Final resolution – REVIEW MORE

I nearly forgot my final goal for this year.

REVIEW MORE.

I read a lot, as any writer should. Our house is one giant library, and there are stacks in my currently-reading and to-be-read piles. I have, however, been very BAD at reviewing the books I read, and the best way of supporting a writer or publisher is to review their output. This is such a good thing to do for the writers you want to support that I thought I’d add it as a separate post. So, if you’re a reader rather than a writer, or a writer who wants to support other writers, do try to review the work you read. If you’ve got your own website, fantastic, but you can post reviews at Amazon, Goodreads or some other curation site if you don’t.

It really does make all the difference.

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Turning the page – 2016 writing goals

Towards the end of January last year, I posted a note of my writing goals for the year. I declined to review the year that had just been because it had been a particularly difficult one.

I’m not going to dwell on 2015, either, because I want to keep my focus firmly forwards. Still, there’s no point setting targets unless you review how close you came to meeting them.

How did I do?

I didn’t manage having something out to market at all times. Not quite. The process of moving from draft to fully polished piece is still taking longer than I’d like, but that’s fine. I was super close.

I didn’t manage to complete to first draft one short story for every month of the year, but I came closer than I have any previous year, with 6 completed shorts, one novella and one novelette. In terms of non-hypergraphia, stuff I might be able to use word count, I’m calling that target met.

I didn’t get much further with either of my novel projects in terms of words on the page, so I’m out for a duck. It doesn’t mean I didn’t do any work on them, though, and that work will stand me in good stead this year.

I didn’t update my blogs as often as I intended. Although I did up the frequency considerably here, my other blog languished in the doldrums.

That said, we did buy and move into a new house in April, a house that needs considerable renovation, and the dayjob has been inconsiderately demanding (joke — in the current climate, I’m damn lucky to have it). With those two factors running interference, I don’t feel too bad about not fully meeting these targets. The work I have produced this year has been variable, but it includes some material of which I am extremely proud and hope will find a good home someday.

Let’s not forget I made two thrilling sales, to Apex Magazine and Clockwork Phoenix 5. Both of these are dream markets, and I still can’t quite believe it. My story at Apex, She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow, was podcasted, produced by Lisa Shininger. This was the first time I’ve ever heard one of my stories read aloud by someone else, and it’s a strange but exciting experience.

What’s on the cards for 2016?

More of the same, with a few tweaks.

  1. Have something out to market at all times.
    I’ll repeat this goal this year, but I hope this becomes such a fact of life it will no longer be a goal but a state of being.
  2. Complete to first draft at least one short-form story for every month of the year.
  3. Get to grips with flash.
    I’m lumping these together because I’m hoping number 3 will help me achieve number 2. Last year my target was derailed by the hypergraphia’s tendency to go into this weird state of WORDSSSSS, OH YES WORDSES MOAR OM NOM NOM WOOOOORRRRDSSSSESSSSS AWWW YISS MOAR MOAR WORDSES.
  4. Write every day.
    I shot myself in the foot on this one last year by trying too hard to domesticate the hypergraphia. I tried this thing where, if I wasn’t writing something useful, I wouldn’t write at all, thinking that might channel the urge more usefully. PRO-TIP: this does not work. All it does is make the whole process more difficult. If writing means scribbling stuff I can’t use, or sticking pictures into a commonplace and adding labels, that’s fine. It’s all part of the process. To use a triathlon metaphor, I won’t necessarily be squatting or doing deadlifts in a race, but these exercises help build strength, and stronger means more speed and endurance. Just because it’s not something immediately and directly useful doesn’t mean it is worthless.
  5. Finish a novel project.
    I have two on my target list at the moment, of the three in progress, but by the end of the month I shall have settled on one of them and will be making a hard push to complete this year. I already have a strong idea of which one it will be.
  6. Take more classes.
    I don’t think it’s coincidence that I made my first two pro sales on the back of taking almost every class Cat Rambo has to offer. I’m already signed up for Lit Techniques 2, so this will get me off to a good start.
  7. Have another go at poetry.
    I’d like to be a lot better at poetry than I am. Avoiding it won’t change that.

Most of all, I think 2015 gave me a better grip on what I’m good at, on the themes that make the difference between a story that will work eventually, and a story that’s more likely to end up either trunked or ripped into tiny pieces for total reconstruction, and that means a fresh eye for older stories still looking for a home. That’s my main goal for the coming year: put that insight to work.

The Old Man of the Woods
The Old Man of the Woods says, “Your job is to create a space in which it is possible for others to see things differently.”

How about you? Any goals you’d like to share?

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Hypergraphia — bleeding inky thought onto paper

I have no fixed process for writing. Stories come the way they come. Sometimes that means a single scene from which I have to uncover the rest of the story like an archaeologist digging up a pot or an ancient skeleton; other times it means sitting down with a pen and paper as soon as I’ve dragged myself out of bed, scribbling furiously while someone tries to ask me what I want for breakfast and whether I’ll be making coffee any time soon.

I keep what is probably some kind of commonplace. In fact, I keep several, and carry all of them around with me along with half the contents of a decent stationery shop, because I become quite anxious if I lack a way of draining the contents of my head at any given moment. I have a cherished, if battered, Timbuk2 El Ocho, which is well overdue for replacement, and it is full of the various things I need to keep the fiction imps at bay while carrying on with the rest of my life.

Most of my work germinates as pen and ink and paper. It used to be the case that every first draft found form on narrow-ruled, feint and margin, before I could begin to type. I still have a lot of material, things that have either not sold yet or never will, stashed around the place. For the sake of speed and saving time, I moved on from writing out the whole thing by hand, but I cannot entirely tear myself away from the pen and paper stage.

Commonplace book

A couple of pages showing the birth of a work in progress

I don’t just keep notes, write down references, quotes, ideas, fragments of sentences that have a shape I want to explore. Sometimes the names of songs, places, even food finds their way in there. I find going about it this way, rather than doing everything by tapping away on a keyboard, helps encourage the creative process and entrains more of whatever engine it is that drags these things from the aether.

The book itself is a large plain moleskine (I also have two ruled, and a plain folio). I use a variety of fountain pens, coloured pens and pencils, Washi tape and Coccoina paste. The intention isn’t to keep a journal, although there are some truly beautiful ones out there (take a look on Pinterest — you’ll find a few on my Pen & Ink board, like this one). Still, the result of all my notekeeping being fun to review means I can happily spend time going back through my stack of notebooks looking at story fragments and ideas.

This practise has proved invaluable to me in greasing the wheels and adding a bit of low-end torque to jolt things out of a rut and free up narrative space. There are times when I need freedom to think, to mull, to plan, to let my subconscious chew on things for a while, or even to have a conversation, make like a sociable human being, but whatever it is inside my head that makes words has the bit between its teeth and won’t let go, even though it’s heading on entirely the wrong track. Cutting things out and sticking them into a notebook might not look like writing, but I can assure you, it is.

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Navigating distraction

While I’ve been doing pretty well at keeping up with my short story target, I’ve not been doing quite so well at everything else.

It happens. Life gets in the way. Holding down a full-time job, writing, editing and participating in crit groups, as well as the other things like house hunting, riding my bike and getting out into the sun occasionally for the sake of my sanity all take time. Not to mention eating, sleeping, reading… As important as a social media presence is to the modern writer, I think it’s important to cut yourself some slack. Of all the things for which I could berate myself, not posting as frequently as I intended on my blog is not going to be top of the list.

I’ve been trying different modes of writing this year, sparked by an exercise I completed in one of Cat Rambo‘s classes (very good, I’ve taken a few, do try them). The hypergraphia means I’ve always been a pantser — I get an idea, put pen to paper, the words come out. This is fine, to a point, but the same capacity to dribble countless words directly from my brain onto the page via the medium of pen and ink means I find it really hard to stay on track. As an example, I set out to write a piece of Christmas themed flash for a LTW anthology, and two months later it had turned into a 12.5k word novellette.

For me, the process of writing a story feels like opening a door in one branch of some great, fractal beast, and it’s really difficult to stick to the one little piece. Imagine opening a door into one tiny alveolus then moving further out into the bronciole, the lung, the chest, the person, the person’s family, village, country, world…

When I first started outlining, I tried to write what would happen and it felt awful. I wrote a list, and tried to stick to it, and it was like being surrounded by a wall. I couldn’t see past it. Rather than helping my creativity, it stifled it. Conforming to a list was too much like having to stay on a path even though the best view would be from the other side of the adjacent field. So I gave up, went back to my old method of writing, and was faced with the problem of sifting a coherent story from the mass of verbiage.

Cat also recommended Ken Rand’s the 10% Solution, a recommendation I have passed on to others. For me, most often, staring at the first draft of what was supposed to be 5k and has turned out to be double that, ten per cent isn’t ambitious enough.

I needed to find a happy compromise, and to that end I’ve been playing with mind mapping software.

Being a Scrivener user, I’ve had Scapple for a while, and I really love its simplicity and endless permutations. I would recommend both programs to anyone who likes complete freedom to plot and write. I have been using Scapple a lot for outlining An Elegy in Dustvines, and it has helped enormously.

It’s not the only option. I bought a Samsung tablet last year for editing and proofreading — it’s almost as good as having a printout of a story for catching typos one might otherwise miss — and Scapple doesn’t run on the Android OS. Instead I’ve got both Mindomo and SharpMindMap.

Of the two, SharpMindMap is the closer to Scapple in terms of flexibility. It doesn’t try to hold you to the standard format of a central topic with sub-topics. I prefer not to be confined to that, as I often want to have two separate main threads running parallel, for instance critical points in the story for protagonist and antagonist. The export options are not as good, however.

Mindomo exports directly into Evernote, which is another productivity tool I’ve started using. It can be persuaded to have more than one major nexus in a single project, but it has a tendency to try to join them up again if they are placed too closely together. That said, it’s a good looking app, with some nice themes, it’s intuitive to use, and the export options are very handy.

mindomo

That’s the kind of context map I might produce for a short story. Once I’ve finished sketching out some of these details, I’ll outline the main points of the plot. While this level of detail might be far too much for most people, I find having it set out in my outline helps me keep my imagination in check. Well, not so much in check, but satiated. Without this, I’m far too easily distracted.

I’ve just finished outlining a new story, and today I’m going to experiment with moving directly onto outlining and writing a different new story, just to see what happens (also, deadlines). It will be interesting to see if the detailed outline is enough to hold the story in potentia. I would normally expect the hypergraphia to roll on to something else if I don’t use a story idea right there and then.

It would be nice to find a way of holding onto all of my crazy ideas.

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When the time comes, move with the seasons

It’s a new year already!

I can hardly believe how long it has been since I last updated. Last time I posted anything here the weather was still relatively warm and we’d just had a glorious weekend sea-kayaking off the Banffshire coast. Today the snow is falling, there’s a thick layer of ice outside and we’ve just finished taking another wood delivery.

Keil's Den in Winter
Keil’s Den at Christmas

I’ve been submerged in a number of projects (and life), deep down past where blue turns to black, and it has been impossible to come up for air.

At the end of a year I’m usually given to reflection — to thinking about what went well, what didn’t, what I learned, what I will be able to do better. I’ve not done that, partially because I really don’t want to dwell on the events of 2014 any more than I do already.

Instead I’m going to set out some goals for the following year. After almost two decades in dayjobs that have semi-annual appraisals, the concept of SMART targets is pretty much ingrained. I know I can’t control certain goals in my writing career, no matter how much I want them — for instance, making my first professional sale — because they are dependent on the decisions of others, and I cannot control the decisions of others. I can, however, maximise opportunity for those things to happen, and I can control the various aspects that are solely down to me. With that in mind, here are my targets for this year:

  1. Have something out to market at all times.
    I could specify numbers of pieces, but I don’t want to this year. This was one of my targets for last year, and I didn’t achieve it for various reasons that will be obvious if you’ve been playing along at home. I’d like to achieve a solid 12 months of constant submission before I start giving myself numeric targets.

  2. Complete to first draft at least one short-form story for every month of the year.
    I’m not saying one story per month because that’s too restrictive. If I write three in one month but spend the next two editing, that’s fine.

  3. Complete to first draft one long-form work.
    I have three novel-length projects underway at the moment (two of them have been added to the wordcountometer over on the right there). My target is completion of just one.

  4. Update at least one of my two blogs every other week. (Certainly more frequently than each wood delivery!)

These might seem under-ambitious, but it’s very easy to set targets that are over-ambitious and then become demoralised at failure to achieve them.

SMART = Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Realistic, Time-related. Allowing for the day job (which is going to be very demanding for the forseeable future), other writing/editing-related work, and the other things life throws into the mix (eating, sleeping, health, fitness, etc), as well as allowing for the fact last year was very difficult, I’m pinning my ambitions on a handful of targets I hope are balanced more towards the achievable than aspirational end of the scale.

At the end of the day, aspirations, ambitions, goals, targets and achievements are inter-related, and should be inter-dependent, but should also be viewed as a progression. To use a fitness metaphor, one may aspire to be a strongman, for which one has the ambition of competing in a national competition, the goal of qualifying at a particular local contest, and the target of lifting a specific weight at that particular training session. Targets should be SMART, and they should feed into that progression, otherwise they are distracting or misleading.

Do you have any targets for 2015? Let me know in the comments so I can cheer you on!

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When short stories aren’t

Although I’ve been putting words on paper since I could hold a pen (I shall dig out some of my earliest journals sometime), I have written purely for myself, not with a view to submitting to market. I started doing that only recently, and I’m still finding out where my strengths and weaknesses lie when writing for others.

Some of them are obvious, such as the struggle I face balancing too much exposition with confusing prose, when part of what I want to do is conjure ambiguous worlds where nothing is definite. My crit groups are invaluable for dealing with these kinds of problems.

Other problems are harder to pin down. My short stories often grow metaphorical arms and legs and tentacles, before ignoring the limitations of limbs and sprouting hyphae all over the place. I end up trapped in something like a web built by a swarm of caffeine-fuelled spiders in a memory palace the size of Hannibal Lecter’s.

If I were writing long form, this would be more useful. Is it, therefore, a good thing or a bad thing? I’m still undecided, but am going to treat it as a good thing for the time being. At the moment, I would rather be in the position of having to cut than to add, except where my crit buddies suggest I can have clarification without straying into wordiness.

A short story I started with a nominal project target of 5,000 words has reached almost 10,000 words with no sign of stopping. It has pages of research and its own Scapple folder. I came back to this piece after several months away from writing, and opened it with a notional inclination towards abandonment. I read what I’d done, and I liked it too much to give up. There’s a story here I want to tell, and whether it ends up as 15k words I cut back to 7k, or 20k I work up to a full length novel, finishing the story at whatever length it turns out to be is something I have to do.

I’ve heard it said that a story ends up the length it needs to be. We’ll call this an experiment.

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NOT AT WORLDCON STOP NEED COFFEE STOP AM WRITING AGAIN DON’T WANT TO STOP

This weekend I should be in London, with thousands of other writers and fans of genre fiction. I’m not. I’m still at home in Scotland, where Summer is packing up the last of his bags and preparing to head south, while Autumn stands on the threshold tapping her foot in her impatience to get onto his wonderful carpets and cover them in kipple.

Back at the beginning of April, my Dad was killed in a motor racing accident in Hockenheim, Germany. I was — am — devastated. The effect has been emotionally overwhelming. For the first time in my whole life, my hypergraphia stopped. It just stopped, as if a switch had flipped into the ‘off’ position. Other than for the day job, I was unable to find it in myself to string words together and put them down on paper. That part of me was numb, unfeeling.

When I forced myself to write, to post on social media, pen a swift report of our inaugural bike ride from Kirkcaldy to Aberdeen, or review a wine for Naked Wines, it didn’t felt like me doing it. The part of me invested in writing had gone on some kind of retreat. I could still put words together, order them grammatically, construct some kind of narrative, assay them for clarity and conciseness, but the results were neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things.

I lost that spark, without which one is not a writer.

For a while I worried this meant I had never been a writer. After all, if it were that important to me, surely I would have carried on despite the grief. Instead I threw myself into triathlon, poring over heart rate charts and race timings. I cleaned my house, decluttered, grew vegetables and flowers, polished my bicycles. Went walking, running, swimming in the sea, paddling.

I’ve hurled myself at anything that constrained me to the Here-Now-Present, because shivering on the other side of a translucent wall of stoicism is an endless ocean of sadness. It leaks tears sometimes, when something happens to bring that loss into my Here-Now-Present.

Writing fiction isn’t Here-Now-Present. It can’t be. It’s anything but Here-Now-Present, and I’ve come to realise it’s the one thing desperately important to me that can’t be condensed into a single mote of ongoing experience.

Writing fiction requires an emotional investment. If you don’t feel your writing, nobody else is going to. My emotions are bruised and swollen and sore; concentrating on physical tasks and pretending I’m fine has been the psychological equivalent of the Rest Ice Compression Elevation approach to dealing with injury.

In the last couple of weeks I have written my first complete story since it happened. It’s not my best piece of work, but it has a beginning, middle and end; conflict and resolution; a character with agency and a certain bleak humour. It’s not the worst thing I have ever written (a label I shall reserve for the Ghostbusters and Blake’s 7 fanfic I wrote when I was at school, before fanfic was a thing). I’ve also picked up a WIP and added some good words — they may not survive the edits, but they are good words. I have submitted a piece to market.

I’m no longer worried that spark is gone forever, which is a small island of relief on that shivering sea.

The lesson here is not that time heals all things — it doesn’t, but it will dull the pain if it can — but that the writer is the most important part of the writing process. You have to look after yourself, and if that means giving up an opportunity because you are not fit, so be it. No athlete would start a race with a broken leg (although he might try to carry on for a while if the injury occurred during it). As much as I really wanted to go to LonCon, I made the right decision.

I could not have coped with WorldCon this year. I am an introvert who works hard at giving the appearance of not being so when it is professionally necessary. It exhausts me. I need to be physically fit enough to tackle the endurance events Summer so thoughtfully brings each year when he sweeps up the leavings of Spring’s exuberance; equally I need to be emotionally fit enough to cope with the mental endurance event of being in the same place as almost 10,000 strangers for 5 days. I am not, and am very grateful to be sufficiently aware of my limitations that I knew better than to try.

Yet, as my writing recovers, and the hypergraphia twitches its millipede feet and considers uncurling to resume its endless meandering around my pathways and byways, I can see a time when I will be.

For that, I am also very grateful.

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A 2013 retrospective

I know it’s traditional to look back on the year somewhat closer to Hogmanay, but I never seem to manage it. I’m either early or late, so this year I’m going to be early.

It has been an amazing and exciting year. I’ve had two stories published in anthologies that have put my work on the same ToC as some great authors (Looking Landwards and Fish), and my work has been reviewed positively. On top of that, I’ve gained experience of the business end of editing and publishing, with a stint as slush reader for the Whitecat Publications science fiction and horror imprints, and putting together the Lemon Tree Writers chapbook Point of Balance. I’ve been on local radio three times (here, here and, most recently, here). I’ve taken part in my first spoken word event, and attended a con for the first time as a writer (complete with book signing).

In my last interview, I was asked what the future holds and where I plan to go from here. In responding I dressed it up a bit, but really it’s very simple: MOAR PLEEZ. More of this would make me very happy.

I feel like a contestant on Masterchef and I’ve finally started to find out what my capabilities are. I’m still exploring where my strengths lie, and figuring out how to address my weaknesses. There is so much more to learn, and so many ways to improve. I have 3 star ambitions, and I’m almost — almost! — at the point of believing my palate can take me there, but there’s refinement needed.

There will be a lot of hard work in 2014, and I’m more than up for that. I’m hoping for a little luck with which to season it.

Looking Landwards at BristolCon

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Good manners are free

I have a few ambitions as a writer, some predictable, some maybe not so much. There is one I wouldn’t have predicted when I was considering stepping into the big, scary world of submitting to market, but which is now very important to me.

I want to be a writer other people find it pleasant to work with. I want to be the kind of writer who pays attention to submission guidelines, reading periods and deadlines. I want to submit my work when it’s as good as I can make it, and respond promptly, politely and with good grace to editors; or, in the case of rejection, not at all.

It would never have occurred to me, back when I only wrote for myself, that this would be a thing. I’ve heard some tales that really surprised me, about writers answering rejection letters with abusive emails describing the editor as a jackass who doesn’t recognise genius when he/she sees it. In my time as a slush reader I’ve seen submissions that have completely boggled my mind; I had no idea there were so many ways to fail at submission guidelines.

Good manners cost nothing, but leave an impression. Any sane person is more likely to consider working with someone who is polite and professional than someone who throws her toys out of the pram in the face of criticism or takes forever to respond to requests.

I haven’t managed a pro-sale yet. There is a list of markets I would love to crack, and a number of other achievements I hope to unlock one day. They will require hard work, dedication and not a little luck, because there are things I will need that are outside my control. Being courteous and professional? That’s entirely down to me, and there’s no excuse not to have it already.

trophy4

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A triathlete’s guide to dealing with rejection

I’ve been submitting a lot more this year, which inevitably means handling an increased number of rejections. Rejection is never fun, but it’s part and parcel of writing life. There was a time, back in the dim and distant neon glow of the past, when I believed my first story sale would be some kind of watershed. It would mean I’d learned how to write and everything flowing from my pen from that moment on would be finest prose, to be snapped up by eager publishers. I would dance around in an ecstatic haze surrounded by fluffy unicorns, and I’d fart fine fiction materialising in rainbow ink to be formatted by a team of highly trained aye-ayes.

Needless to say, it doesn’t quite work like that.

I started submitting in 2010, relatively late in life for someone who turns as many trees into words as I do. That year I submitted one piece as a favour to a friend. In 2011 I submitted a second on a whim. Both were accepted. I submitted three in 2012 (three personal rejections), and so far this year I have submitted eight pieces with one acceptance and two personal rejections. This is nothing like a high submissions rate. I am aiming for eight or more submissions in a month, but it’s going to take me a while to get there.

This year has been a learning curve in all sorts of ways. I’ve learned the value of good crit — and by that I mean intelligent, insightful and constructive crit. I’ve learned crit partners who will take time to analyse my work and subject it to scrutiny, and who are prepared to be hard but fair, are a precious commodity to be treasured. I’ve also learned the real prize in the process of preparing a story for submission to market is the creation of a good story. The story is the commodity, in the same way a cut diamond is the prize, rather than the eventual sum paid for that diamond (with the difference that you sell rights to your story, not the story itself).

A while ago I did an interview for the Literature Show. One of the questions we didn’t have time to cover was whether I felt doing triathlon had any influence on my writing. I’d have said it most definitely does. I race for one main reason: if I didn’t have the races as targets, I wouldn’t train. Competing is my way of injecting motivation to keep fit. If you race, you make time to train. You go out in the rain. You invest time and effort for a prize that is nothing to do with standing on the podium — the podium, particularly when elite athletes are involved, is the preserve of the genetically gifted and those whose job it is to compete in triathlons. Those of us who make up the ranks of the age groupers do it for the achievement, for the fun, and for the goal of being fit enough to compete.

Submitting to paying markets is similar. Without the goal of making it past the guardians of the slush pile and giving sufficient enjoyment to an editor that he or she is prepared to pay for the rights, I would not put the same effort into my work. I spent years writing without that goal in mind, and the difference between what I write now and what I wrote during that time is one of craft. It’s the precision of comma use, the lack of extraneous thats, the avoidance of unnecessary qualifiers and the focus on making each sentence carry the story forward. I’m not saying my work is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s miles better than it was.

Putting in the runs, the swim sessions and the bike training, turning up for a race, racking my bike, prepping my transition area, putting vaseline in my shoes, and remembering to put my helmet on before touching my bike will not guarantee me a win. It does mean I’m fit enough to compete. The drafting, re-drafting, editing, crits, re-editing and submission will not guarantee a story sale. They do mean a story I am happy to submit, and there are always other markets.

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