Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Category: writing craft

9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 4

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#4) Your novel opens with a lengthy passage of “talking heads” dialogue. 

Here’s what fascinates me: The openings we suggest that you avoid actually evolve out of a writer’s good intentions. In this case, writers know that starting with dialogue can be a very dynamic way to open a story. Dialogue is inherently more energetic than a description-of-the-setting opening, and if done well, a dialogue-heavy opening can reveal a lot about character(s).

Just so we’re clear, we’re not suggesting that you ax every bit of dialogue in your opening. The problem arises when an opening provides only dialogue to the exclusion of all other narrative elements.

We call this the “talking heads” opening. When two (or more) characters have a conversation for a page (or more), then readers receive no other vital story clues, such as setting, context, tone, background information, or the power dynamic between the characters doing the speaking.

Angie here. Consider the following:

“Did you bring my money?”
“Relax. I brought your money.”
“Where is it? Give it to me.”
“Not yet. We’ve got some things to talk about first.”
“I already told you everything I know.”
“Not everything.”

Any interest I have in this story, or any investment I might feel in the outcome of this conversation, is eclipsed by questions. Where are we? When are we? Are these characters men? Women? Children? Aliens? Talking squirrels? What are their roles in this story and how do they relate to each other? Is one a police detective and the other an informant? Is it two mobsters, one bribing the other? Is one a bully and the other a nerd? Is one a circus clown and the other an elephant trainer? Is this a funny story set in a 1960s Florida retirement community or a disturbing psychological thriller set in present-day Baltimore?

The human brain is hardwired for story, so when you, the writer, leave details up for grabs, the reader’s brain is going to fill them in. It literally cannot stop itself. The longer you withhold basic story information, the more time the reader’s brain has to stockpile incorrect assumptions. That means that when you do reveal story details as you intended them, and readers discover they were wrong, they’re going to get confused, frustrated, and annoyed. They might even abandon your book. And that (brace yourself for some tough love) is not their fault.

Remember that a published novel comes with a title, cover art, and back-cover copy, elements often worked up by professionals. These give the writer’s opening scene context. But with sample pages, all we have for context is your query letter’s pitch paragraph…and often that’s not enough. Approach your opening scene as though you’re writing for an audience with zero context, and you’ll start to think differently about what to include and what to save for later in the story.

For now, take a look at your opening scene. If you’ve got lots of dialogue, make sure it’s balanced with other narrative elements: some details about setting, some evocative word choices that set the tone, some personal details about the characters—not only what they look like, but how they move, react, and behave. For fun, consider this revision:

     Sister Mary Margaret slid onto the empty stool next to mine and tapped the bar. Old Joe uncapped a bottle of Jameson’s Irish and set up her usual double. She threw it back, then motioned for another.
     Without so much as looking at me, she said, “Did you bring my money?”
     “Relax,” I replied, watching Old Joe pour. “I brought your money.”
     Down went her second double. “Where is it? Give it to me.”
     I took a sip of the warm beer I’d been nursing for the last hour. Sister Mary Margaret was known for two things: drinking hard and being late. Scratch that. It was three things she was known for. The third was dealing harshly with anyone who crossed her. I gulped. Sam made himself clear when he sent me in here. No info, no money.
     “Not yet,” I said, trying my best to sound tough. “We’ve got some things to talk about first.”
     Her laugh sounded like gravel in a cement mixer. “I already told you everything I know.”
     I pulled an envelope out of my coat’s inside pocket and slid it toward her. “Not everything.”

Want to try? Craft a brief opening scene from these six lines of dialogue, and then after we repost this article on Kristin’s blog (within a couple weeks), leave your scene in the comments section. Just for fun.

Remember: Please take all the advice we give you in this article series with a grain of salt. If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can make any opening work, even ones we suggest you avoid. We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the types of openings we’re sharing with you here often don’t work because they are overused. Avoid them, and you automatically increase your chances of standing out in the slush pile. Until next time…keep writing!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Francois Bester


9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 3

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For the Part 1 of this article series, click here.

For the Part 2 of this article series, click here.

Angie Hodapp and I recently teamed up to bring wit and wisdom to writers who want to work on craft. During our workshop, we identified several story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers who are looking for representation. Thus, this series of articles was born! Here we bring you the third installment.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#3) Your novel opens with what we call the “mindless task” or the “everyday normal.”

A common opening-page snafu we often see is when writers spend too much time setting up what is “normal” for the character before leaping into what will make this story/character extraordinary.

We see a lot of opening pages that show a character performing mindless tasks, such as cleaning the house, grooming (getting out of the shower, combing hair, brushing teeth), taking a child to school, collecting the mail, making breakfast, or having conversations that revolve around the mundane. And don’t forget our all-time favorite: a character waking up. (See “The Perils of Waking Characters” Part 1 and Part 2 on my blog for more about why this opening spells trouble.)

Illustrating the normal is not dynamic. In the normal, very little can be revealed about the character or setting. Because of this, we’re also on alert for openings like these:

“Monday started like any normal day…[followed by pages of details about Monday morning].”

“If I’d only known then what I know now…[followed by pages of detail about then].”

These types of openings hint at an inciting incident. But what the writer is really doing here is postponing the story conflict. They’re asking the reader to bear with them through a few opening pages of mundane tasks and details by making a vague promise that there’s good stuff coming later. In most cases, that simply doesn’t work.

The Importance of Voice

Accomplished writers use literary voice to transcend what might be considered mundane. A terrific example is the opening scene of Gail Carriger’s Soulless:

Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.

This scene actually does open with a light touch of the mundane, but Carriger’s unique voice draws the reader in. Most importantly, the scene doesn’t stay in the mundane for very long—only two sentences, and then in the third, an unexpected vampire appears. The surprise is not the vampire. He’s actually expected in this world. It’s his attack that knocks Alexia off balance. Every vampire knows Alexia is soulless and therefore renders the supernatural powerless once touched. This persistent vampire doesn’t seem to know this nor does he seem to learn quickly when his power disappears. This is what then grabs the reader and won’t let go. Carriger takes the mundane and uses voice, wit, and a twist to engage the reader…all in the first three pages of the novel.

The Hero’s Journey and the Ordinary World

Angie here. Many writers’ first contact with story structure is the Hero’s Journey. It gets pounded into us at writing conferences and story workshops, and through books on how to plot a novel.

According to the Hero’s Journey (useful to screenwriters, constraining to novelists), we must devote our first few pages to the “ordinary world.” This is supposed to paint a picture of what the hero’s life is like before the Big Boom of the story’s inciting incident. Without the hero’s ordinary world, how will the reader recognize that change has occurred once they reach the end of the novel?

Poppycock.

What this widespread education in the Hero’s Journey has done is fill slush piles everywhere with sample pages full of ordinary worlds. Yet what are agents looking for? Extraordinary. Your best bet for standing out in the slush pile is to get to the good stuff as quickly as possible.

Bonus Tip: The Chapter Two Switcheroo

James Scott Bell, the author of some of Angie’s favorite books on writing and revision, suggests that once you finish an entire draft of your novel, go back and swap your first two chapters. So many aspiring writers frontload their first chapters with backstory, exposition, and narrative, saving the action and conflict for chapter two. Sometimes, switching those first two chapters is all you need to do to fix a boring opening. Plant the hook first. Then see how much of the other stuff you really need in order to tell your protagonist’s tale in the most compelling—and extraordinary!—way possible.

Photo Credit: Sherman Geronimo-Tan


9 Story Openings To Avoid, Part 2

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For the Part 1 of this article series, click here.

Angie Hodapp and I recently teamed up to bring wit and wisdom to writers working on craft. During our workshop, we identified story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers looking for representation.

In fact, we’re offering a three-part webinar-workshop called “Opening Pages That Lead to Yes.” It starts August 4. Want to sign up? Click here.

First, a word of caution. Take everything we are going to highlight in this series with a grain of salt. If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can get away with any type of opening and make it work—even one of the nine types we are going to suggest that you avoid! So much depends on a writer’s mastery of voice, style, and scene craft.

Trust me, there is that 1% of writers out there who can break all the rules and make their stories work spectacularly. But do you want to bet that you are among that 1%? That’s quite a gamble! If, however, you think maybe you’re among the other 99% percent, then this series is for you. We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the nine types of openings we’re going to share with you in this series often don’t work because they are overused or have become crutches for writers who haven’t yet mastered craft. Avoid these openings, and you will automatically increase your chances of standing out in the slush pile!

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#2) Your novel opens with White Room Syndrome. 

In other words, you may have succeeded at putting at least one character on the page, and maybe some sort of action, too, but you’ve forgotten to share any details about your setting. Does your opening scene occur inside or outside? At night or during the day? In cold weather or hot? Where is your character, what’s nearby, and how does this environment affect him or her in this scene? Omit such details, and your reader has no choice but to imagine that your story is taking place in a “white room.”

Anchor your reader in time and place in your manuscript’s opening pages—this is the number-one comment I make when I do critiques at conferences.

As Angie will now discuss, there are several tips and tricks you can use to identify and revise White Room Syndrome (WRS) in your own opening scenes:

a.) Does your story start with a lengthy passage of dialogue? This might be the number-one indicator of WRS. Check your opening scene and make sure that your characters’ words aren’t hanging in the air in a white room. Without a sense of setting (time and place), the reader is left with no idea of where the characters are, why they’re there, and how this conversation might be important to the story.

b.) Character is to Voice as Setting is to AtmosphereJust as you choose your words carefully to give your character a distinctive voice, choose your words carefully to imbue your setting with a sense of atmosphere—one that supports the overall mood of the scene. Consider:

Beatrice sauntered into the bordello’s frilly parlor, the plush pink carpet muffling the clank-clank-clank of her silver spurs.

Beatrice crept through the shadows of the bordello’s dusty parlor, the clank-clank-clank of her silver spurs echoing off the creaky floorboards. 

In the first sentence, Beatrice is sauntering, and the setting is frilly, plush, and pink. In the second, Beatrice is creeping, and the setting is dusty and creaky, with shadows and echoes. Were each of these the first sentence of a novel, my readerly imagination would be set up for a very different sort of story. The words you choose to lend your setting atmosphere matter.

c.) Does your setting impinge on your character’s senses? We know we’re supposed to use all five senses in our fiction—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. But this tip takes that advice a step further. Consider:

Bob sat behind the wheel of the getaway car, eyes peeled on the front door of the bank. It was hot and sunny, and he was sweating, and the front seat was too cramped for his three-hundred-pound frame. He tore the wrapper off another Ding Dong and took a bite. It was time, he decided, that the gang ditched the Chevelle and invested in a van.

Bob sat in the getaway car, the steering wheel digging painfully into his ample gut. Sweat plastered his tee shirt to his chest and back. He shaded his eyes from the sun beating down on him through the Chevelle’s cracked windshield and squinted at the front door of the bank. He tore into another Ding Dong. It was time, he decided, that the gang invested in a van.

In both passages, the setting includes the interior of a getaway car and a hot sun. But only in the second passage are these setting elements doing something to Bob. The steering wheel is digging painfully into his ample gut. The sun is beating down on him, making his sweat plaster his clothes to his body. In this passage, the setting is not only present, but it’s also impinging on the character in such a way that he can’t ignore it—and neither can the reader. Look for ways to make your setting impinge on your character, not just in your opening pages, but throughout your manuscript!

Check your opening pages for WRS. Better yet, give your first scene to a friend or critique partner, and then ask them to describe the setting they imagined when they read it. Does it match what you imagined when you wrote it? If not, then we hope these tips will help you revise!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: MazZuk


New Article Series: 9 Story Openings To Avoid

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

Last month, Angie Hodapp and I co-taught an opening-pages workshop at a day-long education event for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. First time ever Angie and I teamed up to hopefully bring wit and wisdom to writers who want to work on craft. We had an absolute blast.

We identified several story openings that usually spell trouble for aspiring writers who are looking for representation. As the participants frantically took notes, I looked at Angie and said, “This would be awesome for our newsletter.” She agreed. Thus, this series of articles was born!

First, a word of caution. Take everything we are going to highlight in this series with a grain of salt. If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can get away with any type of opening and make it work—even one of the nine types we are going to suggest that you avoid! So much depends on a writer’s mastery of voice, style, and scene craft.

Trust me, there is that 1% of writers out there who can break all the rules and make their stories work spectacularly. But do you want to bet that you are among that 1%? That’s quite a gamble! If, however, you think maybe you’re among the other 99% percent, then this series is for you. We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the nine types of openings we’re going to share with you here don’t work simply because we see them so often that they’re no longer fresh or original. Avoid them, and you automatically increase your chances of standing out in the slush pile! So let’s dive in.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#1) Your novel opens with your main character alone somewhere thinking. Not a very dynamic way to start what might otherwise be an amazing story! Angie and I like to say these openings have fallen prey to one of “The Deadly R’s”:

  • Remembering
  • Reminiscing
  • Reflecting
  • Ruminating

If your main character is doing any of the above, more than likely you’ve started your novel in the wrong place. How so? The Deadly R’s often signal that you’re starting with one of the following:

  • Backstory. Your character is thinking about something that happened in the past, off stage, before page one. Writers often start this way because they want the reader to understand right on page one that something has happened to the character (yesterday, last year, ten years ago) that will now, in this novel, motivate him or her to act. The problem is with this setup as an opening scene is that nothing is happening now.
  • Exposition. Your character is conveniently thinking about background information that you, the writer, want to give readers before your story really starts. Writers often start this way because they worry that readers won’t understand their stories if readers don’t first understand the finer points of nuclear fission…or the historical events that led up to the Battle of Bunker Hill…or how the tribes of Borneo hunted venomous snakes. And you might be right. But there are many more exciting, compelling, provocative ways to start a story than by introducing it with a classroom-style lesson on your background information—delivered via the internalizations of a character conveniently (and often awkwardly) thinking about things he or she already knows.

To see if your opening pages have fallen prey to The Deadly R’s, imagine that you’re a movie director. It’s your job to capture the first action of your story on screen and make sure it captivates your audience. If your movie-direction of your novel’s first pages requires a narrative voice-over, then you might be in trouble.

A second way to check? Grab a yellow highlighter and highlight every thought your character has on the first three pages of your novel. If you’ve highlighted more lines of text than you haven’t, then you might be in trouble.

Remember: It’s not that your character isn’t allowed to think on your opening pages. It’s that when you replace action or masterful scene craft with the deep thoughts of a character we don’t really know yet, and whose conflict we’re not yet invested in, then you’re most likely dampening our enthusiasm to read on.

Photo Credit: Dave Bleasdale


Your Writing Should Not Be Your Main Source of Validation For Who You Are as a Person

I think this can be the most debilitating mistake an aspiring writer can make. There be dragons if you start down this mental path.

I recently gave a talk to Regis University’s MFA in Creative Writing students. In the fifteen-minute Q&A, one participant asked why it was so hard to get a literary agent to even look at her project. I could hear the frustration in her voice. I didn’t have a ready reply because the truth is that there is no good answer.

Writing is personal business. And any response and/or rejection can definitely feel like a commentary on your talent and who you are as a person.

But here is the reason you need to start thinking like an agent and less like a writer when it comes to submitting your material. If someone passes on your work, that rejection is not a commentary on your qualities as a human being. In a lot of instances, it’s not even a commentary on your ability or talent as a writer!

Let me repeat that: A rejection is often not a commentary on your writing talent.

I can cite a bundle of different reasons why an agent or publisher may pass on your work, reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your writing ability. Don’t believe me? Here are a few (and in no particular order):

  • The agent/publisher has seen two-dozen concepts just like that one in the last four weeks.
  • That concept trend was hot, so now the Publisher has bought too many similar projects for their list and will not be acquiring any more.
  • The agent has an aversion to that type of story. I know a well-respected literary agent who personally cannot handle any story in which a child is in danger, and so will pass on any submission containing such scenes.
  • The editor could not get support in-house from the sales/marketing team to acquire the novel.
  • An agent read the story and thought the writer was talented, but for whatever reason, just didn’t connect with it enough to offer representation.
  • Bad timing. The agent was on vacation or at a conference, or just back to the office, and is simply swamped. It’s hard to be excited about taking on someone new if you are buried in work that can’t be accomplished in a 40-hour work week. And, LOL, no good agent works only 40 hours. It’s more like 60+ a week.
  • There’s talent on the page, but the editor or agent might think a significant revision is necessary, and taking the hour to write up an editorial letter isn’t going to happen.
  • The novel just has an element the agent is never enthusiastic about. For example, some agents are never going to take on a fairy-tale retelling or superhero story. It’s just not his or her thing.

I could go on. There are so many reasons that when I spoke at Regis, the best advice I could offer is this: Do not use writing as a means of validating who you are as a person.

No matter what an industry person’s response is to your written work, your writing is only one facet of who you are as a human being. Don’t make it everything, or you may lose your joy of writing and find the whole business very depressing indeed.

Photo Credit: BK


3 Strategies For Your Post NaNoWriMo Project – From An Agent’s Perspective

You pounded out 50,000 words or more in the month of November. You rocked NaNoWriMo. Huge Congrats! But wait, before you press send, here are three things to consider:

Strategy #1: Consider the holidays

Don’t send out your novel in the month of December. Put yourself in an agent’s shoes for two seconds. The holidays are fast approaching. Agents are motivated by closure and wrapping things up so they can take two weeks off. Submissions are going to get read quickly so agents can check them off a to-do list that is always longer than time can accommodate.

So not the mindset you want an agent to be in when they read your novel. We are only human after all.

Strategy #2: Polish, polish, polish before submitting

If I had a dollar for every time a writer re-queried me for a project significantly revised since my rejection, I could live large. Often writers ask if they can resubmit, and 99% of the time, I decline. There simply isn’t enough time in the day for me to read submissions twice. Agents expect you to be ready the first time around. Don’t blow what might be your one chance with a particular agent.

But if I requested the revision, that’s a different story. Trust me, you’ll know if I’ve requested a revision from you.

Strategy #3: Don’t get stuck in the post-holiday crush

Don’t submit during the first few weeks of January. Why? I’ll tell you right now that that on our first day back, we’ll get 600+ queries. Hard to stand out in that influx.

Best time to submit? The last week in January/first week in February.

Agents are back in the swing of things and excited to read. February is usually a slow month for us.


#2 Reason I Pass Even If The Writing Is Good

Writers tend to assume that good writing trumps all when it comes to getting an offer of representation. Not true. Here is the #2 reason I will pass on a full manuscript even if the writing itself is stellar (for any of you who don’t read my blog, Pub Rants, see the #1 reason here):

Lack of story conflict for the protagonist.

To put this another way, the main character doesn’t have enough at stake to drive the story.

I recently read a full manuscript in which the writing and world building utterly charmed me. I loved spending time in the space the writer had created. But I arrived at the end of the novel and realized that being charmed was all there was to it.

Even if the writing and the world are charming, no stakes means no conflict. Why is that a problem? Because no conflict means no story. Conflict—or what’s at stake for the main character—is the engine writers use to tell a good story.

In this particular case, I did write up a lovely but short revision letter outlining my concern. I shared that with the author, along with an invitation to revise and resubmit. I’ll be delighted to give that one another look.

Still, the novel would have been stronger had the writer nailed this necessary element the first time around. It’s harder for an agent to read with “fresh eyes” the second time.

So remember, writing talent + story conflict = masterful manuscript.

Photo Credit: Ken & Nyetta


#1 Reason I Pass Even If The Writing Is Good

I’m not sure this has ever been said aloud….

For submissions, I’m pretty certain that writers assume that if the writing is good, an agent is going to be interested in offering representation to the author.

No doubt–good writing is essential but as an agent, I’ve passed on any number of submissions that exhibited some stellar writing. Why? Doesn’t talent trump all? Nope.

The #1 reason I pass on manuscripts with good writing is because of a lack of pacing.

Just recently, I read a submission where I thought the writer was extremely talented. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that the beginning seemed ponderously slow. I gave up before page 100 despite some lovely lyrical prose on the page. I glanced at the query letter again and there it was, the word count for the story. It was well over 100,000 words for a project that needed to come in more around 80,000 words.

Yep, that confirmed it for me. The plot pacing was way off. Sadly, I just didn’t have enough time in my schedule to try and take on such a big edit to fix it.

So remember, writing talent + pacing = masterful manuscript.

Photo Credit: Marc Falardeau


Three Tips for NaNoWriMo Success: An Agent’s Perspective

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and the TwitterVerse and Blogosphere are alive with advice from writers helping other writers knock it out of the park. There isn’t much I can add there, but I can offer some advice from an agent’s perspective that I think writers will find enormously helpful. So here are three tips that may change how you tackle NaNoWriMo:

Tip #1: Write the jacket copy before you write the novel.

Why? So many writers focus on stories that don’t have a concept big enough to merit a novel. Knowing how your jacket copy could read before you jump in and write an entire novel forces you to boil your story down to its essence to see if your idea is solid. Then share your jacket copy with other writers. Ask, “Would you read this novel?” So much of success in this business depends on luck and timing. You have to have the right story at the right time for the market.

If you are indie publishing, don’t worry about this too much, but do ask your fans whether this a story they’d want to read. They won’t be shy about telling you!

Tip #2: Even if you don’t hit the NaNoWriMo goal (to write approximately 1,700 words a day, or 50,000 words in 30 days), consider yourself a success. Finish the manuscript, and then revise it!

Once you finish your manuscript (whether on November 30 or later), do tackle the next step, which is revision. We get a lot of queries every year on December 1, and for most writers, the first draft isn’t quite golden enough to snag an agent’s attention. Resist the urge to submit until you’ve made your novel the best it can possibly be.

Tip #3: Not everything you write needs to be shared with an agent or the general public. 

If you keep this I’m mind, it can set your writer-self free. Sometimes the largest block to writing is the fear of writing terrible stuff. I’ll let you in on a secret. Every author writes crap sometimes. Repeat after me: Even bestselling authors write crap sometimes. It’s a fact of the writing life.

Give yourself permission to write badly. That is what revision is for! Sometimes there is a gem of an idea that will turn into “the one” and jumpstart your career. But you can only find that if you write.

And my final tip? Have a blast writing. If you aren’t having fun, it’s not worth doing.


Fixing These Three Mistakes Could Transform Your Manuscript

With the fall leaves, I finally wrap up four months of travel and two wonderful Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrator (SCBWI) conferences. I’m delighted to be spending the rest of the year right here in Denver.

As a participating agent at the two SCBWI events, I enjoyed doing several read-and-critique sessions. I read participants’ opening sample chapters, then sat down with each writer for a one-one-one discussion.

While doing these critiques, I made a big discovery: I repeatedly wrote the same three comments in the margins. Three beginning-writer mistakes that if resolved could significantly improve the writing.

Here they are:

  • Less is always more. Why say “a grin wiggled and danced across her face” if “she grinned” would suffice?
  • Beginning writers often try too hard with language. If you are always trying to include a perfect turn of phrase in every paragraph, then when you really need one, it won’t stand out. Here’s an example:

The breeze danced across my face, brushing my skin like the gentle tap of a woman’s fingertip, caressing my skin like a kiss.

It’s too much, and it’s all clumped together in one sentence. Even if the writer split it into several sentences, it would still be overkill for a scene moment in which all the reader needs to know is that there’s a breeze.

  • Anchor the reader in the physical space of the scene setting. I see lots of dialogue coming from a disembodied voice floating around in the ether of scenes that lack physical descriptions to solidify who is speaking and from where.

That’s it! Three easily solved craft issues that can make you a significantly stronger writer.

Photo Credit


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