On Facebook, there was a discussion of “The 5 Finger Fantasy Rule: a Plea For Mercy from SFF Authors.” To summarize the article, the author would like to read SF and Fantasy, but after a few tries they found the jargon of the genre difficult to understand. Therefore they pled for mercy and suggested that adopting a 5 finger rule might be a good idea.
When children are beginning to read and pick books for themselves, a strategy that educators use to guide them is the five finger rule. (Not to be confused with the five finger discount, which is usually not taught in class.) In this method, a reader picks up a book they’re interested in and reads the first page (or you read it together). As they read, they hold up one finger for every word they don’t know. Ideally, they end up with two to three fingers up, which means they’re learning, but not confused. If they end up with four to five (or more) words on a page that they don’t recognize, that book is too hard, and they go down to an easier reading level for now.Danika Ellis
Let’s grab an example of what Danika might be talking about from one of the military SF greats, David Weber. For those unfamiliar with his body work, he is the Tom Clancy of space navy-based science fiction.
Impeller wedge sidewalls twisted and attenuated the beams, but scores of them got through, and battle steel hulls spat glowing splinters. Atmosphere streamed from the Peep leviathans’ lacerated flanks, men and women died, weapons were smashed away, and energy signatures fluctuated as drive nodes blew apart. Yet even as White Haven’s missiles pounded his enemies, the remnants of the first massive Havenite salvo broke past his own counter missiles. It was his laser clusters’ turn to spit fire, but BatRon Eight’s lasers were too far astern to range effectively. It was all up to BatRon Twenty-One and BatRon Seventeen, and they simply had too few clusters. Sheer weight of numbers swamped them, and the green lights of friendly ships flashed the spiteful sparkle of battle damage.
Fresh salvos scorched out, battle chatter and the beep of priority signals washed about White Haven, and his eyes narrowed. His squadron commanders and captains knew their business, and their first broadsides had hurt the Peeps badly. CIC’s estimates of enemy damage danced across the bottom of his display, and three times as many Peep ships had taken hits. One or two looked to have been half-wrecked, but they kept coming, and Queen Caitrin lurched as something got through to her. She bucked again to a second hit, and his plot flickered. It steadied almost instantly, and a corner of his mind noted the damage control side-bar. Queen Caitrin’s wounds were light, but the two walls of battle angled together, missiles streaking back and forth with mounting fury as the range fell, and he knew it was going to be ugly.
“There goes the first one, My Lord!” his chief of staff announced as a crippled superdreadnought pulled out of the enemy wall and rolled up to interpose the belly of its wedge against the Manticoran fire.FLAG IN EXILE by David Weber. I think it’s probably page 2 or so.
A couple of points of view emerged during the Facebook discussion I referenced above, one of which asked why a reader would want to read outside of the genre they find comfortable.
By writing a work of fiction, an author is attempting to communicate with their readers. When that communication breaks down, the author can either place the blame for that fiasco on the reader for failing to understand the writing or they can place it on themselves for failing to explain things clearly.
Let’s say you’re running a bar. It’s been there for about 15 years and seen better days, but it has a core of regulars who help you keep the lights on. In bar terms, these guys are old money. They don’t care that the cocktails have weird names, and the menus don’t explain what’s in them. They’ve ordered each drink a hundred times. They will keep coming even if the paint starts peeling off the walls and the bar stool leather splits, because they are comfortable there. They don’t want anything to change. You don’t have to chase them. They are a sure bet.
As a bar owner, you have a choice. You can keep everything the same. You’re clearing a couple grand a month and your bills are paid. You know that eventually your regular crew of patrons will dwindle, but for now this works. Sometimes new people walk into the bar, and the regulars all turn and look at them, and the new visitors feel uncomfortable and walk out, but that’s okay.
Or you can decide to be get more people into the bar. You print new menus that list ingredients of each drink. You give your bar a coat of new paint. You give it a fresh bright sign. You make it look inviting and welcoming. Because to get new money, you have to chase it and make it feel comfortable. Only then it can become the old money.
The phenomenon the article is talking about has a technical term. It’s called threshold or sometimes threshold of entry, although that’s redundant. Threshold is the barrier a reader must overcome to access the book. The lower your threshold, the wider your audience.
I didn’t start this explanation with terms like low market penetration, stagnant audience, and low convertibility. I started it with the bar. By lowering that threshold, I can get my point across in a way that allows most people to understand it. You can teach the reader just about anything, but you must do it gradually to succeed.
There is nothing wrong with limiting yourself to a small bar. Instead of asking why a particular reader found something confusing and trying to improve the accessibility of your work, one can always decide that the reader needs to learn to read the genre. True, every reader that bounces off the book equals multiple lost sales, because if you can rope them in, they would go through your back list. But attaining a low threshold takes a particular skill. That might not be in your wheelhouse, and instead of forcing yourself to adjust, your energy might be better spent elsewhere, like evoking a particular feeing with complex terms. Weber’s latest book, 10th in the latest series, hit #23 on USA Today. He’s been writing for 30 years, he’s built a lot of regulars over who love his particular brand, and he is very well regarded. His bar is thriving, even though it caters to a relatively narrow slice of book reading audience. Many great works of SF and F have a relatively high threshold.
One can even argue that Starbucks become successful by bottling the small bar elitism by making new names for their drink sizes, so their patrons would instantly feel superior because they know what grande means. Except when I come to Starbucks, I order a large coffee and they make it without complaint, because they want my money. Doesn’t work as well for books filled with technospeak and convoluted fantasy names. The reader can’t stop the author and ask what cluster of drive nodes means.
As an entrepreneur, I want my bar to be the it spot in town. I want as many people to feel welcome as I can accommodate, so the return visitors would grab their friends and say with a big smile on their face, “You’ve got to come to this place! It’s amazing!” My goal is to build a type of IP I can pass on to my children. To do that, I need to be read widely. I’m a commercial author and achieving a low threshold is essential for me.
Are there times when I have growled about the readers picking up one of our books and then leaving a less than flattering review when they clearly didn’t like the genre? Absolutely. But those reviews typically do not center on failing to understand the narrative. They complain that the books are too violent, have too much/too little sex or romance, or are serialized. Honestly, if you don’t like violence, it will be a bit difficult to find an Urban Fantasy to match your preferences. It’s out there, but overall, UF is a high action genre.
And yes, sometimes accessibility seems impossible. We’ve rewritten the explanation of the Broken, the Edge, and the Weird seven times. I found a beta reader who bounced off of it, and I just kept editing and editing and editing and sending her the updated versions until she finally said, “I think I understand now.” The construct still proved too complex for some readers.
Achieving low threshold is challenging. But low threshold means wider market penetration, larger audience, and better salability of foreign, audio, and other rights, all of which translates into more money and greater staying power, so in my opinion, it is worth fighting for. However, it doesn’t always come naturally to an author and sometimes it can derail writing altogether. It is far better to write something, even if you know you are limiting your audience by adhering to the vocabulary and concepts of a specific genre, than to write nothing, because you are twisting yourself into a pretzel trying to be accessible.
There are no rules in fiction, only vague guidelines. 🙂 Pick the approach that works best for you and write like the wind.