Dimitri “Have pen, will travel” Ly is a writer, editor, illustrator, podcast host, and webmaster. He works on pieces for websites, magazines, universities, DVD releases, private corporations, and government services.
Dimitri is also in the fascinating and highly coveted world of freelance fiction writing.
I talked with Dimitri about what it is to be a freelancing prose fiction writer, how you approach getting an agent, and got some great tips on freelancing in general along the way.
You can read more from Dimitri at his site where he says “you’ll find movie reviews, literary essays, comic strips, and nonsensical ravings about things other than sex, swearing, and poop.”
DAN: How did you get into the writing business?
DIMITRI LY: It started mostly by luck. I was like every writer who starts off, I started off as someone who said he’s writing but doesn’t have anything published. I was in university and at that point you’re mostly writing for yourself and networking and pretending that you’re working. Or you’re writing for an audience that doesn’t exist.
I met up with a guy who was working on a television project. It actually never aired, but at the time it seemed like this really big thing, especially for the person who was leading it. And he had his things together. He contacted the right people and got the project started, so I got hired for that. We worked on it, but the project failed quite spectacularly, mostly due to our lack of experience.
But some of the people we pitched to remembered my name from the process. I think because as we were working on it they liked what I was doing and that they were suggesting things and I was able to integrate them, writing them in pretty quickly. And I was just starting so I didn’t know that I had to fight for anything at the time.
So they retained my name to do some script doctoring, to be able to receive pilots for TV from newcomers and before they are in production or have even been accepted or gotten backers or any of that kind of thing, they need to change this and that because the project is not quite working. So they would call me in to revise it make it more palatable for a wider audience… that and to destroy the dreams of new writers!
That’s about when I started going into other stuff. Someone hooked me up with a literary agent who was then able to give me more projects that were more related to prose which was something I liked better anyway.
D: Those things were connected; the introduction to the agent came through the TV work?
DL: Yeah, they were connected. Everything I got was mostly through meeting really generous people who were willing to help me out. They would say “We like the work you’re doing, what else do you want to do?” And I’d say “I’d like to do this and that.” And they’d say “Well, we know somebody who can hook you up with that for us, but you need to be represented.”
D: So that’s a must in the industry – that you have to have an agent? There’s no representing yourself?
DL: I’ve met people who aren’t represented, but generally speaking, I think it’s harder. Some of them complain that they don’t get as much work, and it’s not just that some studio heads won’t deal with writers with no representation, it’s also that it’s extremely time consuming to market yourself.
You look at it in terms of time, like your time is your money. And then think of the time you don’t have to spend self promoting if you have an agent.
Honestly, it makes a difference. I know some people hesitate about it, but it has made my life easier. All the time I spend doing what I do, I spend doing what I love, and not all that other stuff.
D: And do you think you get more work that way?
DL: It entirely depends on your skills for self-marketing. I’m pretty brazen. I’m not a bad self-marketer; I’m pretty full of myself, ha-ha!
No, I mean I’m able to express myself in a way that appeals [to clients], and even then I feel that I get more work by being represented.
But for the shy type of writers, those who are a little bit less aggressive in the way that they approach people, I could see someone like that getting less work by not being represented.
And I have heard horror stories about agents too. Not every agent is the same. I get the feeling that I have been lucky in that I got a good agent. If I had gotten another agent, then things might not have been the same.
D: Why do you think certain studio heads won’t deal with writers without representation?
DL: In all honesty, I think there’s a certain ‘diva factor’ that comes with writers. To be a writer there has to be a part of you that thinks that the things you say are things everybody should listen to.
I think some of us have it more than others, and it can be particularly difficult for a studio head to deal with, especially when they have to deal with 30 or 40 people like myself on a daily basis. They don’t want to waste any time. They don’t want to have to deal with anyone who’s going to give them trouble.
D: And changing agents, is that a difficult prospect if you need to?
DL: I haven’t done it myself, but I know people who have and I don’t think they found it particularly difficult. I think the most frustrating part is leaving the old agent, you know because that’s when the old agent suddenly gets really aggressive about marketing and finding work for them.
Someone said something that made me laugh, that their agent was more aggressive about keeping them as a client than they were about getting them work.
But it really depends on the level of writing that you are at. You know the coveted level is writing what you want to write and getting to sell it, like a screenplay or books or whatever. But there’s more competition in that.
So, if you’re starting out and you have an agent who is pretty good at selling that, they will likely have clients that are better at it then you. They’ll be bringing in more money for the agency all around, so you’re not going to be the priority to get the project.
And that’s one of the reasons I have stayed in the kid lit market, I get a lot of the genre and the teenager stuff that a lot of people stay away from because it has a stigma about it; that it can feel tedious at times because you’re not writing for yourself and you’re writing for an audience that’s 20-30 years younger than you are.
But there’s also less competition. You can write on a daily basis and have a steady income.
This interview continues in Part 2, where Dimitri speaks about his audience, as well as the collaborative and developmental process involved in his writing.