we wait to be seated?”

    “Only as long as it takes you to pick a table.”

    He cheeks flushed. In the light from the candles, it was just enough to make me wonder if she turned soft pink like that when – –

    She caught my look. “What are you thinking?”

    I took in her full lips, her slender throat. “Just wondering how you’d look in pink.”

    She laughed.

    I watched those buttons, up and down against her skin with each little breath.

    “About as good as you’d look in lavender. I wash out,” she said.

    “Wash out of what?” Watching her, I’d lost track of her words.

    “My skin. I’d look like a ghost.”

    “Would you come haunt me, let me dream about you all night long?”

    She suddenly turned serious, took a step back. “I like that table, by the wall, under the fresco.”

    I led her that way. “My mouth, it says stupid things sometimes.”

    She sat down, looked up at me. “Yes, it does.”

    I took the other chair, looked at her small hands. “You bite your nails.”

    She shrugged.

    I watched those buttons, up and down.

    “Tough sale today. Strange estate. A lot of junk mixed in with good pieces.” Her voice faded out on the last word.


    She leaned over, making the black collar cling to her white flesh. “The candelabra, I’ve never seen a reproduction like this.” She touched it. “The marble even feels right.”

    “It’s mine. I mean, my family’s.”

    “A rock crystal piece? Impossible. They run about four thousand dollars.” She eyed it again. “In good condition like that, maybe up to seven.”

    I raised my hand and Felipo all but came running over to our table. “Bring us a bottle of wine.”

    “Sure, boss.” He bit his lip, glanced at Julia. “Marco. Be right back.”

    “You own this place?”

    I had to love the way she played it right down to the last letter. “Family business.”

    Tony and Dillon came through the door with Rick, that computer whiz guy between them; damned if they didn’t sit at the table right behind us. I didn’t need Rick that close. Not tonight.

    Felipo came back, put the bottle, two glasses and a loaf of fresh bread on the table. He poured Olive oil into the little saucer and left. Good boy. If he were a real waiter, he’d be ending the night with a big tip.



    She leaned close enough for me to kiss her neck, touch her – –

    “- – do you?”

    “Do I what?”

    “Let men in here with guns.”

    I turned around. Dillon’s holster showed under his open jacket. “He works as a cop.”

    My nephew the waiter came back, set down two bowls of Minestrone soup.

    Julia ignored the soup, blew out the candle, picked up the candelabra. She ran her fingers over the bottom. “The marble’s engraved. It’s authentic.”

    I took it from her. “It’s been in my family a while.”

    “Your family must be really old. That’s from the end of the eighteenth century.”

    “It’s – – ”

    “Aren’t you hungry, Marco?”

    Not for soup. “It’s too hot.”

    “What about the wine?”

    “I like letting it breathe.”

    “And the bread?”

    I leaned back. It was over.

    Julia rose from the table. “If you don’t learn how to eat, you’ll never pass for human.” She touched the candle. “If you display your family wealth, you’ll be caught by the Old Ones.” She glanced at Rick. “If you looked at a human girl the way you looked at me, she’d kick you in the balls, scratch out your eyes, and possibly do you serious harm.”

    I felt what little blood there was in me rise to my cheeks. This was my second Trial. I had to wait another decade before I could do it again.

    “But you did well with prey sitting so close. Pass.”

    She pushed through the door.

    I turned and saw Felipo waiting with my victory dinner. He was pressing Rick into the chair. He’d already torn the collar from his shirt, scratched the exposed neck. A string of red drops hung on Rick’s throat, glistening.

    God. I was starving.

  4. Martha W

    The quote from Steve Almond is one of my all time favorites, "All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies." There isn’t another sentence that is more true.

    Zac, thanks for the great W…..I…..D…..E open prompt! Back in a few…