Stuck in the Doldrums

Posted: January 6, 2016 in Writing
Tags: , , , ,


Alas, I am stuck in the doldrums, with regard to querying. You may be too, and not even know it.

To be clear, I’m using “doldrums” here in the original nautical sense, rather than the more modern usage. I am not depressed, listless, or down-in-the-dumps – although I certainly feel the pull of those conditions. No, in fact I am stuck waiting for the wind to pick up again.

The traditional meaning of being stuck in the doldrums goes back to the 18th century, when cross-Equatorial sailing voyages became common. The doldrums are low-pressure areas around the equator where prevailing winds are calm, and sometimes disappear altogether, trapping sailing ships for days or even weeks. No wind, no movement. And there was nothing you could do about it unless you happened to bring along a rowing crew and a ship equipped with oars. Many long-distance voyages got stopped in the becalmed waters of the doldrums and were trapped and helpless until the winds returned in their own good time.

So it is with querying in December and January. Agents typically go dark during December, closing to submissions and shutting down their slush piles. Not all, but many or most. And January is almost as bad, because that is when they tackle their month’s worth of unread e-mails and start to chip away at the unread manuscripts they requested before putting out their “Closed for the holidays” signs. So it is generally not a good idea to send out query letters – particularly blind, unsolicited queries in December and January.

So our efforts to find representation are temporarily stalled because the industry is becalmed. No movement forwards, but no movement backwards, either. The wind has just gone out of our sails, even though we are just as eager to get where we’re headed as ever.

You can see where “stuck in the doldrums” got its modern meaning. It is mildly depressing to be unable to make progress. To be forced to sit around and wait for time to pass. To be stagnant. And this feeling has begun to affect my writing, too. I had momentum, and now I have stalled, unable to make much headway because nothing is sweeping me away. Nothing is tugging at me to see what is over the horizon. My writing is becalmed, too, and I’m waiting for the wind to pick up again.

Of course I could try to force myself to write … despite all good advice to the contrary. But no good writing has ever come from forcing it, for me at least. Despite what happens in the cartoon, aiming a big fan at your sails will not make your boat go. I think I’m just going to have to wait for the querying to open back up again and the excitement I derive from that to put the wind back in my writing sails again. I have absolutely no doubt that will happen.

But like sailors stuck in becalmed seas, waiting for the prevailing winds to pick up, I too sit and wander when I’ll finally be able to move forward again.


  1. John,

    I’d like to offer an alternative position to your comment that “Of course I could try to force myself to write … despite all good advice to the contrary. But no good writing has ever come from forcing it, for me at least.”

    I say the hell with good writing–at least in the first draft. To me, the most important thing is getting the words down, regardless of whether they’re good or bad. The fact is, most first drafts are (almost by definition) bad writing–and that’s okay. It occurs to me that here’s even an advantage to bad writing: fewer “darlings” to kill later. (It’s so much easier to ax a badly written paragraph that doesn’t work than a beautifully written one.)

    The point is to get your second book written, anyhow, any way. You’ll be amazed at how many clever ideas come to you while you’re writing badly–so many more than when you’re not writing at all.

    You’re off to a great start with book 2, keep that momentum! You can always go back and improve your writing later. Don’t you plan to do that anyway?

    And forget about queries for now, that’s all about marketing yesterday’s accomplishment. Better to immerse yourself in tomorrow’s success. In other words: Write!

    Just my 2 cents. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  2. bethaman80 says:

    We’ve all been there. Un-motivated, feeling like life sucks… push through it.

    Write something that excites you. That scares you.
    Take your laptop to a coffee shop or an aquarium or a train station and write.
    Write while listening to music.
    Write a scene that happens later in the book.
    Write a poem, or a short story, or something with new characters and explosions and talking animals and dragons and mermaids that drink coffee.
    Push through.
    Write about what you’re scared of.
    Don’t wait a minute longer. Get out a pen and-

    Jump out of the boat and start swimming.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. donageneral says:

    This is a good time to go on vacation and renew yourself; a time to rejuvenate; plan for the new year, especially if “Baby, it’s cold outside.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. James says:

    Hi John,

    Happy New Year!

    Your post ‘inspired’ me to also write about this subject. Would love to post it on your site as a guest blogger. Let me know.

    Regards, James A. Scott Mobile: 609 947-0667 Home: 609 279-0965 eMail: Web:

    Sent from my iPad Air2



  5. kaphri says:

    John, the holidays certainly can throw a wrench into things we don’t expect. However, like the ad says: If you’re a writer, you write. It’s what you do. I find that sitting down with a legal pad and just taking off with a conversation between characters can shift my mind into writing mode. Is it forced writing? To begin, yes, but your inner writer soon takes over. Pick an odd situation and put familiar characters in it. How would they react? It might give you some exciting insight into a character and add layers that you never knew were there. If nothing else, it’s practice–and that never hurts us.

    Although I did not comment on your last two posts, I did read them. I think you have a good start. I enjoyed it and felt that you gave a good sense of your princess.

    I found this post extremely useful. I’ve been gearing to send out query letters. After reading this, I think I’ll take the time to prepare a little more and begin in February. Thank you so much from saving me a bit of frustration in what I know will be a long, difficult process.

    Good things will come.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. melmenzies says:

    With my novel, Time to Shine, amassing some great reviews, and a completed mss out there with my publisher – the second in the Evie Adams series – I can’t say I’m exactly in the doldrums. My daughter used to sail, so I understand the terminology. I’d say my sails are luffing. The third novel in the series has been started – as has a non-fiction book. My boom is swinging from side to side as I tackle one, then drop it for the other. Which way will the wind blow, I ask myself? And while I wait, there’s always the marketing and promotion to be done. Hey ho! I wish you well with your queries.


  7. John Micklos says:

    I appreciate your dilemma; I’ve been there myself. In such cases, I generally try to work on other things–background research for another project, brainstorming ideas, or polishing/revising my query or submission so it’s ready and waiting to send when the time is ripe. In my current situation, where I juggle writing children’s books with editorial consulting and freelancing, I simply try to ensure that I’m always working on various projects with a series of firm deadlines. There’s nothing like a hard deadline to jar me from my doldrums (and for projects where the publisher or client isn’t setting one, I try to set one myself). Best wishes moving forward! May the winds of publishing success push you forward as the year progresses!


  8. bethovermyer says:

    You learn something new every day, they say.

    *feels your pain* The doldrums. Yeah, the wind’s out of my sails, too, buddy. And I was one of the dumb ones who queried in December. *prepares to wait forever and a day*

    I also understand the whole pushing it thing not working. I’m the same way sometimes. Happy waiting, and may the wind pick up again soon!


  9. hellerj says:

    Dear John R. Berkowitz,

    I often do a lot of writing during the winter because many animals come to the feeders in our back yard. We get opossums, raccoons, and herds of deer. They inspire me to write nature poetry and to revise fiction and essay manuscripts that I have been working on.

    I served as the editor of a literary magazine for eight years. The staff had weekly meetings most of the year (except around major holidays), including during the winter months. We worked hard all year to correspond with writers and to produce our issues.

    Also, I use the winter months to get speaking engagements for conferences and other events scheduled for the next year or for later in the current year.

    Best wishes for 2016!

    Janet Ruth Heller
    Author of the award-winning book for children about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006), and the middle-grade book for kids The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015).
    My website is


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