1. Be Aware
(Hope my alliterative names don't bug you too much) I put the challenging agents into slightly more compact categories -- and I use the word 'challenging', because if you're not aware of the styles of these agents, they will challenge (if not freeze) your writing career, motivation, creativity, etc. Be Aware
Too Nice Nellie: This agent won't do nearly as much harm as most challenging agents. She may show more enthusiasm than she truly feels (because she's trying to be nice), and she may make promises she can't deliver...but in the long run, she's not going to sign you unless she truly believes in you, so you'll only end up disappointed, not destroyed.
Quick-Sale Sallie: This agent also won't do as much harm as others -- as long as you realize Sallie works this way. If you already have strong editor interest or an offer, or if you only have one book to sell, this agent could work for you. Just don't let the quick decrease in enthusiasm destroy you if things don't go as you'd hoped.
Too Important Ivana: If you're one of the lucky ones who has a quick-selling, high money-making book, Ivana will stand by you...until someone else comes along who's better. This type of agent also tends to not have the hand-holding characteristics (which some people don't want, of course); I've heard of (and seen) this type of agent demean authors and their writing (though I don't think Ivana realized she was doing that). Personally, I wouldn't go near Ivana, but she's done good things for others.
Too Busy Bob: He wants to be there for you, but he's simply too busy. Months pass and he doesn't seem to notice that your ms is languishing by the side. If he gets around to it, he could do something for you -- are you willing to wait?
Always Editing Elaine: Until Elaine learns to trust her instincts and take a risk, this type of agent is only for those who have amazing patience -- and won't mind if Elaine backs out at the last minute.
Can't Edit Edward: This is a new one, but I know of a couple of agents who definitely fit this category. The thing is, if you're a strong editor yourself and you can be objective enough to see the flaws in your own writing and fix them (or if your critique group can help with this), then Edward is fine. But if not...be aware! You could end up with less-than-perfect work being shopped around.
Flaky Fannie: Perhaps my least favorite type -- because this one isn't obvious. If you hit Fannie on a good day, you've hit the jackpot! But there's no way of knowing -- and no way of knowing if her enthusiasm for your work will disappear. If it's a bad day, you'll be ignored -- or worse!
In-Over-His-Head Howard: Howard has good intentions. He means to do right by you, but the busier he gets, the more clients he takes on, the less he's able to handle. It's more an issue of not knowing his own limits than anything more sinister.
2. Know What You Want
You may have read that list above and thought, "Well, I wouldn't mind an not-editing agent if he/she sells books." Or "I'd love Quick-Sale Sallie -- I'm willing to take the risk." That's knowing what you want. It sounds so simple, but I didn't really understand what I wanted until recently. I had ideas, but the more I've seen, the more I've heard, the more I know exactly what kinds of challenges I'm willing to deal with and which I'm not. Think about how you'd feel with each of those types -- how you'd feel if things don't work in your favor. If you're okay with that risk, then go for it! All of those agents above have made strong sales for their clients -- they're not bad agents -- they're simply challenging if you don't know what you're getting into.
3. Do Your Research
Before you ever begin querying, look at response threads on Verla Kay's or Absolute Write, among others. Look for patterns, and see if any of the agents in which you're interested seem to fit in the categories above. Query away -- but when you get requests for fulls, especially, don't hesitate to contact me or someone else you know who might have names that fit with these categories. If you suspect your book is quieter and Ivana isn't the one for you, it's good to know that an Ivana type is the agent who requested the full. Remember, all of these agents will be enthusiastic if your writing connects with them -- it's what happens next that challenges everyone. I know of a couple of writers who had quieter (though still marketable) books; both were already published when they signed with an Ivana -- but she still dumped them when 'more important' clients came along.
4. Wisdom, not Wallowing
This one took a while for me -- it's easier to wallow :) We all know what a roller coaster this is. Take the ups as they come, but remember that most ups lead to a down -- and vice versa. If you know what you want, if you do your research, there still comes a point where you have to take a risk. As so many pointed out in my last couple of posts, one person's dream agent is another's nightmare. You might sign with a Sallie and know you've found exactly what you want -- and when she sells your book(s) for 6 figures, you'll be right :) But your CP might also sign with a Sallie and get dumped on and want to quit...there's no substitute for experience.
I'm always willing to share things I've learned over the past few years in my agent search. Don't hesitate to PM me with questions or comments. A couple of people mentioned reservations with agents I had on my 'agents I still love to query' list (which is great -- if we share our challenging experiences, perhaps we can save another writer from pursuing an agent who truly isn't their style) -- if you have positive stories about your agent or other agents you've worked with, I also love to hear those. Generally speaking, I wouldn't stick any agent into one of the above categories unless I hear many stories about the same thing. So if you ask about a certain agent and hear that he/she seems to fit one of them, it's because numerous people have had that experience. Again, though, if you have a gut instinct that such an agent will work for you, don't hesitate. I'll repeat it: most of the agents above have made 6-figure deals in the past. They know how to sell books! But for writers, we all need to decide if they can sell our books.
Happy writing! And if anyone wants me to add/change any info above, don't hesitate to let me know :)