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members of one of Orange County's oldest writer's workshops, the Fictionaires--a diverse assortment of published and unpublished novelists, short-story writers, scriptwriters and poets--listened intently.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.