The first word that comes to mind after attending this conference is SUBJECTIVE. I learned there is no one standard for what will lead an agent to be interested in a piece of work. It is highly subjective and dependent on their own personal tastes. Let me give you some examples.
One of the attendees was offered representation by an agent based on her query. This same attendee had only completed 75 pages of her manuscript, but the agent was so excited by the query she offered to represent her on the basis of that. Two other agents, critiqued the same query and tore it to shreds. What's the lesson here? There are no rules that can't be broken. You always hear you have to have a completed manuscript for fiction. Now, this is unusual and you shouldn't go querying agents until you have finished the book. This was a conference and it worked out, but it was the exception. You really must query widely. Why? Because not everyone is going to be interested in your particular story. You have to play the numbers game and get your story into as many hands as possible. If the writing is good, someone, somewhere will like it, but you have to get it into enough hands to hit that right person. What if you don't get any bites for your story after querying widely? Write another one. More writing leads to greater skill.
You can't take the rejection personal. The agent may have seen one too many queries the day yours arrived, they could be in a bad mood, your particular story didn't resonate with them for one reason or another etc. I saw one group of agents get excited by a story and another group that didn't even understand what the writer was trying to convey. Once again, the process is highly subjective.
The one thing that isn't subjective is having a firm handle on the craft of writing. You have to master the art of telling a good story. Let me give you a personal example. The first day of the conference consisted of critiquing queries. Lois Winston, agent with the Ashley Grayson Literacy Agency and Holly Root of the Waxman Literary Agency critiqued my query together. They told me that the query was too vague. They understood one of the characters. Holly said I had included too much info on her. She was able to grasp the gist of it based on one sentence I had written. The guy of the story was another matter. I hadn't explained enough. Neither Holly or Lois was able to figure out who he was or what was going on with him. Lois said I had written the query too generically. I wasn't showing what was special about my particular story.
I woke up in the middle of the night and rewrote that query. Holly wasn't present the next day, but I found Lois and she looked at it again. "This is much better," she said. "Now, I can see what the story is."
She suggested changes on one paragraph, but other than that, found the query vastly improved. That alone made attending the conference worth it.
I'll tell you about the critique of opening pages in a future post.