Laurel Cohn has spent her working life exploring ways of communicating stories about ourselves and others. As a developmental editor she has been helping writers since the 1980s prepare their work for publication and hone their pitches. Many writers she has worked with have gone on to be published successfully. She spent five years with one of Australia’s top literary agents and four years as Consultant Editor to the NSW Writers’ Centre before turning freelance. She works with individual writers, publishers and self-publishers, and is a popular workshop presenter. As a grant writer she has helped community organisations develop and refine pitches for various projects, securing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of funding over the years. She is currently working on a PhD in Australian literature at the University of Queensland.
You’ve spent your career exploring ways of communicating stories: what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
I’ve come to realise that we depend on stories for our identity and our survival. From book-length narratives, song lyrics, fables and journalism, to academic reports, advertisements, business proposals and even political slogans – we express and define who we are; we give voice and meaning to our past, present and future.
What are some of the challenges writers face when structuring their stories?
Having a story to tell is one thing, but being able to tell it effectively is another. Knowing where to begin and where to end, what to put in and what to leave out, when to reveal information and when to withhold it – all these things influence story structure. To find and finesse the best story structure to deliver your intent, writers need to understand clearly the underlying themes of the work, the major dramatic questions that propel the narrative and the central event that lies at the heart of the story. These are the things we’ll be exploring in my workshop.
What should writers aim for when considering structure?
For me, the best-structured books are those where the design/skeleton/scaffold that carries the story doesn’t attract my attention. Different stories require different structures, and some ways of structuring a particular type of story are more effective than others. It depends on what the story is, and what you want the reader to experience along the way. But you don’t have to reinvent the wheel!