Writing the Fantastic Story
By Otis Adelbert Kline
From The Writer ~ January 1930
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
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
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
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
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
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