So I'm going to mutter random advice for as long as I can stand it, and if we're both lucky, maybe if you're struggling and confused and wandering, I won't do anything to worsen those conditions.
I'm going to talk about writing itself a little later on, but 20 years in this line of work has allowed me to see that many new writers are convinced that they write beautifully and wonderfully and in a fresh and exciting way and so really, they just want to know how to get paid a ton of money in recognition for their genius. Or at least quit their day job. Never mind the art and craft — "Nailed it!" they say as they reread their first manuscript — they want to know about the business side of writing.
So they ask, as do those with a little less self-assurance, how do I find an agent?
As I've said before, there is no licensing body for agents. Anyone can say, "I'm an agent," and put it on a business card or Web site. Some unscrupulous folks figured out a long time ago that about a zillion suckers — each with no head for business and each too enamored of his or her own work — are dreaming of being published writers and famous and so on, and if you could make a buck-fifty off of each of them, you'd be wealthier than any of them will ever be.
Which is my windy way of saying you don't need an agent -- you need the right agent.
You would not go into the business of selling bicycles without understanding that they have two wheels. Or stay in that business if you didn't understand much, much more about it. So if you had a burning desire to sell bikes, you'd study up. So if you want to be published, and don't want to strictly rely on dumb luck and all the prayers your mother said for you, study up on the business side of writing, too.
This idea may make you feel afraid. Afraid is the natural state of many writers, so don't let that paralyze you. Just move ahead in whatever increments you can manage.
So, where to start?
I can't say this often enough: read SFWA's Writer Beware Website. Twice. Don't get hung up on the fact that you may not be writing in SFWA's genres -- seriously, this site is a major public service for all writers.
You can also learn a lot about agents from the best known professional organization for literary agents, AAR, whose members agree to abide by the AAR Canon of Ethics. Members of AAR agree not to charge fees for reading manuscripts. They have a section of their site that accurately and succinctly describes how the process of finding an agent usually works: FAQ about agents -- and answers.
Responding to James W Hall's question, the fabulous Jeff Abbott recommended the blog of former literary agent Nathan Bransford, now a successful author. I've just taken a quick look at this, but it seems to be well-designed and has accessible and meaningful advice from someone who has been on both sides of the equation. An A-Z of publishing. Go to the left sidebar on his home page and look through Publishing Essentials.
And although Miss Snark hasn't posted anything to her blog since 2007, there is still a lot to be learned from her snarky, tough love blog. Look at the categories on the right. The crapometer is a teaching tool, ladies and gentlemen.
You can also find an agent at a reputable conference, and I'll talk more about that and other agent info in another post. But you have some reading to do. Take a look at the four sites above. And read books by James W. Hall and Jeff Abbott. They've been good to you today. And you can learn to write better novels by studying what they do.