Seated at a table in the conference room of a Tustin savings and loan building, the blonde in the pink turtleneck sweater peered through oversize, plastic-framed glasses at the typewritten manuscript stacked neatly in front of her.
Then, in a loud and steady voice, Noreen Ayres, a 47-year-old aerospace technical editor from Mission Viejo, began reading Chapter 5 of "Borderline," her mystery novel-in-progress about a Pasadena architect who finds himself playing detective after his brother is killed:
"This was not the Mrs. Longhue he saw through the window at Lake Arrowhead fixing tea. . . ."
As Ayres read, a dozen members of one of Orange County's oldest writer's workshops, the Fictionaires--a diverse assortment of published and unpublished novelists, short-story writers, scriptwriters and poets--listened intently.
Without a copy of Ayre's manuscript in front of them, they had to pay close attention. Some gazed down at the floor. Some stared at the wall. Others simply looked at Ayres. Occasionally, they jotted down notes when what they were hearing struck them as particularly good--or bad.
Fifteen minutes and 12 manuscript pages later, Ayres was finished.
Then Barney Himes of Laguna Beach, the group's president, turned on a kitchen timer and the Wednesday night meeting kicked into action. Each member had two minutes to offer a critique of Ayres' latest output:
"He (the protagonist) never met a hooker? I don't know, I feel he's kind of been in a bottle. That makes him a little too naive for a hero. . . . I think the general level of the writing continues to be very high, but the main thing I miss is the quirky, offbeat tone the other chapters had. . . . I think the writing's terrific. The problem in the story for me is I think you've got to nail down your hero better. He seems passive. . . ."
And so it went as three more writers read their latest material aloud during an evening punctuated at mid-point with a coffee and doughnut break. (Those who read always supply the refreshments.)
The Fictionaires was formed in 1966, according to longtime member Armand Hanson, when a handful of writing students in Pat Kubis' writing class at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa wanted to know if there was a way they could continue meeting after the class ended. Kubis suggested they form their own writers' workshop and meet in members' homes.
Today the Fictionaires is considered by some to be the premier writers' workshop outside an academic setting in the county. The cast of characters has changed over the years, but the current 24-member group includes some of the best-known names in Orange County's writing community.
T. Jefferson Parker of Laguna Beach read sections of "Laguna Heat," his steamy 1985 best-selling novel, and has been reading parts of his new novel, "Little Saigon," at the meetings. Donald Stanwood ("The Memory of Eva Ryker") of Santa Ana read virtually all of his second novel, "The Seventh Royale," during the eight years it took him to write it. Jackie Hyman of La Habra (aka Jacqueline Diamond and Jacqueline Topaz) read parts of many of her 18 published romance novels, in addition to her recently published thriller, "The Eyes of a Stranger." Robert Ray of Irvine read several chapters of "Bloody Murdock," the first in his series of mysteries about a Newport Beach-based private detective. And Terry Black of Costa Mesa read his first screenplay, "Dead Heat," which is now being made into a motion picture starring Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo.
Members of the Fictionaires take the twice-a-month workshop and their roles as instant critics seriously. Their criticism covers everything from describing the strengths or weaknesses of plot construction and character development to pointing out such minor indiscretions as metaphors that are mixed and participles that dangle.
They're an intelligent, sophisticated and, at times, quite witty bunch. Which is not to say they take themselves too seriously or that their literary wit always rivals that of New York's legendary Algonquin Round Table in the '20s.
Lining up for a group photograph, with the bounty of their literary efforts spread out on the table before them, Jeff Parker, "our resident hunk," according to one female member, jokingly said to one of the group's romance writers: "Hand me a bodice ripper" to hold in the picture. Then there's the rubber chicken. At the group's annual Christmas party, each outgoing president passes a gavel and the rubber chicken to the incoming president. Nobody knows quite how or why the rubber chicken tradition started.
Both published and unpublished members of the Fictionaires credit their fellow workshop members for providing not only valuable criticism but emotional support along the often rocky road to publication or rejection.
Said Noreen Ayres, who appreciates hearing both the good and bad news about her first attempt at a novel: "I don't see why I should steal time from my life for some pat on the back. I'm here to grow in my craft, and I want people to tell it like it is."
That's not to say the Fictionaires are infallible, however.
Shortly after joining four years ago, Garden Grove writer Syrie James read the first chapter of the romance novel her agent had just submitted to Silhouette Books. After she finished reading it to the group, she recalled, "they absolutely ripped it apart. I went home feeling totally shattered that my chapter, and my story, was completely unusable. Jeff Parker called me the next morning and said, 'Are you ready to slit your wrists after that little critique session?' "
Let James deliver her own punch line to the story: "That afternoon I heard from New York: They (Silhouette Books) had bought the book--which should be the lesson for all of us: You've got to believe in yourself, not what everyone else tells you."
After selling two romance novels, James turned to script writing. Last year she sold scripts to five TV shows and stories to two other shows. She is now living in Los Angeles, where she is writing a screenplay for a feature film.
Despite her unsettling initiation into the group, James said, "I think Fictionaires was the most helpful growth period for me as a writer. The feedback overall was really insightful and I learned a lot about everything."
Other members agree but, as Hyman says, "You do have to sort out what you're hearing. One of the advantages of a group is you hear different points of view. You have to pick and choose. You just can't go home and make every change that's been suggested. Some of it is just off-base. You have to have a certain self-confidence. If you're extremely insecure, it (the workshop) would be too traumatic."
Membership into the Fictionaires is limited to about 25. Prospective members undergo a screening process that begins with submitting written material to the membership chairman for evaluation. If the quality of writing passes muster, the applicant attends three meetings, joining in on the critical discussions. At the third meeting, the prospective member reads to the group. A vote to determine membership, based on the writer's talent and ability to give as well as receive criticism, is taken later.
The Fictionaires is not for the fainthearted or the thin-skinned. Although most members enjoy the process of reading to the group, even Parker admits to being "pretty nervous" his first time.
"It's scary," he said. "When you're reading your stuff to other people, you're really exposed."
Then there's Terry Black, who recently read, with appropriate gusto, an action-filled TV script he's writing for the new "Star Trek" series.
"I absolutely love it," he said, joking that "I'm sufficiently egotistical and self-serving that I love the chance to glorify my ego."
Parker no longer gets nervous when he reads but, he said, "it's a real emotional barometer" for him.
"I always feel great when the group likes what I've read, and I always feel crappy when they don't like what I've read," he said. "I get criticism there every time I read that helps--nothing major, I guess, that I can really think in terms of how the book is structured or the story, but a lot of shadings, a lot of detail. I make tons of notes every time they start commenting about my stuff, and I probably use half of them."
Parker and Stanwood, dubbed the "golden-haired boys" by one member, are roundly praised for their writing styles and admired for their successes. Stanwood's "The Memory of Eva Ryker" was made into a TV movie starring Natalie Wood. Parker's "Laguna Heat," which earned him a full-page color portrait in Saturday Review magazine, was made into an HBO movie starring Harry Hamlin of "L.A. Law" last fall.
"Both of them are brilliant," said Black. "When Don or Jeff are reading, everyone looks forward to the meeting because their stories are fun to listen to."
Several published members of the group privately wonder whether they have outgrown the value of a workshop, which they feel may be more helpful to beginning writers. But even they agree they will never outgrow the need for encouragement and association with fellow writers.
Says Doug Muir of Newport Beach, whose third novel, "Red Star Run," will be published in July: "A writer can only spend so much time staring at a computer screen and cocooning. They need to get out and socialize with fellow authors. It's good to be around authors who have been through the same editorial process and battles."
Maxine O'Callaghan of Mission Viejo, the published author of five novels, agrees.
"It's stimulating being around other writers," she said. "It's like a charged atmosphere and you really get excited about what you're doing. You come away from a meeting feeling like you should sit down and start writing right away."
And that's what most of them do. Until the next meeting of the Fictionaires.