Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Formatting A Novel

You've written the next great novel. Now what? If you're self-publishing, as I do, you have a lot more work to do. I've already talked about covers, so now I'll say a bit about formatting. If you're looking for a how-to-format post, this ain't it. There are plenty of places to learn about formatting (though I highly recommend you stop by Smashwords and read their formatting guide). I'm going to talk about my experience formatting my latest novel, Norton Road.

When I published The Night Train in 2012, I formatted my e-books using Calibre.It worked well, and I recommend it if you are converting from a Microsoft Word file. This time around, however, I wrote my novel using Scrivener. The reasons I recommend Scrivener are too numerous to mention here without detracting from the subject at hand. Let's just say I love it and, since it has a compile tool to generate all sorts of file types (including Doc, PDF, EPub, MOBI), I decided to give its formatting feature a try.

Generating the MOBI file I uploaded to Amazon was seamless. I prefer to upload a MOBI to Amazon instead of a Doc file because I can test the file on my Kindle before uploading. Amazon just makes the process of publishing your e-book easy. Now for Barnes and Noble.

The EPub file I generated using Scrivener looked great in the reader I have on my Macbook Pro (I don't have a Nook), but when I uploaded it to B&N and previewed it, the text was all centered, except for the title page, which was weirdly centered at the left margin. I tried every combination of tweaking Scrivener settings I could imagine without success. I even googled the problem, but learned nothing other than a lot of readers are complaining that the books they download to their Nooks have centered text. Every response I saw blamed it on improper formatting by the publisher (me, in my case). Not a word about how to resolve the issue if the EPub file you are uploading looks perfect BEFORE you upload it.

To make matters worse, when I opened the EPub file in the online editor, it looked perfect. No centered text except where it belonged. So how do you "fix" the file when it looks correct before you upload it, and afterwards in the online editor? My hunch was that the problem was just in the online viewer, and that it would look correct on the Nook, but my googling efforts disabused me of that hope. So I went back to Scrivener.

I checked a setting in the compile wizard to remove trailing white space. It looked no different in my offline viewer, but when I uploaded and looked in the online viewer the text was aligned as it should be, except for the title page. My solution for that was to open the online editor and delete the three lines on my title page and retype them. That worked. When you are doing it all yourself, sometimes you just have to put your shoulder to it until you get it right.

My third stop for the day was Smashwords. I compiled (from Scrivener) to a Doc file, added in the Smashwords edition blurb, and sent it on its way. Easy. Do you hear that, NookPress? Amazon and Smashwords didn't give me an ulcer.

Formatting my paperback edition was a matter of opening my final Doc file from The Night Train and replacing the contents (a chapter at a time) with the contents from Norton Road. Why? Because I had spent a lot of time getting The Night Train formatted the way I wanted it so it looked good in print, and I didn't want to have to try and remember all the changes I made to their template (I made several). It was time-consuming, but I hope I can get to the finished product with a single proof order. I'll know if I succeeded Thursday when the proof copy arrives.

One of the problems with formatting is that by the time I get the next novel written I've forgotten most of what I knew about it. It's almost like starting over. Thankfully, tools like Scrivener and Calibre make it possible for someone like me who hates reading help files.

Tell me your formatting stories.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Release Me!

Norton Road is now available in e-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.

The paperback edition should be available by July 1, 2013.

If you read The Night Train, thank you. I think this one is even better. For those of you who have asked, this novel is NOT a sequel to The Night Train.

You can read a sample at any of the above links, or you can read chapter one here.

I can't wait to hear your feedback.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Cover Reveal: Norton Road

Self-publishing a book is a lot of work. Writing is the easy part, and by easy I mean spending virtually every free minute at the keyboard, or running through scenes in your head. Easy, perhaps, because it's the enjoyable part. Bringing your characters to life -- watching them grow, learning their quirks, discovering their strengths and weaknesses -- is the part of the process that quenches that inner thirst to accomplish something.

For me, coming up with a title is always hard. This time around I actually thought I might fail. I even joked at the idea of calling it "Untitled". Every time I tried to come up with something I drew a blank. I literally spent an untold number of hours struggling to name this second novel.

Norton Road. That's what I came up with. It hit me out of the blue one morning as I woke up. That's how most of my good ideas find me.

Envisioning a cover is hard for me. I loaded my son in the truck one afternoon and drove around looking at landscapes, taking pictures of roads and fields, and, yes, a tree with honeysuckle vines hanging from it.

"Why did you take a picture of that tree," my son asked as I slid back behind the wheel.
"I'm not sure, son."

When we got home I sorted through the pictures and threw on the title and my name. I NEVER had any intention of doing the cover myself, mind you, but I needed some kind of concept in my head so I could tell the graphic artist what I wanted.

I never sent that makeshift cover, or the photo, to Damon. After looking through cover samples on his website, I filled out the online questionnaire, paid my deposit, and waited for the two concept covers he promised to deliver within 10 to 12 days. I had butterflies when I checked my inbox (I think it was 9 days later) and saw an email from Damon with two attachments. Suppose I hated them? Despite his money-back guarantee, I wondered how he could come up with a cover to capture my novel based on the brief description I sent (I'm terrible at synopsis and blurbs).

The first cover sample was about as far from what I wanted as I could have imagined. My heart sank. The second sample, however, jumped off the screen and grabbed me. Over the next few days he patiently made the changes I requested until he came up with the cover you see above.

I'm thrilled. Over the next few days I will put the finishing touches on the e-book and paperback files (front matter, checking formats, etc.,) and submit them to the proper places. I can't wait to hold the paperback in my hands. I hope I learned enough the first time around to get the paperback version right with a single proof order.

I know the normal way of releasing a book involves schedules, hype, blog tours, and other things I'm very bad at, so I'll probably release it the way I wrote it -- by the seat of my pants.

Feel free to help me spread the word.

UPDATE: Now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Recognize Your Talent

I was watching The Voice on NBC last night (congratulations, Danielle Bradbery), which, by the way, was a spectacular event, and it got me to thinking about talent. All three of the finalists were exceptional. Each of them had something that can't be taught -- raw talent.

Anyone can learn lyrics. Anyone can stand in front of a microphone and sing a song. Singing that song well, however, takes talent. Sure, there are voice coaches who can help a person hone their singing skills, but there has to be something to hone first, right? There has to be an underlying talent.

You can't polish a turd. Well, you can, I suppose, but the end result would be not that unlike the original. The key to harnessing talent is in recognizing when you have it, or, just as importantly, when you don't.

When I was a kid I wanted to play guitar like Roy Clark, but it didn't take long for me to realize I have no ear for music. Perhaps that's why I've always paid more attention to song lyrics than the accompanying beat. Maybe that, and a profound awkward shyness in public, is why I never learned to dance.

We can't all be singers, or artists, but everyone has a talent. I believe that. Everyone. The trick is recognizing YOUR talent, then working hard to take advantage of it. It's easy to recognize talent in others, but not so much in ourselves. Could it be because talent makes that thing, whatever it is, seem easy to us? How can something that comes easy be worthy of a talent?

Talent comes in assorted forms. Maybe your talent is writing, or singing, or, maybe, it's fixing cars. Your talent may be in running a business, or understanding math. Talent doesn't guarantee success, but it gives you a leg up on the competition. Recognize it. Embrace it. Then work your tail off to cultivate it, because the only thing worse than not having a talent is having one and letting it go to seed.

What is your talent?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Deleting Scenes

While waiting for the first of my cover proofs for Norton Road to arrive, I spent some time this weekend working on my next novel. This one, my third, is one I had written and set aside (that seems to be a process that works for me) because it wasn't ready to come out of the oven yet. Everything was progressing well until I hit that scene.

There's this scene, you see, that doesn't belong. It contributes nothing to the story. It's one of those scenes in which a reader can easily take a break from reading without anguishing over what happens next. Yes, that scene. The scene that can kill a novel.

Any time your reader closes your novel they should do so with regret, and only after several failed attempts at setting it aside. Because they have to get up the next morning to go to work, or because little Johnny just took a bounce off the trampoline and now his arm looks bent in an odd direction. What happens next should gnaw at them until they pick it back up and read more.

Knowing when to delete a scene should be easy. If it doesn't move the story forward, ditch it. If a reader can skip it and not miss anything important, cut it. It doesn't belong.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Your Writer Voice

It took me a long time to find my writer voice. For a long time I wasn't even sure what that meant, then I thought maybe I didn't have one. Then it clicked.

I was writing the umpteenth draft of what eventually became my first novel, The Night Train, when it suddenly dawned on me that all those other drafts had been written by someone (me) trying to adhere to all the so-called rules of writing marketable fiction. I wondered what would happen if I just wrote the way I wanted to, without worrying whether or not anyone else would like it. So I gave it a shot

All those other drafts were missing something. I didn't know what they were missing, but I knew they were missing something very important. It wasn't anything I could put my finger on, either. Just a nagging inner voice telling me they were not what I wanted to create. I knew I could do better even though I never had proven it. I couldn't even explain to myself what it was I wanted to create, but I knew I would recognize it when I saw it. Not being able to close the gap was like hanging over the side of the Grand Canyon.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The WORK of Writing

Writing is fun. Creating characters and places and throwing them into situations just to see how they react, how they survive, how they grow, is very satisfying. Done correctly, at least for me, the characters actually do take the writer places he didn't know he was going. Odds are, the twists and turns my readers experience were also experienced by me while writing the scenes. So many times I have no clue what is going to happen until it does, or something I had planned no longer seems to fit because my character has other ideas.

Don't laugh. It's true.

I'm not a very organized writer when it comes to content. I don't outline. Sure, I've tried, but it's a useless effort because I toss the outline aside and let my characters lead me. I don't set daily word-count goals for myself. I don't sketch out my plot and make sure the story arc has the correct curve. And, perhaps my greatest writerly sin: if I don't feel like writing today I won't. I'll do something else, or nothing at all. Sitting and staring at a blank screen does nothing but frustrate me and make me less creative.

But most days I DO feel like writing. More often than not, I want to write but can't because of time constraints or other obligations. Sometimes I do my best "writing" on the lawnmower, or on my motorcycle, or driving home from work with the radio off.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Norton Road -- sample chapter


Pap walked along the edge of the road dragging a burlap tow sack half full of aluminum cans. The combination of cans colliding and burlap scooting across the coarse chip-and-seal surface made a noise not unlike a flat bastard file being pulled across a dull lawnmower blade. In his right hand he carried a wooden mop handle with a 16 penny nail sticking from one end like the point of a spear. He spied a beer can at the bottom of the shallow ditch and stooped forward to stab it. The nail pierced the soft metal and came out the other side as the can collapsed. Beer dripped from the point of the nail as he swung his catch around and raked it off into the sack at his feet. Sometimes he pretended he was spearfishing along some stream in Alaska instead of supplementing his social security on a dead-end road in Johnson County, Mississippi.
Television made Alaska look like a paradise, but he hadn’t trusted TV since Walter Cronkite retired.
The sack followed him across the rough surface of the road as he walked back toward home. Up the slight grade he trod, until the road leveled off and he could see his Radio Flyer wagon on the shoulder. Dragging the sack was easier than pulling the wagon because the sack would follow him down into the ditch and up the bank on the other side if need be. When the sack was full he would empty it into the wagon and start again. The trick was in coordinating wagon location with sack filling, and that varied depending on what day of the week it happened to be. Monday mornings were usually his heavy haul days, but Friday mornings ran a close second because the factory handed out checks on Thursdays. Most days he parked the wagon where it needed to be. He had been at this for a long time.
When he stopped for another can he heard the monotone buzz of the factory, like a swarm of locust that never stops devouring the landscape. He removed his straw hat, looked up at the blue sky, and wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. It shouldn’t be so hot in May, but Pap didn’t believe all the talk about the earth burning itself up. A breeze kicked up and felt good against his sweat-soaked shirt. Cans awaited, so he trudged onward.
Halfway to the wagon he heard a pickup approaching from behind. It was still a ways off, but he knew by the roar of its tires against the pavement it would be a 4x4. Probably some teenager who didn’t know the road petered out just past his driveway. Deek Norton had lived just long enough to get the road named after him when Johnson County adopted the E-911 system years ago. By all rights the county should have named it Jones Road, after Pap, because everybody knew Deek Norton was in bad health and had no kin to speak of when the renaming commenced. But Deek probably hadn’t called the supervisor a son-of-a-bitch for not dragging the ditches so the water wouldn’t flood over the road every time it rained.
Had the road been named after him, Pap might be inclined to stab up some of the fast food sacks and cups the workers tossed out their windows. They were a dirty bunch and he wondered if they littered their own roads the way they littered his. Sometimes it seemed they brought their trash from home just to throw it out as they marched to and from the factory like worker ants in service to their queen.
Pap snickered at the thought of Davis Khane as a queen. Queen Khane, furniture magnate. He stabbed a Pepsi can and swung it into his sack.
The roar of the approaching truck intensified until it overtook him and sped past with a whoosh of wind. Something solid hit Pap in the left shoulder and sent him tripping to the ground, more from surprise than from the force of the impact. He landed on his hands and knees. A Bud Light can tumbled through the air and landed against the ditch bank with a thunk. Pap scrambled to his feet in time to see the muddy red Dodge disappear over the hill.
“Up your butt Bobby John!” He jabbed at the sky with the mop handle as he yelled. He knew the truck because he had climbed into the bed of it and pissed down the driver’s door one Tuesday afternoon in the student parking lot at the high school after he discovered it belonged to the young thug who had thrown the brick at him while he was mowing beside the Ag building. High school kids have no respect for janitors. Nor do principals and teachers, considering the lack of fanfare his retirement had generated.
But what did he care? Somebody else had to clean up after them now.
He crossed the ditch and scooped up the can, knowing by the wallop to his shoulder it was near full. He put the can to his lips and drained it dry. If he’d had a cell phone he would’ve called the sheriff and told him he had a drunk running the roads, but the only phone he owned was attached to his living room wall by a black wire, and that was almost a mile away. He picked up his sack and dropped the can inside with the others. At least the young hooligan had quenched his thirst.
Pap walked on toward the wagon with a dent in his pride and a fire in his gut. It occurred to him that Bobby John had but one way out and that was past him. His eyes searched the ground until he found a nice fat rock he could ball his fist around. He bounced it in the palm of his hand a couple times to test its weight, then slipped it into the side pocket of his overalls. Once when he was a boy he had killed a squirrel with a rock, so he supposed he could hit a red Dodge.
Half a dozen feet from the wagon he heard the distant roar of mud tires again, like a swarm of honeybees coming back to the hive. He slipped his hand into his pocket and closed it around the rock. When the truck topped the hill he withdrew his hand and cocked his arm. Bobby John punched the accelerator as Pap hurled the rock with every ounce of his hundred and fifty pounds behind it. The truck dropped into passing gear and lurched forward, but it was too little too late. The rock hit the windshield just above the inspection sticker and shot so high up into the air Pap lost sight of it. Bobby John yelled something that got lost in the noise of his aftermarket pipes.
Pap’s lips slipped back from his toothless gums and he snickered so hard his body trembled. Even Stevens, as his wife used to say.

* * *
Bodie Craig pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with the sheriff and chief deputy. They were a matched pair, those two. Like a married couple always agreeing and consulting. He hated them both. Hated answering to them. Hated taking commands from men who in a fair world would be sweeping up the jail instead of running it. Sam Gant was soft. Too soft to be sheriff. Lincoln Norris was over the hill and should have been put out to pasture years ago. In a few short days he would rock their world, but not today. There were still a few I’s to dot and T’s to cross.
“Wanted to see me, Boss?”
The sheriff stared at the Styrofoam cup cradled between his thick hands. “I’ve had another complaint, Bodie.”
Bodie figured as much. Seemed every other day somebody was complaining because he hurt their feelings, or bumped their head putting them into the back seat of his patrol car, or didn’t smile as he wrote out their citation. He offered no reply. None of it would matter in a few days.
“Howie Krenshaw says his daughter was in your car yesterday.”
Bodie twisted his face into a concentrated effort of remembering and looked up at the ceiling. No way Marissa Krenshaw told her father about their romp in the back of his patrol car. She was too enamored with him to do something that stupid. “No, that name don’t ring a bell. I can check my arrest log if you want.”
“I already know you didn’t arrest her,” the sheriff said. “One of the Bell boys said he saw ya’ll parked in the woods at the edge of their soybean field.”
There were four Bell boys, as Bodie recalled, but the oldest was in Afghanistan and the youngest was too young to be out in the woods by himself. That left two. “Wasn’t me.” He drummed his fingers on the table.
“Good thing,” Lincoln said, “her being only sixteen and all.”
“Sixteen?” Bodie caught himself and forced a laugh. “Rumors like that could send a man to prison. Which Bell was it said he saw me?”
“Never you mind which one,” Gant said. “I’m giving you fair warning, Bodie: if I find out that boy’s telling the truth I’ll see to it you never wear a badge again.”
“I swear on my mother’s grave I never touched that girl.”
“Last I heard your momma was alive down in Florida,” Lincoln said.
“Just see to it you behave yourself,” Gant said. “You know I’m up for re-election. A thing like this could cost me the primary.”
Bodie pushed back his chair. The smell of coffee had him needing a jolt of caffeine. “I may chase a few skirts every now and then, but I make sure they’re legal.” He stood and walked over to the counter and pulled a cup from the upside down stack beside the coffee pot. Sixteen. On top of being easy she was a liar, and a good one. The sheriff was right about it taking down a campaign, but it wasn’t Gant’s political future he was worried about.
“This election’s in the bag,” Lincoln said. “Only two qualifiers this late in the game and nobody ever heard of either of them. A farmer and a school bus driver. Not a day’s worth of law enforcement between them.”
“Three,” the sheriff said. “Don’t forget there’s a republican this time. Ex Highway Patrol.”
The chief deputy snorted. “Highway Patrol my foot. You know good and well he worked at the Driver’s License office. He won’t get fifty votes. Besides, people don’t elect republicans to local office. It just don’t happen.”
Bodie leaned against the counter and sipped his coffee, pretending not to listen. It was true what they said about republicans in local office. He didn’t know why, considering Mississippi had only one elected democrat in all its statewide offices. Local politics belonged to the democrats, though, and to run as anything else was like conceding before the race starts.
“They’ll split a few hundred votes tops and you’ll win the primary outright,” Lincoln said. “You’ll see.”
“I don’t know,” Gant said, pushing himself away from the table. The legs of his chair screeched against the tile floor. “That little gal at the paper’s had it in for me these last couple weeks. She’s right about one thing, though: it’s been three pretty unspectacular years.”
“Low crime rates don’t sell newspapers,” Lincoln said. “ Just wait until we bring in —” The chief deputy stopped short. Both he and the sheriff glanced in Bodie’s direction then back at each other.
Gant rubbed his right knee and grimaced.
“Knees again? I’d hate to be your knees, Sam. Damned if I could tote that belly around all day.”
“We got a lead on somebody,” Bodie asked, knowing the chief deputy had almost divulged information they didn’t want him to know.
“Losing weight ain’t easy at my age,” Gant said, ignoring Bodie’s question.
“Not the way you eat donuts.”
The sheriff belched into his fist. “If I didn’t need two more years to get my pension I’d drop out and back you.”
Bodie had to bite his tongue to keep from telling Gant why he wouldn’t get that pension, especially now that he knew they were leaving him out of something big. Big to them probably meant throwing out a net to collect on unpaid fines, not that it mattered. That little gal at the paper was on his team.
Debbie Purvis stuck her head in the door and waited for a break in the conversation. Debbie wore many hats at the sheriff’s office but her primary duty was day shift dispatcher. She fielded calls at the switchboard and kept track of the deputies in the field. Hers was the face behind the glass when one entered the front door.
“Old man Jones is at it again,” she said.
Gant sighed. “What’s he complaining about this time?”
“He’s not the one complaining,” she said. “There’s a kid out front says Jones threw a rock and busted his windshield.”
Gant sighed. “Bring him back and I’ll see what he’s got to say.”
Lincoln glanced at Bodie and frowned. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
“Just finishing up,” Bodie said, raising the coffee cup. Before the sheriff could chime in, the dispatcher reappeared with a scrapping young man who looked to be seventeen or eighteen. He wore a Hank Jr. Cap and held a Coke bottle in his hand. His bottom lip bulged with tobacco.
“Go to the bathroom and get that stuff out of your mouth,” the sheriff said. The dispatcher pointed toward the bathroom down the hall, then told the sheriff she would be at her desk if he needed her. Half a minute later the young man returned, empty-lipped and without the bottle. The sheriff pointed toward an empty chair and told him to sit.
“We have a minimum age for buying tobacco products, son. You don’t look to be quite there yet. What’s your name?”
“Bobby John, sir.”
Bodie recognized the boy as soon as he opened his mouth, and knew the sir tacked onto the end of his answer came hard for him. Bobby John was a hell raiser that ran with a group of boys he’d taken beer off of a few times. Bodie rarely had to buy his own beer anymore.
“Bobby John what?”
“Just Bobby John. John’s my last name.” He glanced at Bodie like he was wondering if he was going to tell the sheriff about the beer.
“Terrel John’s boy,” Bodie said. “Fights dogs with that Ramey bunch.”
Bobby John looked at Bodie like he’d been slapped. “That ain’t so. Terrel’s my uncle. My daddy’s Jerry. He works--”
“Khane Manufacturing,” Lincoln interrupted. “I know him.”
Bodie felt the heat in his cheeks as his face turned red. Bobby John wouldn’t get off so easy next time he and his buddies circled their tailgates.
“My dispatcher tells me you got your windshield busted,” Gant said.
“Yes sir. I drove out to the plant to put my old man’s lunch in his truck and was on my way back when that crazy old janitor threw a rock and busted my windshield. He was dragging a sack behind him. Probably fetching a possum for supper.” The boy grinned big, flashing his tobacco-stained teeth, and looked around for the chuckles that didn’t come. He dropped the corners of his mouth and drooped a bit at the shoulders as the sheriff stared him down.
“Do you know his name?”
“He’s a janitor at school. Everybody calls him Pap. People say he’s touched in the head.”
“People say a lot of things,” Gant said. “I don’t suppose you did anything to provoke him?”
“No, sir.” Bobby John shuffled his feet. Bodie knew he was lying.
“Didn’t ease over a little close just to scare him?”
The boy shook his head.
“Yell anything at him?”
“No sir.”
“He just up and busted your windshield for no reason?”
The boy nodded. “My dad just had that windshield put in last month. Cost him almost four hundred dollars.”
Bodie tossed his coffee cup into the trash and straightened himself. “Want me to take a ride out there, Sheriff?”
“No, I’ll go out there myself,” Gant said. He looked hard at Bobby John. “You bring your daddy by when he gets off work and we’ll go from there.”
“You’re gonna make him pay for it, ain’t you?”
“That’ll be up to the judge, son.”
“You mean I gotta go to court?”
“Justice court,” the sheriff said. “You both tell your side to the judge and he’ll decide who he believes.”
“But it happened just like I told you.”
“If Oscar Jones tells it the same way then you got nothing to worry about. Now you run on home and come back this evening with your daddy like I told you.”
Bobby John rose to leave, hesitated, then said, “There’s no telling what that crazy old man might say.”
“No telling,” Gant said.
When the boy was out of sight Lincoln slapped the table with the flat of his hand. “Betcha ten bucks he don’t come back.”
“That old man’s crazy as a duck,” Bodie said.
Gant looked over at him and frowned. “Go patrol something, Bodie. And stay out of the soybean fields.”

* * *
The furniture factory wasn’t just an eyesore to Pap. It was a noisy, dirty, sawdust-belching invasion of his privacy. Davis Khane had planted a single steel building in the pasture adjoining his two acres and nursed it into the county’s largest industrial complex in less than five years. At any given time Pap could sit on his porch and count two dozen trucks and trailers waiting to ship cheap sofas and love seats all over the world. Every time a truck moved it raised a cloud of dust that, more often than not, drifted over the chain link fence and into Pap’s yard. The wind always seemed to blow in his direction. Like smoke follows you no matter which side of the fire you stand on.
Sam Gant’s white Crown Vic shot the gap between the factory and Pap’s driveway like a cork popping from a bottle. He hadn’t heard it coming over the drone of saws and diesel engines. One minute he was alone with his thoughts and the next minute he had company. Sam was friendly enough, but his visits were never social. Pap watched him turn into his driveway and roll toward him like he had no place else to be.
His driveway was long and straight. In spots it needed gravel, but a lifetime of coming and going had left it packed solid. A casual observer might mistake it for a dirt path. Grassy down the middle. It was exactly five hundred and thirteen feet from his culvert to the stump in his front yard where he smashed cans. He had measured it with a fifty foot length of chain, though he couldn’t remember why. Perhaps because he had measured the chain. It was fifty feet and change from the stump to the corner post of the chain link fence Khane had thrown up after his second expansion. The fence ran south along Pap’s driveway, then east for farther than he could see from the porch.
The sheriff’s brakes squealed as he stopped behind Pap’s rust-speckled Ford pickup. Dust washed over the trunk of the car then dissipated from lack of momentum. Pap dug at the plank floor with the yellowed nail of his big toe as the sheriff wrestled his squat body out the door and spat into the dirt. A turnip with legs, he thought, as he watched the sheriff hitch up his britches and start toward him.
“Wondered when you’d show up, Sam,” Pap called from his rocker beside the screen door. He crossed his foot up onto his knee and picked at some dirt under the nail of his big toe.
The sheriff walked past the wagon and the smashing stump and stopped at the foot of the steps. He hitched up his pants again and eyed the three-step climb like it was a mountain. “I came to get your side, Oscar.”
Pap raised an arthritis-crooked finger to the point of his chin and frowned. Sam never called him Oscar unless he was irritated. “What’d I do now, Mister Sheriff Gant?”
“I’ve been out here three times already this week.”
“Two. Yesterday you sent that big galoot with the cowboy boots. He threatened to smash my fingers in the screen door. Next he’ll be wanting to load a boat with cement blocks and sink me in the swamp.”
“Sometimes I’d like to sink you myself,” the sheriff said, “but the department only has the one boat and we’re a little short on swamps around here.”
Pap opened his mouth, slapped his leg, and snickered without making a sound. He knew the sheriff’s threat had no meat to it. Sam Gant wouldn’t hurt a fly. He couldn’t say the same for the deputy, though.
“Why keep a man like that working for you, Sam?”
“Bodie ain’t all bad, Pap. He’ll be a good cop once he settles down a bit.”
“Phooey! After he kills somebody.”
The sheriff set his jaw. “I had another complaint against you this morning. A kid by the name of Bobby John claims you busted his windshield with a rock.”
“I don’t suppose he told you he had it coming.”
“No, according to him he was just idling along, minding his own business. That’s why I drove out — to hear your side of things.”
“You really interested in my side, Sam?”
“I always listen to your side, Pap.”
Pap had to agree Sam gave him a fair shake more often than not. “He knocked me down with a beer can.”
“Knocked you down with a beer can?”
“Full. Would’ve run me over, too, if I hadn’t fell in the ditch.”
“Was that before or after you threw the rock?”
“I didn’t throw the rock until he came back through.” Pap grinned. “Busted his windshield, did I? Good. I was afraid it had too much of a glance to it.”
“You’re lucky he didn’t stop and settle things himself, Pap. You ever thought of that?”
“Phooey! I’d a’put that boy on the ground, Sam. Faster’n a cat can lick its ass.” He slapped his palms together and snickered at his profanity.
“Or maybe he’d put you on the ground,” the sheriff said. “And maybe you wouldn’t be getting back up by yourself. You’re too old for this stuff, Pap.”
Pap folded his hands across his lap and rocked. “There was a time, Sam. How about a glass of cold milk?”
“No thanks.” Pap saw him cut his eyes toward the end of the porch. Rosemary had wandered up and started munching on a weed sticking out from between two boards.
“Fresh squeezed.”
The sheriff pulled against the railing and started up the steps with a grimace. “They sell perfectly good milk a the Piggly Wiggly in case you don’t know.”
Pap raised his finger to his lips and shushed him. “You’ll hurt her feelings.”
Sam conquered the second step. “My grandmother had a milk goat. Awfullest stuff you ever had in your mouth.” He put his foot on the final step and twisted his face into a determined scowl. “Made us kids drink it every Sunday after church.” He stepped onto the porch and made for the swing that hung by chains from the overhead rafters.
“Rosemary’s milk is sweet as cream,” Pap said. “She mows the yard and keeps me in milk. If I could teach her to lay eggs I’d never have to drive into town.”
Sam chuckled as he eased part way into the swing then let his weight drop. The chains jerked tight and the roof of the porch shuddered. Rosemary jumped and trotted away.
“When you gonna lose that belly, Sam?”
“Easier said than done, Pap.”
“Phooey! I bet you eat more for breakfast than I eat all day. What’d you have this morning?”
“We’re supposed to be talking about a busted windshield. You got any proof he hit you with a beer can? If it knocked you down it must’ve left a mark.”
Pap unsnapped the galluses of his overalls and let the bib fall down into his lap, then worked at the buttons of his shirt until he could slip his collar down over his shoulder. The sheriff leaned forward and studied his shoulder blade. “Looks like the makings of a bruise. About the right size for a beer can. Mind if I take a picture?”
“Evidence, if it comes to that. I think if I show that boy’s daddy something to back up your story they’ll think twice about swearing out a complaint against you.”
“Complaint against me? I’m the one oughta be swearing and complaining.”
“You do enough complaining as it is,” Sam said. “I’d say a busted windshield is a fair trade for a bruised shoulder.” Sam aimed his cell phone at Pap and snapped a couple of pictures. “There now. If he shows up with his daddy today I’ll show him these pictures and see how fast he crawfishes.”
“They can’t make me pay for that windshield can they?”
“That’s what the boy wants, but I wouldn’t worry too much about it. If he insists on pressing charges I’ll write up an assault charge against him. He’ll drop it pretty quick.”
“Suppose he don’t?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. He won’t risk jail time just to make you pay for a busted windshield.”
“You saying you’d have to throw him in jail if I pressed charges?”
“Long enough for his daddy to bail him out,” Sam said. “It’d be up to the judge after that. He’s a minor, though, and I don’t recall him being in trouble before, so I doubt he’d do more than a few days if that.”
“Let’s file ‘em, Sam.”
“How about we call it even and I tell Bobby John if he comes near you again he’ll answer to me?”
Pap studied it for a minute then nodded. He couldn’t argue that he’d come out ahead with just the bruise. Last windshield he’d bought set him back three hundred dollars. When Sam rose to leave Pap saw the agony in his eyes as he pushed his weight up out of the swing.
“I hear tell they make knees out of plastic these days.”
“Something like that. I went to an orthopedic surgeon over in Tupelo last month. He wants to replace the right one now and give the left one another year or two. Maybe after this election’s over with.”
“Know what I saw last night, Sam?”
The sheriff sighed. “No, but I suppose you’re gonna tell me.”
“I see headlights every night, Pap.”
“About midnight.” Pap pointed beyond the chain link fence at the edge of his yard, toward the rear of the furniture factory, intending to finish his story whether the sheriff liked it or not. “They pulled right up to that back dock and stayed there for four minutes and thirty two seconds. I timed it.”
“Midnight’s kind of late for you ain’t it?”
“I bet that whole place is full of drugs. Probably that methanol they’re making nowadays. If that place blows it’ll knock my house clean off its blocks.”
“Crystal methamphetamine, and I don’t think they’re cooking it in Davis Khane’s factory, Pap. Somebody would notice.”
“Maybe they don’t wanna notice. I bet that deputy of yours is in on it, too. I’ve seen him over there with Davis Khane’s boy. They run together you know.”
“Marcus Khane’s in law school at Ole Miss. Davis buys the boy anything he wants from what I hear. He don’t need to sell drugs. Besides, you can smell that stuff cooking a block away. No way they hide that in a factory with five hundred people working.”
“Cocaine then,” Pap said. “Rich people bring that stuff in from Mexico all the time.”
“Love thy neighbor, Pap. Can’t argue with the Good Book.”
“Neighbor! You call THAT a neighbor? Hear them saws? The trucks? The constant yelling? It goes on five days a week. Sometimes six.” Pap raked his finger across the arm of the porch swing and jabbed it toward the sheriff. “Dust on everything! Inside and out. Sawdust and dirt dust. Get sawdust in the crack of my butt some days.”
“We need rain,” Sam said. “You can’t blame the draught on Davis Khane.”
“Tell him to pave his parking lot. He’s got plenty of money.”
“I can’t make him pave his parking lot. Even if he did it’d just be something else. Like that sawdust pile. You complain about the pile but when he burns it you call the fire department to come put it out.”
“You should try sleeping with all that smoke blowing in your windows. I turned him in to the EPA but all they did was fine him. What good’s a fine to Davis Khane? Might as well piss on his tires and bark.”
“He employs a lot of people around here. Good honest people that need the work.”
“My Janey was good and honest, Sam.” Pap felt that familiar anger well up in his gut as he thought about his wife’s constant dusting until she took to bed and never got back up.
“I’m sure she was,” the sheriff said.
      “She was beating it, you know. Getting stronger every day, until,” he pointed at the monster in the lot next door. “Until that!”

>>> End of excerpt 

NORTON ROAD is my second novel. I think it's better than my first, but my opinion might be biased. The newest child always seems to be the favorite until it's out of diapers.