Getting an Aerial View of Your Book: A HippoCamp 2021 Recap

by Eileen Drennen

This post is part of a HippoCamp 2021 recap series, with guest blog posts written by HippoCamp attendees. Learn more about our conference for creative nonfiction writers.


I always appreciate a Powerpoint with unexpected visuals. You know, beyond the words the presenter will go on to say. Something surprising.

The arresting images of landscapes from the air Lisa Cooper Ellison found for her session, “Creating a Bird’s Eye View of Your Book,” elevated (sorry!) her discussion of narrative elements I’d never considered visually. As she screened a cityscape from 10,000 feet, she likened that faraway view to a log line, or elevator pitch, for your book: short, pithy, big picture. Beat sheets, which help you identify major plot points and key story elements, bring you closer to the action, say the view from 5,000 feet. Zooming closer in to see the city from 1,000 feet up is about how close chapter summaries get you to the details of how your story functions. Street view? Think of that as your manuscript.

I’d never heard anyone talk about a book’s structure from such a lofty stance and instantly understood the elements of book outlining, book proposals and narrative diagnostic tools much more clearly.

So when does it make sense to go aerial on your book project?  If you’re being ghosted by agents, or hearing the same message from varied readers, that your project is way too long or has a narrative arc problem.

Navigating between macro views of book elements to the micro — in which she broke down basic terms like plot, scene, and exposition — Lisa made it easier to see just how many lenses writers have at their disposal, depending on which perspective they need when.

Whether you’re in the middle of trying to write a synopsis for your book proposal or so early in the process you are just hearing the term now, Lisa’s practical advice made the process feel way less daunting. Thrown by the idea of a synopsis? Start now and practice writing them for published books. Even better, consider partnering up with a writer friend — or even getting your writing group to join in, so you’re all summarizing the same book. Compare notes and talk about what makes a good synopsis. If you do, she said, you’ll feel comfortable with the skill long before it’s time to write your own.

You can do the same for beat sheets, she said, which are ideal barometers for finding bloated chapters and character issues in your own work, or time management problems and disruptions in your story thread. Practicing on someone else’s book will make diagnosing your own narrative hiccups that much easier.

Lisa’s presentation was packed with great tips and helpful descriptions, so check out her full slideshow (available from a link on her session description page at the HippoCamp 2021 website) for a more comprehensive view. Thinking about seeing your book project from so many different perspectives made the entire process of completing and submitting your book project feel less overwhelming, as did getting a sense of what tool to use when. I also loved her breakdown of the drafting process:


Lisa Cooper Ellison’s 8 Stages of Memoir Revision:

  1. Write your rehearsed memories
  2. What the hell happened?
  3. Investigate your memories
  4. Find YOUR story (your narrative arc, the story you really want to tell)
  5. Write and serve your story
  6. Make it beautiful
  7. Make it correct
  8. Make it error-free
Eileen Drennen is a writer and editor living in Lafayette, Indiana who worked in daily newspapers back when most people read one every morning. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Literary Mama and O, The Oprah Magazine.

Share a Comment