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Stay in the Book

J. Greg Phelan discusses how to "stay in the book" in order to keep ideas flowing for your book-in-progress.

By J. Greg Phelan

October 13, 2022

Where do your best ideas for writing your book come from? You think real hard, and sweat pours down your face, and they just appear?

I’ve found my best ideas come when I’m not working on my book at all. When I’m walking or running or swimming or waiting in line at the grocery store to buy more cilantro and avocados (we like guacamole in our house).

The key, I’ve learned, is to stay in the book.

Every day if I can.

Yes, it’s fantastic when I have the morning free and can spend hours working on my novel-in-progress, but it’s not essential. On the days I’m busy, I stay in the book by spending at least 10 minutes working on something book-related. Simple stuff like:

  • Opening up my manuscript and revising a paragraph, making it as good as it can be.
  • Journaling about the backstory of a character.
  • Making a Writers Playlist of the kind of music my character would like.
  • Doing some research on my setting or a character.
  • Or simply reading something that inspires me and jotting down a note about why.

The list goes on. It doesn’t really matter what I choose, or how long. All I need to do is pick an activity with the intention it will move my book forward.

The intention is the critical part.

Staying in the book every day tells my unconscious mind, Hey! This is important. Let’s keep noodling on this! Dreaming about it, too. (I’d had some pretty interesting ideas come from dreams … ) So when I’m busy doing the thousands of other things I need to attend to, my unconscious mind is still working. But only if I stay in the book.

I know when I am. I can sense my unconscious chewing on problems and exploring solutions. I just need to have my pen or Notes app ready when the ideas come.

Staying in the book every day has been essential to keep my ideas flowing.

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.