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Title: Writing the Fantastic Story
Author: Otis Adelbert Kline
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1400261h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Jan 2014
Most recent update: Aug 2022

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Writing the Fantastic Story


Otis Adelbert Kline

Cover Image

First published in The Writer, January 1931

WILLIAM BOLLITO said of Mr. Kline, "In the world of scientific fiction, there are chiefs. They must be good. There is Otis Adelbert Kline whom I am sure I would rather read than many fashionable novelists." When asked to tell some of the problems of creating fantastic stories, Mr. Kline wrote us, "The subject you assigned me is a pretty big one. It has so many interesting ramifications that a whole series of articles would scarcely cover it."

WRITING, with me, is a semi-subjective process. I mean by this that I find it necessary, at times, to wait for that temperamental and elusive entity, my Muse, to cooperate with me. Every day I try to write, and I mean try. But some days I produce only a few hundred words fit for nothing but filing in the wastebasket. And on the other hand I have, in a single day, produced six or seven thousand words of marketable copy.

So this, the problem of successfully wooing the Muse, is the one which I find most difficult of solution. I have a profound admiration for writers who can sit down at their desks, day after day, and, without fail, bat out two or three thousand words of good, salable material in two or three hours. Most of them will tell you this is the result of practice—of continuous trying. But I've been trying for ten years, and selling stories for eight, and today my Muse is as obstinate and capricious as ever.

Although I had previously written songs, plays, and moving picture scenarios, my first inspiration for writing fiction, strange as it may seem, came from reading books on psychology. And that reading was the result of some previous incidents in my life, so perhaps I had better begin a little farther back.

When I graduated from high school, I decided that I would launch on a musical career, and gave up my plans for going to college. I became a professional songwriter. I also tried my hand at plays and moving picture scenarios, and wrote vaudeville sketches and even plots for burlesque shows. I later became a music publisher. But it was a hard life, with much night work, plugging songs in theatres, dance halls, and cafes, and I tired of it, in spite of the fascination the element of chance gave to the work.

Putting out songs was like playing poker; no one could predict a hit with certainty.

I decided on a business career, and went to a business college. Shortly after this, I got a job, and at twenty-two I married. No chance, then, to go to college. But going to college had been a sort of tradition in our family. I had to work every day to keep the well-known and justly unpopular wolf from breaking down the door. But my evenings were my own. I decided to use them for the improvement of what I optimistically called my mind.

I would take one subject at a time, and study. But where should I begin? I recalled that a certain ancient philosopher had once said there are but three things in the universe—mind, force, and matter. Mind controls force, and force moves matter. It was easy to decide which of these things was the more important, so I began by studying psychology—a science which, by the way, is in its infancy—no farther advanced today than were the physical sciences a century ago.

Having read practically everything there was on the subject over a period of years, I began to have some theories about psychic phenomena, myself. I started a ponderous scientific treatise, but didn't carry it far. This medium limited my imagination too much. Then I wrote a novelette, The Thing of a Thousand Shapes, in which some of my ideas and theories were incorporated. It was turned down by most of the leading magazines in 1922, but early in 1923 a magazine was made to order for the story—Weird Tales. It was accepted, and published in the first issue. This was before the word "ectoplasm" was used in connection with psychic phenomena. A German writer, whose translated work I had read, had coined the word "teleplasm," but this did not seem precisely the right term, so I coined the word "psychoplasm." I notice that it is being used today by some writers of occult stories.

I had finished writing the above novelette early in 1921, and decided to try my hand at a novel. I wanted to write an interplanetary story, and I believe the reason for this lay in the following incidents.

As soon as I was able to understand, my father, who was interested in all the sciences, and especially in astronomy, had begun pointing out to me the planets that were visible to the naked eye; had told me what was known of their masses, densities, surfaces, atmospheres, motions, and satellites; and that there was a possibility that some of them were inhabited by living beings. He taught me how to find the Big and Little Dippers, and thus locate the North Star, that I might make the heavens serve as a compass for me, by night as well as by day. He pointed out that beautiful and mysterious constellation, The Pleiades, which inspired the lines in the Book of Job: "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bonds of Orion?"

He told me of the vast distances which, according to the computations of scientists, lay between our world and these twinkling celestial bodies—that the stars were suns, some smaller than our own, and others so large that if they were hollow, our entire Solar System could operate inside them without danger of the planet farthest from the sun striking the shell. He told me of the nebulae, which might be giant universes in the making, and that beyond the known limits of our own universe it was possible that there were countless others, stretching on into infinity.

My childish imagination had been fired by these things, and I had read voraciously such books on the subject of astronomy as were available in my father's well-stocked library. He supplemented and encouraged this reading by many interesting discussions, in which a favorite subject for speculation was the possibility that planets, other than our own, were inhabited.

Geology, archaeology, and ethnology were also brought into our discussions. We lived in northern Illinois, which had in some distant geological epoch been the bottom of an ocean, and took pleasure in collecting such fossil remains as were available. Dad and I could become very much excited over bits of coral, and fossil marine animals.

Then there were Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and others, with their interesting theories. There was the great mystery of man's advent on this earth, which religion explained in one manner and science in another. We discussed these, and a third possibility, an idea of my father's, that some of our ancient civilizations might have been originated by people who came here from other planets—the science of space-navigation forgotten by their descendants, but the tradition of their celestial advent persisting in their written and oral traditions. That such traditions did persist was beyond dispute. Whence came these traditions that were not confined to related civilizations, but were preserved by widely separated peoples?

It was with this background that I began my first novel in 1921—a tale of adventures on the planet Venus. I called it Grandon of Terra, but the name was later changed to The Planet of Peril.

The problem of how to get my hero to Venus bothered me not at all, for I had been reading about the marvelous powers of the subjective mind: of telepathy, that mysterious means of communication between minds which needs no physical media for its transmission, and which seems independent of time, space, and matter. I haven't the space to enlarge on this here, but can refer you to the thousands of cases recorded by the British Society for Psychical Research, if you are interested. There was also the many cases of so-called astral projection, recorded by the above society in a volume called Phantasms of the Living. My hero, therefore, reached Venus by the simple (try it) expedient of exchanging bodies with a young man on that planet who was his physical twin. He reported his adventures on Venus to an earthly scientist, Dr. Morgan, by telepathy.

Cloud-wrapped Venus is supposed to be in a stage similar to our own carboniferous era. I, therefore, clothed my hypothetical Venus with the flora of such an era—ferns, cycads, and thallophytes of many kinds, including algae, fungi, and lichens of strange and eerie form.

Through the fern jungles and fungoid forests stalked gigantic reptiles, imaginary creatures, but analogous to those ponderous prehistoric Saurians that roved the earth when our coal and petroleum beds were having their inception. There were Herbivora devouring the primitive plants, and fierce Carnivora that devoured the Herbivora and each other, and disputed the supremacy of man. Air and water teemed with active life and sudden dealt—life feeding on death and death snuffing out life.

There were men in various stages of evolutionary development—men without eyes, living in lightless caverns, who had degenerated to a physical and mental condition little better than that of Batrachia. There were monkey-men swinging through the branches and lianas of the fern forests, blood-sucking bat-men living in caves in a volcanic crater—a veritable planetary inferno, and gigantic termites of tremendous mental development that had enslaved a race of primitive human beings.

There were mighty empires, whose armies warred with strange and terrible weapons, and airships which flew at tremendous speed propelled by mechanisms which amplified the power of mind over matter—telekinesis.

After writing and rewriting, polishing and re-polishing, I sent the story out— a bulky script, ninety-thousand words long. At that time there but two possible American markets for that type of story, Science and Invention and Argosy-All Story, but I had not been watching the Munsey publication and did not know it used this sort of thing. I submitted the story, first, to Science and Invention. It was turned down because of the paucity of mechanical science.

When Weird Tales came into being, I tried it on this magazine. Edwin Baird, the editor liked it, but finally, after holding it several months, rejected it because of its length. He suggested that I try Argosy-All Story, but I didn't do it then. I let it lie around for a long time. Every once in a while I would dig it out of the file and read it over. Each time, I found new places to polish. I was writing and selling a number of other stories in the interval— occult, weird, mystery, detective, adventure, and Western. I also collaborated with my brother, Allen S. Kline, on a novel set in the South American Jungle, called The Secret Kingdom. This was later published in Amazing Stories.

One day I was talking to Baird, and he asked me what I had done with my fantastic novel. He said I was foolish not to try Argosy-All Story. I accordingly recopied my pencil-marked version, and sent it on. Good old Bob Davis, dean of American editors, held it so long I had some hope: that he was going to buy it. But it came back, eventually, with a long, friendly letter asking to see more of my work. I later learned that he had just bought the first of Ralph Milne Farley's famous radio stories, the scene of which was on the planet Venus, and whose settings, therefore, were somewhat similar to mine.

After that, I spent enough money on express and postage to buy a good overcoat, sending the story around the country, and out of it.

Finally, Mr. Joseph Bray then book-buyer, and now president of A.C. McClurg & Company, told me he would publish it if I would first get it serialized in a magazine. I had turned down a couple of low-priced offers for serialization, but I started over the list again. A.H. Bittner, the new editor of Argosy, who has been building circulation for that magazine since he took over the editorial chair, bought the story. A month later, Mr. Bray accepted it for publication as a novel.

The Planet of Peril brought many enthusiastic fan letters to Argosy. I received a number of complimentary letters from people all over the country who had read it in magazine or book form. I was overwhelmed with requests for autographs, and all that sort of thing. A baby in Battle Creek, Michigan, was named after me. It was encouraging.

Last September, Grosset & Dunlap reprinted the book in the popular edition. In a bulletin to their salesmen they recently reported that, despite the fact that they had not made any special effort to push it, and that it was a first novel, it was enjoying a continuous and persistent resale—something unusual for a first novel. They suggested that their salesmen remember this item when calling on the trade. This, also, was encouraging.

Since then, Argosy has serialized and McClurg has published in book form two more novels — Maza of the Moon and The Prince of Peril, the latter a companion story to The Planet of Peril.

Right now I'm working night and day on a new novel for spring publication, in order to make a deadline date set by my publisher. Also, I've reached the length limit set by The Writer's editor, so that will be all for this time.


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