I attended the November 2010 conference. There were about 100 people there, and 30 agents. The real benefit comes from the small group time. Writers are split by genre category. I was in the Womens Fiction group. There were 15 writers and 2 agents in each group; you pass around copies of your query letter (which the agents got in advance). They go around the room, each person reads their query and the two agents explain whether they would pass or ask for more, based on your letter alone. It was fascinating to hear them sort through, explain their reasons, and to see what everyone else was pitching.
I used the revised query Id worked on prior to the conference. They echoed prior feedback Id receivedthat it was still too unclear. (thought Id fixed that!!) Id been trying to write it like a book jacket, with a clever cliffhanger/tease which only confused them. They wanted me to be explicit about the entire plot arc. Think junior high book report, one said to me. Very good to know.
In the afternoon, same thing, only you get to read your first two opening pages, which is usually what they want with the initial query. Our group only had eight writers this time. We found out later that our two agents were excessively polite because they actually let us read the entire two pages. In most of the other workshops, the agent interrupted the writer as soon as they would stop reading (some on the first paragraph -ouch). Our agents gave feedback to everyone, mostly positive, but didnt seem wowed by my pages. They were politely unfazed. Underwhelmed. Maybe one of them yawned with her nostrils. I cant be sure.
At the end of the first day, I was profoundly discouraged. Of course, you dont realize youre harboring high hopes until they dont materialize. Cognitively, I told myself (and others) I was there to learn. Id been critiqued and valued feedback. In my heart of hearts, I had to admit, I was hoping I didnt need much more. Evidently, I craved a tiny round of applause.
I had three choices: (1) disregard or discount their responses as a subjective mismatch, which means I need to use the same bait and throw a wider net; (2) overvalue their impression and let it chip away at my identity as a writer, which means I should go home and start barista training; or (3) get over myself.
So, instead of sipping Chardonnay and making more contacts, I shut myself in my room, worked all night on revisions, both to my query and my opening pages.
Second day; same format. In the query letter workshop, two different agents, good feedback, but my query is still not clear enough on the plot summary. Informative, good feedback, but my query hasnt made anyone fall in love with my work. Both agents agreed I could send them a new version of my query and a writing sample and theyd take a look, so I took it as a good sign.
The opening pages workshop on the second day, we got two new agents that were of the interrupt when they would stop reading variety. They did so, as graciously as they could, but they did manage to stop everyone with a very honest critique of what they found wrong with the actual writing. Things like too many adjectives, passive voice, POV shifts, chit-chat dialogue that doesnt advance the story, but mostly, they said over and over that the story wasnt starting in the right place. They said it should start on the day, in the moment, everything changes for the protagonist. Of fifteen writers there, Id say this was the feedback for over half of them. And another 1/3 got the too many adjectives advice. By the time it was my turn, not one writer had read two full pages.
I looked down at my revision pages, suddenly sick with the realization Id hastily chopped out almost 1 1/2 pages of my first two pages, rather inelegantly shoved an action scene to the forefront and geez, was that a typo? Did I really just hand an agent a rough draft with typo on the first page!?
It was my turn, so I took a deep breath and read. They didnt stop me, so I kept reading. As soon as I finished, I looked up and heard, Send me the full manuscript.
I almost fell out of my chair. After managing to compose myself, I got her business card, sent the full manuscript, met her in New York two weeks later and accepted her offer of representation.