Back when I was twenty, and having decided that I was going to be a writer when I grew up, we were living in SoCal, bottom floor of a three-story house with an avocado tree in the yard. I had a new portable typewriter, courtesy of my wife's visit to a local pawn shop, a new baby, and I needed help in the how-to department. I needed, so I thought, an agent.
In the back of Writers Digest, I found a small ad for a mail-order course out of New York, presented by one A.L. Fierst. Submit a sample, along with the fee, and your work would be read and critiqued, and a lesson plan determined to go forward.
So I did.
Got a single-spaced typewritten page back a couple of weeks later. My sample was deemed so worthy as to merit Mr. Fierst's personal attention; he would be handling my coursework his very own self. A man who had published millions of words, according to the advertisement.
Never occurred to me that there wasn't a staff of dozens of instructors, and that Mr. Fierst might be the only person checking the post office box, I was too puffed up by the flattery. Wow. The head guy thinks I've got what it takes! I knew it!
Hard to go wrong telling people exactly what they want to hear.
At one point, Fierst certainly did have people working for him, I determined, but his heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s. By 1968, times had grown somewhat lean for him.
The big selling point was that Fierst was also a literary agent, and I figured that once I got tuned up, he would start selling my stuff. Such a deal.
There has long been a phenomenon of literary agents, tired out from the wars, who critique manuscripts for a fee. Send in your money, they'd read and offer suggestions for a rewrite, and if it then met their standards, they'd take you on as a client.
That still happens today, and my advice is: Don't go there.
The reason? The same now as it was then: If you as an "agent" can read enough manuscripts for which you get paid, you don't need any clients.
Read three or so mss a week, charge two or three hundred dollars each, and in the 1960's you would be looking at $800-1200 a month, when seven or eight hundred a month was the average family income in the U.S.
There was included in Fierst's post to me a questionnaire, and it it, some queries I found puzzling: What did I think of Hitler? Of Marilyn Monroe?
Hitler was long-dead, with Marilyn gone for six or seven years by then, and that's what I said. I thought they were both dead, ancient history, and who cared?
I did not realize that this how-to-write course had been written much earlier and was, in fact, copyrighted 1957, "Writing for Sales and Recognition." Hitler was still a fresh memory and Marilyn still with us.
Hey, I was twenty, ears full of hay seed and eyes still dewy.
I soldiered on. Submitted stories. Got long letters back from old A.L., who by the way, was probably using his initials because, as I learned much later, his first name was "Adolph," and originally spelled "Adolf." Maybe not the best selling point during, and in the post-war years immediately thereafter
Most of the references to Fierst on the net these days are connected to those ads in WD. I can't find a biography, only vague references. He was apparently involved in rocketry in the 1930's, and writing magazine articles from that point on.
Several lessons in, I realized that old A.L. and I just weren't clicking. I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy, and he wanted me to write boy's stories ala Booth Tarkington's Penrod, a series I had actually read as a lad, old books published first around 1916 or so.
Of course, my teacup was too full, but much of what he had to say was so out-of-date to my thinking that I couldn't connect to it.
So we parted company. If he's still alive, he'd have to be like a hundred and ten–the only picture I could find of him, up top, is from the 1930s.
Just another of those cosmic-ray-triggered memories that popped and needed to be put down before it faded away. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.