Sunday, June 12, 2011

Another Stray Memory

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.


Dojo Rat said...

I have a rough draft with a hundred-dollar-bill coming your way.

No need for you to flirt with that Hollywood crowd anymore...

I think...

AF1 said...

Have you been married to the same woman since you were 20 years old?

If so that is very admirable and something you don't see much anymore.

Steve Perry said...

We got married when we were nineteen, actually. A long and wonderful run -- if we make it to the next anniversary this November, that'll be forty-five years.

Anonymous said...

I was just doing some googling on A. L. Fierst when I found your page. Funny to think of this guy as a literary agent. The only stuff that I can find about his writing is a 1957 book on "Writing for Sales and Recognition" aside from that he wrote one short story for the pulp "Wonder Stories".

He must have made a good living off of kids writing dreams.

Andrew said...

Very interested to hear these details, thanks! Found this post while looking for information on Fierst, who was an early agent for the writer R.A. Lafferty. (It was not a successful partnership.)

If you're amenable, I'd love to see any of the materials or correspondence, or any info about Fierst—I found a copy of the sample version of "Writing for Sales and Recognition," but the full version seems to have disappeared from the earth.

If you have any interest or even just notice this comment, I'd be glad to hear about it: ferguson dot aj at gmail. Thanks!

Steve Perry said...

You know I might have that stuff on the garage somewhere, I'll see if I can find it. Be buries pretty deep ...