I've been meaning to post about this topic of finding an agent for a while, so here we go. I can't tell you a magic way to find one, but I'll tell you how I planned to find one, how I'd look for one if I was still looking, and how I actually found mine.
My original plan was to go through the Children's Writers and Illustrators Market book - the kids' writers equivalent of the Writer's Market. And, I figured I would just google online for agents who handle children's books and see what came up. But then I got the October 2010 issue of Writer's Digest, which was a great two-fer issue - it had an article about 20 agents looking for manuscripts, and an article about writing query letters. You should get this back issue if you don't have it! I went through the list of agents and highlighted the ones that were interested in middle grade fiction. Then I went to their websites and got their submission guidelines. This is really important, because they get cranky when you don't follow their guidelines! And, they all have different guidelines! Most want you to query by email, but one (Arthur Levine, who handled the Harry Potter books) wanted it by snail mail. Their guidelines will specify what to send - a certain number of pages, or the first chapter - or whatever. I identified 12 likely agents from the Writer's Digest article. I created what I hoped was a good query letter and then did the tedious process of creating a personalized email to each agent, beginning with the query and followed by their specified number of pages. And off they went into the world with my high hopes attached.
By the end of the second day, I already had four rejections! So, I immediately started working on Plan B, which was to go back through the Writer's Market book. Again, a tedious process of going to the indices in the back and cross-referencing "middle-grade fiction" with "fantasy-adventure" to identify appropriate agents or publishers. I figured they would be my Round Two for querying if everyone in the first round of queried agents rejected me.
But as it turned out, I didn't have to go that route, because after a few weeks, two agents asked to read the full manuscript and later offered to represent.
So, that is how it happened for me. But there are many other ways to find an agent. Magazines like Writer's Digest and The Writer often have information about agents looking for manuscripts. Since I've been blogging and following blogs, I've discovered that you can find a lot of agents just by going to other writers' blogs and looking at their blog lists. Suddenly you are finding agents who blog, and on their blog lists, you'll find more. And they often provide a lot of great tips for writers, in the "do's and don'ts" vein. Following writers and agents on Twitter is another way - agents often follow other agents, other writers follow agents, and the next thing you know, you've found a whole bunch of agents. You don't have to tweet, you can just follow and see who else is following. If I hadn't found an agent yet, I'd definitely be searching blogs and Twitter, because from what I can see, agents spend some time in both places.
There are all kinds of agent databases out there too - you'll see things that advertise "over 6,000 agents listed!" At first that sounds great, but to me that is overwhelming! Instead, I would suggest starting small - do the research to find a dozen or so agents that seem like good candidates. Go to their websites (do not skip this step!) because this is where they will get a little clearer about what they are looking for (though not always crystal clear :-) Follow their guidelines to a T, and submit. Then while you wait to hear from them, start lining up the next dozen. I'd wait about a month after querying the first group before starting on the second, although it's likely that it will be 8 to 12 weeks before you start to hear from the first group. But that's okay, you'll be staggering your submissions and that way you won't lose too much time.
So, that's how I found my agent. I just took some small steps down a path, one foot in front of the other. I think that targeting your querying, as best you can, is really key, and then keep developing your list of likely targets.
Does anyone have other thoughts for those trying to find an agent? Would love to hear them!
p.s. I still haven't heard back from Arthur Levine!