Monthly Archives: December 2011

2012 Goals

Goals provide benchmarks for writers to measure their progress. A new year is an ideal time for the writer to sit down and set some realistic and achievable goals. Writers should set goals that are appropriate for their skill level and experience. For a novice writer, starting a novel and writing 50,000 words in a year is an achievable goal. I’ve been writing fiction since 1997, which means my goals must be more ambitious.

Here are my goals:

  • Publish my first novel, Small Change, through the Kindle Direct Publishing program.
  • Implement my marketing plan for my first novel.
  • Finish and publish my current work-in-progress, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music, and Social Media.
  • Revise the first draft of my second novel, Color Him Father.
  • Write a 100,000 word novel.
  • Attend a writer’s conference.
  • Read at least 25 books, including at least two books on the craft of fiction writing.
  • Maintain my blog and post new essays at least twice a year.
  • Engage regularly with other writers.

Here’s wishing everybody a happy and productive new year.

What are your goals for 2012?

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My Favorite 2011 Book: “Faith,” by Jennifer Haigh

There were a lot of great books published in 2011. I enjoyed The Adults, by Alison Espach, The Red Thread, by Ann Hood, The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson, In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard, and The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. My favorite book published in 2011 was Faith, by Jennifer Haigh.

Faith tackles big issues. The plot centers on the sexual molestation scandals in the Boston Archdiocese, but the story explores family secrets, the role of religion in family life, loyalty, compassion, and those opposing twins, faith and doubt. The main character is Sheila McCann, a lapsed Catholic whose half-brother, Father Arthur Breen, is accused of molesting a young boy. The main character conducts her own investigation, which is described in a dispassionate manner. While Sheila has doubts about the church, her faith in her brother is also shaken.

The story centers on the events of the Spring of 2002, the height of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in Boston. Father Breen was abruptly summoned to the Cardinal of Boston’s Residence on Good Friday. He was shown a letter from a law firm that told of charges against him and the Archdiocese placed him on administrative leave. His mother, whose life revolved around the church and her oldest son, refused to believe the charges, but was nonetheless crushed. Her brother, Mike McCann, launched his own ill-fated investigation and became convinced his brother was guilty.

Haigh skillfully peels off the layers behind the events leading up to the charges against Father Breen and the aftermath, while at the same time probing the family’s difficult and complex history. Sheila related a story about how she found out about the charges from Mike, who thought their mother had already told her. Sheila reflected on her family in this brilliant passage by Haigh, “Evasion comes naturally in my tribe, this loose jumble of McGann, Devine and Breen. The reasons for this are not so mysterious. My father is a man of shameful habits. My mother is lace-curtain Irish. She will settle for correctness, or the appearance of it; but in her heart she wants only to be good. The space between them is crisscrossed with silent bridges, built of half-truths and suppressions. The chasm beneath is deep and wide.”

Sheila then offered further insights into her family’s history of deception. “Those same bridges exist across the generations: my mother and her parents, my father and his. On both sides, we are a family of open secrets. When I was a child they enclosed my innocence like a tourniquet. Without knowing quite how I knew it, I understood what might be said, and what must be kept quiet. If from the outside the rules appeared arbitrary, from the inside they were perfectly clear.”

Later, when Mike pressed his sister for proof behind her opinion that Arthur was innocent of the charges, she said, “‘Sorry, Mike, but sooner or later you have to decide what you believe.’ It was a thing I’d always known but until recently had forgotten: that faith is a decision. In its most basic form it is a choice.”

Haigh’s novel looks at the child molestation scandal from all dimensions: its effects not only on the victims, but on the accused. It would be easy to write a preachy novel about the subject, but Haigh manages to create a story that is poignant, sad, tragic and at the same time illuminating. Haigh raises legitimate questions regarding the impact of the priest’s life of celibacy on the outbreak of sexual abuse cases. Toward the end of the novel, Sheila reflected, “Like many people, I have wondered: is celibacy to blame? That renunciation of human closeness, of our deepest instincts: is it, in the end, simply too much to ask? Good men–sound, healthy men–can’t make the sacrifice, or don’t want to; has Holy Mother settled for the unsound and unhealthy? Has the Church, ever pragmatic, made do with what was left?”

Father Breen’s tragic story could be interpreted as the story of the church or the story of any family that refused to face its darkest secrets. As Sheila reflects, “Art’s story is, to me, the story of my family, with all its darts and dodges and mysterious omissions.”

Haigh, who lives in the Boston area, is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Condition, as well as Baker Towers, winner of the 2006 PEN/L.L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author. She also wrote Mrs. Kimble, which won the PEN/ Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Haigh’s short stories have appeared in the Atlantic, Granta, the Saturday Evening Post, and many other publications.

My favorite non-fiction book of 2011 was Keith Richards’ Life. You don’t have to be a fan of rock music or the Rolling Stones (I am a fan of both) to appreciate this spirited autobiography, which offers keen insights into the life of one of rock and roll’s most colorful and enduring figures.

What was your favorite book of 2011 and why?

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My 2011 Reading List

You’ve read this before. Aspiring fiction writers should read widely across all genres. This will give the novice writer a better understanding of the craft of fiction. I believe new writers cannot improve their own writing unless they read quality fiction. It also gives all writers an appreciation for great literature.

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. I try to sprinkle in some non-fiction books in addition to the fiction books I read. Once in a while, I re-read a classic, as I did this year with To Kill a Mockingbird. I also make an effort to read e-books by new authors, as I did this year with Victorine Lieszke’s Not What She Seems and A.D. Bloom’s Bring Me the Head of the Buddha. Full disclosure: Aaron Bloom is a fellow member of the West Hartford CT Fiction Writers’ Group and a very talented writer.

Here is a list of books read this year:

Fiction

The Adults, by Alison Espach

The Red Thread, by Ann Hood

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Burritos and Gasoline, by Jamie Beckett

The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Whiskey Sour, by JA Konrath

Not What She Seems, by Victorine Lieszke

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Eagan

Lethal Experiment, by John Locke

Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Who Do You Love, by Jean Thompson

The One That I Want, by Allison Winn Scotch

Solar, by Ian McEwan

Bring Me the Head of the Buddha, by A.D. Bloom

Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan

Innocent, by Scott Turow

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

The Broker, by John Grisham

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

While I Was Gone, by Sue Miller

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Good Mother, by Sue Miller

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

Non-fiction

Life, by Keith Richards

Decision Points, by George W. Bush

Decoded, by Jay-Z

Professional Development

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Mass

Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Later this week, I will reveal my favorite book of 2011.

How many books did you read in 2011? Which one did you enjoy the most and why?

 

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“A Christmas Story:” A Holiday Favorite

I find holiday movies are either really good or really bad. The bad ones are filled with treacly “sentimental hogwash,” as Henry Potter said in the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Another favorite of mine is the 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, the tale of nine-year-old Ralph Parker’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. The great holiday movies are like novels; the story arc contrasts the joys of the season with the every-day struggles of families and individuals to make a better life.

A Christmas Story was based on the work of raconteur and radio talk show host Jean Shepherd. The setting was Hohman, Indiana, which was based on Shepherd’s childhood home of Hammond, Indiana, a steel mill town outside of Chicago.

The story arc centers on Ralph’s quest for a BB gun for Christmas. In a successful novel, the protagonist faces obstacles on the way to achieving his goal. Ralph certainly encounters his share of obstacles. When he asks for a BB gun, his mom and teacher warn him that “you’ll shoot you eye out.” Ultimately, Ralph’s quest proves successful, but he has a mishap with the gun and breaks his glasses.

Not only is the story hilarious, the acting and the writing are brilliant. My favorite line, narrated by Shepherd, is when Ralph observed, “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that to this day still hangs in space over Lake Michigan.” I wish I had written that line. The dialogue in the movie is authentic and sharp. Note to Disney scriptwriters: if you want to learn how young boys really talk to each other, pay attention to how Ralph, Flick and Schwartz interact.

Two years ago, I took my son to visit “the old house on Cleveland Street,” which is now a Christmas Story museum located in Cleveland, Ohio. During the tour I learned what Shepherd intended as the lesson behind the movie and it surprised me. I always thought the movie was about Ralph’s quest, but it was about “the old man.” Shepherd said his intention was to honor fathers everywhere who struggled in menial, dead-end jobs to save a little money just so they could create a little magic for their children. That’s what the BB gun was all about.

Every family has holiday traditions and one of ours is to catch part of the TBS 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story. It never fails to bring a smile to our faces.

To my fellow writers, best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season

What is your favorite holiday movie?

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How Do You Measure Success?

If you’re like me, you’re taking a look at your 2011 goals to see how you did over the past year. When I set goals, I use the SMART method, which is popular in project management and business. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. I also believe most goals cannot be measured without attaching numbers, but numbers often don’t tell the whole story. My goals are focused on two things: writing and professional development. Writers whose work is ready for publication also need to think about publishing and marketing goals as well. Here were my 2011 goals:

Goal One: Publish my first novel, Small Change. I made several rounds of line edits, hired a book editor to work on the beginning section, researched self-publishing options since I wasn’t making any progress going the traditional route, wrote a publicity plan and a news release, started my blog, and arranged for the cover art. As soon as I receive the final cover art, I plan to upload the book through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. So I didn’t achieve my first goal, but I made a lot of progress.

Goal Two: Produce a 100,000-word novel. I failed again. I produced a 53,083-word first draft of a novel as part of the National Novel Writing Month competition and I am 40,000 words into my current work-in-progress, a political novella called, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media.

Goal Three: Start a fiction writing blog. Check mark. My blog, A New Fiction Writer’s Forum, made its debut in September.  As of December 22, I was up to 47 blog posts in less than three months. At 500 words each, that’s another 23,500 words, but I don’t count those toward my annual 100,000-word goal.

Goal Four: Establish a social media presence. Check again. I started a Facebook author page and opened a Twitter account.

Goal Five: Attend a writer’s conference. Another check mark. In May I attended the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association’s annual CAPA-U meeting last May.

Goal Six: Read 25-30 books a year. I’m up to 32 books and still going. I will share my list next week.

Goal Seven: Engage online and in-person with other writers on a regular basis. Okay, this goal has no number attached to it, but I did read and comment on writers’ blogs daily and I attended most of my fiction writers’ group meetings.

What matters most about goals is that you have to decide which ones are most important and focus on achieving those goals. Publishing my novel was clearly a paramount goal and all others took a back seat. Looking back, I made as much progress on getting my novel published as was possible, given other demands on my time, while still meeting several other goals.

I also place a lot of emphasis on producing a 100,000-word novel each year. I didn’t foresee the political novella; it just grabbed hold of my imagination and off I went. One of my 2012 goals is to publish it during the upcoming presidential election year. I will share the rest of my 2012 goals next week.

What were your goals for 2011? How did you do in achieving them?

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Setting: An Overlooked Element of Fiction

Why do fiction writers choose a particular setting for their work? Ask a fiction writer and you will likely get one of these reasons:

  • I visited there on vacation and it was a magical place.
  • The setting enhances the story.
  • I love nature and the plot lends itself to an outdoorsy setting.
  • It’s one of the biggest cities in the country and people will identify with it.
  • I really didn’t give it a lot of thought.

It’s the last answer that should trouble any writer. Setting is one of the overlooked elements of fiction writing. Writers should consider carefully the setting or multiple settings for their story. Setting is where a story takes place, but it’s more than that. The setting grounds the story in time and place. It provides an orientation point for the story. Most importantly, when described well, the setting can function like a major character, giving more depth and meaning to the story.

There are two types of settings in fiction writing:

  • Real (examples include cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles)
  • Imagined (Hogwarts and Scott Turow’s Kindle County come to mind)

Here are some tips regarding setting:

  • Establish the setting early; it will give the reader a visual to orient her about the story.
  • Use all of the senses. You want the reader to see it, hear it, smell it, touch it and even taste it.
  • Don’t go overboard on details, especially when describing settings that are actual places. Everybody knows what Times Square looks like. Select details that help enhance the mood and the tone you are seeking to create.
  • Describe your settings in stages. Avoid the early information dump when describing your setting. Nineteenth Century writers could get away with that because there were no movies then, but it is just not done in contemporary fiction.
  • Make sure the setting aligns with the genre and the theme. In Gone with the Wind, Tara is not only the plantation owned by the O’Hara family. It represents the values of the Old South.
  • Use richly textured, specific descriptions.

When using an actual place, make sure to get the details right. It’s a good practice to visit the settings of your novels, although writers have penned credible novels on the basis of careful research.

Historical novels present special challenges when it comes to the setting. Writers not only have to describe a particular place, but the details must be accurate and reflect the housing, transportation and technology that was available at the time. A novel that takes place in the 18th Century cannot feature a character turning on a lightbulb.

 

Author Elizabeth George, in her book, Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, placed a great emphasis on setting. In her book, she discussed setting before plot because “setting explored to its fullest is not only part of character, it can also be the key to plot.” George identified several functions of setting. It creates atmosphere. “Setting not only promotes the reader’s understanding of what kind of novel he’s reading, it also establishes a feeling that the reader takes into the experience. Setting triggers mood as well.”

Another function of setting, George wrote, is to reveal character. “Through a character’s environment, you show who he is. Everything else is interpreted by the reader,” she wrote.

Setting can also serve as a contrast to an event. She gave the example of P.D. James’ novel, A Taste for Death, wherein a gruesome double murder took place in the hushed vestry of a church.

George also rejected the notion that you should write what you know when choosing a setting. Her novels are set in England and George lives in southern California. “What I believe,” George wrote, “is that your setting should be a place that you want to know about, a place you are interested in exploring, a place you want to describe, a place that resonates with you or a place that evokes a personal and intensely visceral response in you.”

She strongly recommends visiting the setting you have chosen and describes at length the details she records when she visits the setting she has chosen.

When used correctly setting should orient the reader to the story, support the themes and enhance the narrative, without getting in the way.

How do you go about selecting a setting for your story?

 

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What is Your Professional Development Plan?

A new year beckons. It’s a good time to take stock of where you are as a writer and what you need to do in 2012 to reach the next level.

Most good companies offer professional development programs for their employees. Writers usually don’t have the same resources as businesses do, but there’s no reason every writer should not have a personal professional development plan. Here are a few elements of my personal professional development plan:

1. Join and participate in a writer’s group or an online writer’s community. A vibrant writer’s group offers a spirit of collegiality, support, feedback, and mutual helpfulness. Engaging regularly with a group of trusted people who share your passion for writing will give you a great sounding board and a sense that you are not alone in your journey.

2. Read at least two books each year on the craft of fiction writing. Learning is a lifelong process. There’s no such thing as knowing everything there is about the craft. While you are at it, subscribe to at least one writer’s periodical. I recommend Writer’s Digest.

3. Read writing blogs at least three times a week. There are so many excellent blogs out there produced by writers, literary agents, and readers. A few I read regularly include Writer Unboxed, Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, Jane Friedman, JA Konrath (A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing), Kristen Lamb, and Bob Mayer. You will learn not only about the craft, but about publishing, the role of agents, marketing, and how to use social media.

4. Attend at least one writer’s conference each year. I attend the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA) annual CAPA-U meeting. In addition to offering workshops on the craft and on marketing, these conferences provide ample opportunities for you to network with other writers and some offer face-to-face meetings with an agent. This is enormously helpful to new writers.

5. Read at least 25 books a year, across all genres, and non-fiction as well as fiction. What? You might say. That won’t leave any time for fiction writing. Stephen King reads 80 books a year and still has time to churn out a novel.

Bonus tip: Practice your craft regularly. You will learn so much just by writing. There’s no substitute for finishing a novel, or two or three novels. You will most likely not hit your stride with your first novel, but you will learn about story structure, character development, and scene crafting.

So there you have it: my professional development plan for 2012.

What is your professional development plan for 2012?

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Book Review: “In Zanesville,” by Jo Ann Beard

Jo Ann Beard’s debut novel, In Zanesville, takes an overworked concept–the coming-of-age story–and gives it a fresh perspective with a story that crackles with dry wit supplied by a precocious narrator.

Set in the 1970s in a gritty Illinois suburb, In Zanesville centers on an unnamed narrator about to enter her freshman year in high school and her best friend Felicia, called “Flea.” The narrator is at that awkward age, between childhood and adolescence. The story begins over the summer when the narrator, who is identified only twice as “Jo” and then “Joan,” and Flea land a babysitting job that ends disastrously when one of the six unruly children in their care sets fire to the upstairs bathroom.

The two friends are inseparable. They are self-described late bloomers, a phrase the narrator hates. “It sounds old fashioned and vaguely rank, like something a prairie woman would wear under her sweaty calico dress,” she writes. Their exploits include sleepovers in a camper in Flea’s backyard, hilarious efforts to save three stray cats, and trips downtown to buy clothes on lay away.

The main character’s home life is grim. Her father is a drunk and her mother is moody and prone to lashing out at the children. In spite of this dysfunctional household, the main character maintains a quirky, lovable spirit and outlook toward life.

As the two girls begin high school, a rift develops. Caught between the worlds of the cheerleaders and the band nerds, the two girls hastily hatch a plan to quit the band. “In retrospect we probably should have quit band after the parade and not during it,” she recalled. Later, they wrangle an invitation to a sleepover at a cheerleader’s house. Felicia pairs off with one of the boys who sneak into the backyard from the woods, leaving the narrator alone and hurt. As she struggles with her feelings, she eventually makes her peace with Flea and finds solace from an unlikely source.

The strength of this novel is the sharply drawn main character, whom the author infuses with a wry and wise perspective. The humor leavens the main character’s bleak home life.

The author of a memoir entitled, The Boys of My Youth, Beard graduated from the University of Iowa with a BA and an MFA and she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She was a Guggenheim Fellow and her writing has been published in The New Yorker.

Beard is a talented writer and I hope to read much more from her.

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Wanted: Flawed Main Character. Super Heroes Need Not Apply

As a kid, I watched the old “Batman” series every week. Bruce Wayne was a suave, urbane philanthropist until the Batphone rang. Then he transformed into Batman, and it was off to the Batmobile to rid Gotham City of the Joker, the Riddler, or Catwoman.

As a new writer, I used to treat my main characters like super heroes. They had to be likeable, ethical, and heroic, possessed of perfection and without a single flaw. That was a sure recipe for a bad novel. If your main character is a super hero,  what’s the point? Where’s the tension? When a crisis emerges, he will simply put on his Bat suit and vanquish his adversaries.

Writers understand intuitively the need to create flawed main characters. And yet, we fall in love with our characters. We get emotionally attached and pretty soon we build a protective shield around them. We know we must place our main character in peril at some point. We know the problem might even be of the main character’s own making. And yet, we don’t want to see our precious main character get hurt. Or look stupid. Or hurt other people. After all, Batman would never get drunk and cheat on his wife (to my knowledge Bruce Wayne was not married, but you get the point). Batman would never hurt his best friend. Batman wouldn’t turn his back on his parents. We make our main characters too good, even though we know a fundamental trait of the main character is imperfection.

Look at character sketch templates and you will see a variation of these key questions:

  • What is your main character’s greatest weakness?
  • What is your main character’s greatest fear?
  • What is your main character’s darkest secret?
  • What does your main character want that she doesn’t have?
  • Who is stopping her from getting it?

I’m not suggesting you create a detestable main character, though Scarlett O’Hara was one of the most memorable main characters I’ve come across. I’m suggesting you give your main characters some flaws. Throw them into dangerous situations and see what happens. Force them to make difficult choices. Give them some complexity.

Super heroes don’t have weaknesses, but main characters must have them. Your main character must overcome obstacles, conquer weaknesses and, above all, emerge transformed in some major way. And that doesn’t mean dressing up like Batman. Excuse me, I hear the phone ringing. To the Batmobile!

Are your main characters too good? What do you do to make them flawed?

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Linear vs. Non-linear Narrative

I just started reading, The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, and it is a challenge. Why? Niffenegger uses a device called the non-linear narrative. Most novels follow a linear narrative; the story unfolds in a chronological order, from point A to point B and so on. Due to the nature of Niffenegger’s story (a man is born with a disorder that allows him to travel back and forth in time), the story is told in a non-linear fashion.

“The guiding principle of any nonlinear plot is that the story is not organized in terms of chronological time but according to some other logical progression,” wrote Donald Maass in his book, Writing the Breakout Novel. “For example, if the purpose of your story is to unfold the secrets at the center of your hero’s life, then there is no reason the key events or revelations need to be presented in the calendar order in which they occurred. What is more important is that there is a march toward understanding, a sense we are drawing ever closer to the truth wherever it may lie.”

Maass goes on to emphasize that it is still important in a non-sequential story for the tension to escalate. Regardless of whether a writer chooses a linear or a non-linear narrative, the story must still have a coherent structure. There must still be a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning might occur chronologically close to where the story ends, but the writer may choose that point because it offers the greatest dramatic potential. Alice McDermott’s excellent novel, Charming Billy, is a good example of a non-linear narrative. When the story begins, the main character is already dead. The narrator jumps around in time to weave the story of Billy’s life.

The non-linear narrative technique is more popular in cinema than in novels. The movie Pulp Fiction is an example. There are three storylines involving various Los Angeles criminals and low-life figures that intersect. Director Quentin Tarantino said he was aiming to make a trilogy taking elements of the old crime stories and mixing them together. “Part of the trick is to take these movie characters, these genre characters and these genre situations and actually apply them to some of real life’s rules and see how they unravel,” he said.

Personally, I had to see Pulp Fiction a second time to truly understand it and appreciate its brilliance.

The non-linear narrative is a challenge. It’s extremely difficult to pull off, which is why it is so rarely seen. Maass advises writers who are doing a non-linear narrative to use “markers,” touch points in time to which the writer returns. Another technique is to use dates as chapter titles or the name of the point-of-view character.

There are various reasons why authors select a non-linear narrative. One might be that the overarching theme is bigger than any single character. Another might be that there are multiple story lines that intersect at different times. In any case, it is helpful for the writer to start out by writing the story in sequence before scrambling the order. This allows the writer to track the chronological order of the major plot lines.

I have an idea for a novel that has a non-linear narrative. I’ll get to it someday, but for now I’m planning to stick to the trusty old linear narrative.

Have you ever attempted a non-linear narrative? What’s your favorite non-linear book or movie?

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