Getting the Most out of Writing Groups: The Cot

Has your book been workshopped? This is one of the first questions I ask a writer who is looking for an editor. It’s even a good question to ask of someone who just wants a critique.

“Workshopping” a piece of writing means submitting it to a group of writers and asking for feedback. It also means listening to the feedback and frequently involves rewriting your piece, if your group is on its toes and you are capable of accepting constructive criticism.

Below is an illustration of the workshopping process, in this case with an online group of writers (some writers’ groups meet in person). This conversation took place about eight years ago when I presented a short story I wrote. For purposes of this illustration, I quote just one sentence from that short story with emphasis on a particular phrase, as follows:

The Spark

Charlotte somehow made her way to the restroom, sat down on the cot, told herself the truth.

The Conversation

Writer #1:  Excellent. The parentheticals are wonderful.

Me:  Were supposed to be italics.

Writer #2:  I think the parentheticals work even better.

Writer #3:  Wow! It’s a real good insight into a character that is developing themselves into something more than a peon or drone. The parens threw me off at first, but I got it. Also, FYI, men’s restrooms do not have cots and not many men know that there is a cot in the women’s restroom.

Writer #1:  Maybe they have cots in the men’s room at the company where this story is based.

Me:  Hey, thanks for the comments. A little bit of cot history for you guys … It used to be a state law that women’s bathrooms have cots in them. About twenty years ago that law was rescinded. But in older institutions, the cots remain.

Writer #2:  Couches, they have couches, at least they did at my old office, before the bastards laid me off. I’ll get even one day, but I digress.
Writer #4:  Nice. I too enjoyed the peek at her inner thoughts and the realism. I never even heard of cots in bathrooms.

Me: Sorry, #4, I guess the cot memo didn’t reach your desk.

Writer #5:  This is the best thing I’ve read by you yet. “What was so shocking was how it felt like death everywhere, even though we are just talking about money.” This is a great line. The relationship between money and death is interesting; at least you are given an opportunity to explore this in your writing.

Writer #6:  Cot Thoughts: Cots are so old fashioned nowadays, but every time I see one, it just reminds me of how far women have come in the work place. It seems that cots were for “fainting” or “Cramps” or whatever. They always had them in the ladies restrooms in college and some of the production facilities I visit have these grotesque vinyl things, all ripped and tattered. They just remind me of old ways, old thinking. Now, the “powder room” lounge couches with mirrored vanities (like at Nordstrom’s or Neiman Marcus) … Ahhhhh! Somehow that seems so much different … so … LUXE. Really liked your story.

Me:  Thank you, #6. Fascinating cot discussion here. Funny how one word can be such a conversation-starter.

My Takeaway:  The Cot as Smoking Gun

In spite of my flippant tone with Writer #4 about the “cot memo,” I learned something valuable from this group discussion: my physical description of the protagonist’s work environment was incomplete. As succinctly pointed out by Writer #6, cots in restrooms are a thing of the past, “the old ways, old thinking.” I had failed to mention the building where the story takes place: a government building.

By telling the reader early on that my present-day story takes place in a building constructed in 1962 and populated by a government agency formed in 1977, I missed an opportunity to use the juxtaposition of “old ways” with new as part of the story’s tension.

~~~

Featured image: “The Geography Lesson” by Pietro Longhi (oil on canvas, pulic domain, via WikiPaintings)

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