Jennifer Rofe's talk on the "So What" factor spun me around and left me dizzy. It's not just a great tool for ensuring that your book has interesting conflict, but it describes what the elusive perfect query should look like.
Jennifer taught us a simple game. Lay out the plot points in a book, and keep going until you can't ask "so what?" anymore. She used a variety of great books as examples, but I thought instead of reiterating hers, I'd do this with The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. If you haven't read them...you should run to your nearest bookstore/library (jogging is acceptable if it's very far). Using the "So what?" game...
*When Kat's sister is drafted into the Hunger Games -- a deadly reality show enforced by the Capitol to keep its districts in check -- Kat volunteers to take her place. (So what?)
*There are twenty-three other players (So what?)
*To win and leave with her life, she'll have to kill all twenty-three -- other drafted teenagers just like her (Ouch!)
Mortal danger itself really a hook. Fictional characters always seem to be in danger of their lives, and the main character rarely dies. The "so what" is the cost of survival: for Kat to live, twenty-three others must die. It's not twenty-three random people, it's twenty-three teenagers who, for the most part, are going through the same agony she is. She'll almost certainly have to kill some of them. Even if she lives...would she be the same person? The Hunger Games is brimming with other cool stuff (like Peeta), but "cool" isn't the same as "gut-wrenching moment when I have to read this."
That's my big take-away from the conference: the "so what" factor is the gem that I must include in my query, so an agent can't help but turn the page.