Summer reading

Lit Up Orange County is Fueling a Literary Renaissance in Southern California

There’s a rare bit of magic that surfaces once a month in a little coffee shop in Southern California. The program is called Lit Up Orange County and it’s all about sparking conversations, in person, with readers and writers. A crowd of 30 to 40 people, all lovers of the written word and certainly caffeine, gather to hear a trio of authors read and discuss their work.

Lit Up Orange County is bringing bestselling and aspiring authors together

The concept is simple, but the impact has been anything but small. Since its inception more than five years ago, Lit Up has provided an opportunity for readers to hear best-selling authors read from their work, while also creating a stage for budding writers to gain a following of their own, plus some much-needed encouragement.

“All are welcome,” says Maddie Margarita, founder and producer of Lit Up and a mystery and suspense author. “There’s no caste system, it’s really just writer to writer.”

Lit Up Orange County – Inspired to create a stage for budding writers

Margarita got her start as an author almost by accident.

About 15 years ago, as she was caring for her sick mother, she needed some kind of a distraction or exercise to keep her mind stimulated. So she started writing.

“I wrote my first book in six weeks, 115,000 words. And then I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing,” she says with a laugh. “It was like the most detailed outline you’ve ever seen.”

She joined a critique group—and threw up in the parking lot the first time she had to read her work to the group.

“That’s how vulnerable I felt,” she says.

But overtime she got into the flow of perfecting and pushing her work. She attended writers’ conferences and regular critique groups. She’s since written three books, several short stories and contributed to an anthology of short fiction called “It’s All in the Story: California.”

“I started to run into so many talented writers who were self-publishing and had no idea how to get their work out there beyond their friends and family,” Margarita says.

With experience working in sales for a Fortune 100 company, she thought, there’s got to be a way for these writers to bring their work into the light.

“So we started Lit Up. We thought this is a good way to help these writers start to get their work out there.”

Stoking Southern California’s literary flame

Mirroring Margarita’s light-hearted, approachable persona, Lit Up is a space where anyone can feel at home. She wants writers sharing their work to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and wants readers to feel comfortable enough to ask questions and share their perspective, almost as if they were at their neighborhood book club.

Margarita has three authors from three different genres speak at each event. Some live in Orange County, others travel from nearby Los Angeles or San Diego.

Authors like New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother grace the stage alongside local writers who are just now working on their first manuscript.

“If you give a writer a chance to talk about their book, whether they’re self-published, traditionally published or not published at all, it’s really meaningful to them,” she says.

“The whole idea is to not necessarily sell your work but to give readers a chance to connect with you as a writer, and hopefully follow you because they like your work. Maybe they want to buy your book in the future but at least you’ve made that connection.”

Authors and writers together

Readers who come to Lit Up get the rare treat of hearing authors read their work the way they heard it in their head when they wrote it. “With all the pauses and the emphasis and the voice and intensity,” Margarita says. “It’s very different and really special.”

Lit Up is designed to just be a positive experience for both the authors and readers. Margarita says that, while critique groups are great, Lit Up is not a place for critiquing.

“If someone starts critiquing, then I move the conversation away from that because no one wants to be critiqued in front of 40 other people.”

A gathering place for otherwise lonely artists

D.P. Lyle, an award-winning author of 20 books, has spoken at Lit Up about six times since it first launched.

He’s found it to be a perfect gathering place for authors and readers alike. He describes it as a fun, low-key night out that offers a community for both writers and readers that’s hard to find.

“Both writing and reading are lonely pursuits,” Lyle says. “As a writer, you spend all this time on your own…hours of research and writing and then promoting your work and you do it all in a dark room by yourself. And reading is similar in that you do it alone.”

“Well this gives both those groups a chance to come together face to face and exchange ideas and have fun. I think that’s wonderful.”

Lyle encourages authors, or those who simply love the written word, to create similar events in their communities. With independent book stores falling off the map, an author showcase like Lit Up fills a void to bring people together to talk and bask in good writing. He called it a win-win. In short, coffee shops are eager to host because they’d love the business and writers and readers love the chance to come together.

“The engagement between the authors and the audience is fantastic,” he says. “You can engage your community of writers and readers and bring them together in a very collegial way so they can share ideas and share stories and share writing tips.”

And at the end of each gathering, Margarita likes to send the authors home with a little thank you gift, like flowers or wine. “I try to treat them how authors should be treated. Maybe how we all imagined we’d be treated,” she says.

“Lit Up is really all about celebrating our craft and having fun. And it has been fun,” she says. “It reminds me why I do this and makes me want to keep writing.”

Find out more

Check Lit Up out for yourself: 7 p.m. the third Tuesday of each month at Bardot Bars & Coffee in Tustin, California.

Also tune in to Maddie Margarita’s podcast, “Character Floss.” It’s an entertaining deep dive into the psyche and quirks of compelling characters and the authors who create them.

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