Photo: (left to right) Walter Gourlay, Byron Merritt and Pat Hanson spent long hours in coffee shops discussing Monterey Shorts.

Writing is a solitary endeavor. The time-worn image is of a lonely, tortured soul slaving away by candlelight in a dark garret, or-today''s version-staring bleary-eyed at a blue computer screen, sipping endless cups of coffee. Always alone. Invariably tortured.

So when ten people of varying age and experience get together and spend two years collaborating on an anthology of their short stories-sharing tips, critiquing each others'' work, even deciding together on which fonts to use in the final copy, it''s quite unusual. Monterey Shorts: Stories by Fiction Writers of the Monterey Peninsula, which will be coming back from the printers'' this week, is the product of just such a collaboration.

The ten stories in the book have little in common except that they are all set in or near Monterey County-Monastery Beach, the Pinnacles, downtown Pacific Grove, Carmel Valley, Cannery Row. They were penned over a two-year period by a disparate group of amateur fiction writers, including a Community Hospital ER nurse, a veteran of World War II, a sexuality instructor, a former director of Catholic religious education, a couple of computer geeks and an Iranian beautician.

The stories are of uneven quality, ranging from the marvelous to the pretty good, and they span a wide range of genres, from straight-ahead dramatic fiction to murder mystery, sci-fi and romantic comedy. But the book makes fun reading, especially for the reader who recognizes the shops, streets and coffeehouses where the stories are set.

The project started almost three years ago when Byron Merritt, a full-time nurse, father of teenage twins and (here''s the good part) grandson of the late sci-fi genius Frank Herbert (author of Dune) approached his uncle Brian Herbert (Frank''s son, and author of several Dune prequels) to ask for help in getting his writing career off the ground. Brian suggested that Byron join a writing group.

Unable to find a suitable group on the Peninsula, Byron advertised in a local newspaper and e-mailed writers he found on the Internet. Thirty-eight people showed up for his first writers'' meeting in January 2000. Quickly, the group whittled itself down to ten permanent members-six men and four women, from their early 30s to late 80s. They named themselves FWOMP-Fiction Writers of the Monterey Peninsula (the name onomatopoeic for the sound a rejected manuscript makes when thrown atop a pile of others).

The ten got to work, writing stories and sharing them for criticism. Their first agreement, Merritt says, was the common local setting, to ensure that the anthology would hang together. Then the critiquing process was developed. It was, Merritt says, intensive.

"We meet every month, like most writers'' groups, but most don''t do the kind of in-depth critique we do," he says. "Some groups come together and just read their stories to each other, and critique at that point. We e-mail our stories to each other and spend weeks meticulously going over them before we come together." Two initial members dropped out of the group because of the critical pressure.

"My writing improved," insists FWOMP member Pat Hanson, a veteran health and sexuality educator, owner of a health consulting business, and chair of Santa Cruz/Monterey Local 7 of the National Writers'' Union. "I''ve dropped out of writers'' groups that were too ''positive.''"

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Hanson''s story-at six pages the book''s shortest-is a fantasy about the secrets hot tubs could tell about the folks who''ve soaked in their waters. It''s a warm and fuzzy little tidbit that leaves a smile behind. Merritt''s story, a wonderful sci-fi tale set 1,000 years in Monterey''s future, stars a hard-bitten, Roolusian coffee-drinking detective for Monterey Alien Homicide, called in to investigate the murder of a pink-skinned, twelve-eyed, six-legged hairless Sextan inside the Monterey Intergalactic Aquarium

Monterey Shorts is self-published by Thunderbird Press, and Merritt and Hanson credit Thunderbird owner May Waldroup with offering moral support as well as a regular place to meet. FWOMP member Chris Kemp did the layout, and shared final editing with Walter Gourlay and Frances Rossi, two other author-collaborators. The cartoon-like cover art is by Pacific Grove artist Dan Koffman.

The authors agree writing Monterey Shorts was a fabulous experience, even though it entailed a lot of arguing, sweating and nail-biting. "We had some people in the group say they''d never do it again, but they''ve slowly come around now that it''s over," Merritt notes, adding that the group might write a sequel.

Monterey Shorts is available at local bookstores for $12.95. The authors will hold a book-signing Saturday from 3-5pm at Thunderbird Bookshop in the Carmel Barnyard; Sunday at the Dan Koffman Gallery in the Doubletree Plaza, 210 Alvarado St., Monterey; and Saturday, Oct. 26, from 2-4 pm at Bookworks in Pacific Grove.

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