< pause for people to go check their spam. No, we're not the ones whose passports were stolen, but if you want to send us money anyway... >
Lesson #1: Know whom you're querying
We received several of the usual "Dear Mr. Hill" queries, and an overly-friendly "Hi Spencer!" one, as well. That's not the problem--the military thrillers, the chick-lits, the poetry collections, and the others that weren't even CLOSE to the YA spec-fic that we publish were. Please, people, actually read what an agent or editor is looking for before querying. Queries that don't even fall into the right genre waste your time and ours.
Lesson #2: Have you ever wondered about rhetorical questions?
Did you really think they would catch the interest of the reader? Would you believe they are one of the biggest "red flags" in a slush pile? Can you imagine going an entire submissions period without ever requesting material from a query with rhetorical questions? Can you taste the acrid sarcasm flavoring this paragraph?
Seriously, folks, rhetorical questions are NEVER an asset in a query. Best case, the agent or editor overlooks them. Worst case, they stop reading after seeing the opening question (or questions--I've actually seen entire paragraphs like the one above).
Lesson #3: Remember, we want to like you
Agents and editors read submissions hoping to find something that makes them go, "OMG--I've GOT to read this!" Keep your queries simple, entertaining, and to-the-point. Imagine someone picking up your newly-published book in the local bookstore, flipping it over, and reading the back jacket. Your query should read like that--give a sense of your narrative voice and entice the reader to want to know more about the story.
Your biographical info should only be a sentence or three that either establishes your credentials (previous publications and writing awards) or is an entertaining read that makes us feel like we've just met you (for example, my standard bio begins: "Kate Kaynak was born and raised in New Jersey, but she managed to escape."). PLEASE don't give us three paragraphs about your writing process, your physical or mental health problems (unless they tie into the story, like Joseph Heller's did with God Knows), your previous inability to get your work published, or all the stuff that you don't like about your life. If you want to complain about how tough it is to write and publish a novel, start a blog. :)
Lesson #4: Don't give up
Publishing is hard, but if you have a well-told, engaging story, you eventually can find a home for it. However, while you've got that book out, shopping itself around, keep writing. Start another book, and another, and take the feedback you've gotten on the earlier works to make the later works better.