Monday, November 11, 2013

Pete Catalano: Rev 1: ZOLTAN THE ADEQUATE

Name: Pete Catalano

Genre: MG Contemporary Humor

HARRY BLAINE IS THE WORST MAGICIAN EVER. That’s what the billboards would say after I totally embarrassed myself during my first performance. Wait, not just any billboards. I would be in the middle of Times Square and the bazillion lights from the three-hundred-and-sixty-seven electronic screens and digital billboards twinkling back at me would all be flashing those very same words so that everyone in New York City would know. And then there would be the tourists. Every tourist from every country would go back home and tell ALL of their friends, so after a short period of time, a good portion of the earth would know how totally terribly my first show ended. I think it would be kind of crappy to be twelve years old and made fun of in Cantonese.
“Harry?” a voice called.
“Harry?” it called again. I couldn’t decide if I was actually hearing it or if it was a figment of my imagination.
"HARRY!" My daydreams burst into flames as everything came into focus. Peeling paint walls. Graffitied desk. Twenty sets of eyes staring at me as this class, so close to the end of the school year, started off a little rougher than usual.
“Mr. Blaine, I’m not sure what your other classes are like with your head-in-the-clouds attitude,” Ms. Shufflebottom said, “but here we do our daydreaming at home. Now sit up straight, eyes focused on the front of the room, and for goodness sake, pay attention.”
She turned and walked back toward the front of the room. The other kids started laughing. Well, Ms. Shufflebottom, I thought, this is exactly what my other classes are like.
When I started my first day of middle school nearly nine months ago, I realized I’d always had this intense desire to be the “life of the party” or the “cool guy,” even though there was no history of my being either one of those . . . ever.  More than anything, I wanted to be noticed.
Recognizing that I needed a gimmick, a trick, a ploy, something that would get their attention, I decided to get back to my first love . . . MAGIC! I practiced as hard and as often as I could. After school, before school, even during school, I would run through the tricks and steps in my head until I couldn’t think about them anymore. 

I even picked a name. A name that would stand out, but at the same time lend itself to getting a few laughs. There’s nothing like a few laughs to help people remember who you are. So that was the day Zoltan the Adequate first took the stage.
One day, my opportunity to amaze, tantalize, and astound presented itself in the form of a flyer telling all the details about the Spring Talent Show. There would be two weeks of preparation followed by everybody in school being assembled into the gym to either witness the thrill of victory or to cheer on my own agony of defeat, which sometimes felt inevitable.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Criss Burton, my best friend since first grade, said as he pushed me toward the sign-up sheet. “Come on, Harry. You’ve been talking about your magic for as long as I’ve known you. But that’s all it’s been, talk. Now you have a chance to do something about it. Now you have a chance to make something of yourself in this school and I get to ride your coattails . . . and I’m great at riding coattails. So what’s it going to be?
“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” I hemmed and hawed as I took one step toward the sign-up sheet and then shuffled two steps back toward Criss. “There are details to be worked out, props to be gotten, sets to be built . . . ”  
“My shoelace was untied, the sun’s in my eyes.” Criss laughed as he mocked me. “Come on. Sign up for the Talent Show and let’s shut some people up around here and start making my life easier. What are you afraid of?”
Just as I was about to take Criss’s advice, which really terrified me, put my fear behind me, and sign my name, my nemesis in magic, Lance Blackstone, stepped away from a group of girls that had been surrounding him and walked right past me almost glided up to the sign-up sheet.
Turning back to the girls who giggled and waved, Lance pointed his finger at the sheet, waved it quickly through the air, and Criss and I watched as his signature appeared on the very first line. A thunderous applause broke out in the hallway . . . and all he had done was sign his name with a little flair.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I whispered to Criss. “If signing his name gets that kind of response just wait until he does his act.”
Lance Blackstone has been practicing magic for as long as I have, but he was always terrible at it. There were always wrong cards, no doves flying, no rabbits being pulled out of any hat, and nothing ever disappeared except for his audience. 
Lately, however, he somehow managed to get good. I mean, he got really good.
There were just no logical answers for some of the wonders I’ve seen him perform to the amazement of the roaring crowds in the cafeteria. As each trick he performed became more astounding than the last, people flocked around him. Every guy wanted to be his best friend and every girl wanted to be his girlfriend. 
“So,” Criss repeated, “you gonna sign up or not? If not, that’s fine, no big deal, let’s just get going to our next class and you can wait until high school to stop being invisible.”
Criss made me mad with those last couple of words and he knew he had, too. I gave him my toughest scowl and then marched right up to the sign-up sheet, fumbled a few times for the pencil as it danced on the string before me, but once I had it firmly in my hand, I signed my name big enough for someone down at the other end of the hall to read.
I turned around to see how much applause that little bit of flair would get only to see the crowds were gone, and Criss, best friend that he was, stood there and gave me the “slow clap” we’ve seen a dozen times in the movies. Of course, I took advantage of every clap as I walked back toward him.
“Let’s get out of here.” I grabbed him and we headed down the hallway.
“Harry,” Criss started chanting in the hallway as we walked along, waving his arms up in the air, trying to get some of the stragglers we passed in the hall to join him. “Harry, Harry, Harry . . . Come on. Give me something.”
I raised my fists up into the air and moved through that ghost-town of a hallway, pretending that there were hundreds, no thousands, of kids applauding, reaching out to shake my hand or just touch a piece of my shirt as I triumphantly pushed through the crowd. Man, it felt good.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I walked past the sign-up list half a dozen times, and each time saw a few additional names appearing throughout the day. By the time the bell rang at three o’clock, there were eleven names on that list with Lance and me at the top and no one else worth mentioning below us.
The race to the Talent Show was on.


  1. I think it is a great idea to have this sort of magician’s duel in middle school. The primary problem is following the conventions of the underdog. (At least, I take this to be an underdog story.) The underdog may be an underdog but he does not draw attention to his underdog status. (See notes on calling himself Adequate below.) You also have to surround him with the requite cast—the villain Lance, quite isn’t villainous enough. The friend would of course support Harry, but probably try to dissuade Harry from facing off against the villain because Harry would get creamed, and the girl, the person Harry likes and does not want to look cowardly in front of.
    The problem with the opening paragraph is that the daydream is vague. It is about something terrible—don’t know what—about to happen instead of being specific. Also, I would suggest forgetting about it being something terrible about to happen and let it be the terrible something that happens since it is a daydream after all. Harry makes a tiger disappear from its cage only to find it is right behind him about to devour him. This doesn’t work for your Times Square scenario but maybe he falls from the Empire State Bldg as a result of his poor magic skills, etc. This is just to illustrate my point. Of course if Harry has terrible day dreams about failing as a magician, it will be pretty hard to convince readers that Harry does not want to be a sailor. It also might be more interesting if Harry has these fantastic dreams of being a great successful magician and it is contrasts with his failure in real life. (Later, I propose a different scenario which contributes to the drama of the piece).

  2. The name Zoltan THE ADEQUATE seems contradictory for someone who wants to do great things and does not seem like a name a middle schooler would choose for himself. Why not Zoltan, the Magnificent, but everyone calls him Zoltan, the Loser. If his act is supposed to be comedy and magic I could probably go with ADEQUATE. But this does not seem to be part of his shtick, at least it does not appear that way intentionally.
    It would be great in the setup if you made Lance just like Harry. Maybe they were even friends. But then he separated himself from Harry as Lance started to astounded people.
    I am not really sure how Chris’ benefits from all this. It would be interesting if he was the magician’s assistant or something but I am not sure how he plans to ride Harry’s coattails.
    If Lance is the magician savant, it seems pretty odd that Chris’ would try to get Harry to sign-up. Wouldn’t Harry get smashed at the Talent Show, unless Chris’ sees a talent in Harry that Harry does not see in himself. If this is case, it is not evident. The scene as written is like watching Michael Phelps sign-up up for a swim meet and Stephen Hawking sees this and decides to sign up too. It’s a bit of an exaggeration but I think you get the point. It’s no contest, at least, where swimming is concerned and not theoretical physics.
    This is a more logical scenario:
    Harry and Lance meet at the sign-up sheet. Lance snatches the pen and signs up first. Then he insults/humiliates Harry in front of everyone. Says he is going to mop the floor clean with his magic and Harry doesn’t stand a chance. Lance might even say something akin to I’m great and Harry, you’re, well, you’re just adequate and that’s how Harry gets his name. Even better is if there is a girl that Harry likes watching it all.
    (The above scenario places Harry’s manhood, er, boyhood at stake. So in order to save face he accepts the challenge. I would probably then make the first scene a day dream of Harry facing off against Lance, perhaps even worried about how disastrous this could be.)
    Other notes:
    Use “will” instead of “would”
    I would definitely but this piece in first person present
    My daydream – no “s”; not sure burst into flames work; probably stick with the billboard/Times Square connection. Something more like “a thousand lights go out.”
    Phrasing is awkward: “Twenty sets of eyes staring at me as this class, so close to the end of the school year, started off a little rougher than usual.”

    “cool kid”

    You convey dialogue solidly and the pace moves trippingly along, but I think you can throw in a few descriptive phrases of the characters and setting into the mix.

    1. Thanks for your feedback but it's Zoltan the Adequate because Harry and his friends think it's a funny name. The daydream, being just that, is an exaggerated fear that his not doing well was enough to be broadcast around the world and kids are now making fun of him in other languages. Sometimes being made fun of is a much bigger fear than falling off the Empire State Building.
      It's not odd that Criss is encouraging him. He knows Harry is better than he gives himself credit for and a great showing at the Talent Show will do wonders for his confidence.
      The logical scenario, while I appreciate it, has been done a lot before.

  3. Regarding the name ADEQUATE maybe if there was more to the name I could get on board. Why do Harry’s friends think it’s funny? What is funny about it and how does it apply to Harry. The reader is simply told that his friends think it’s funny. This is the only context we are given for the name.

    You mention that Harry wants to be popular but I don’t see how he rationalizes this by entering a Talent Show that he is certain to lose, unless the narrator is unreliable. If Lance is the better magician, Lance will get all the attention when Lance wins. Not sure how this is supposed to work for Harry. Unless, there is some indication that Harry thinks he can win which is not evident in this scene.

    If Chris’ believes that Harry is a better magician than he is, isn’t clear either. He doesn’t say anything about Harry’s skill or cleverness as a magician. In fact, he doesn’t even appear that Chris’ has seen Harry do a trick since he says, “You’ve been talking about your magic for as long as I’ve known you. But that’s all it’s been, talk. Now you have a chance to do something about it.” If Harry’s magic has been all talk and no show, I don’t know where Chris’ belief that Harry is a good magician comes from?

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  5. You've done a good job at tightening this up--the timeline makes much more sense now.

    There were a couple phrases that were more wordy than necessary. For example, "One day, my opportunity to amaze, tantalize, and astound presented itself in the form of a flyer telling all the details about the Spring Talent Show"--you could cut "telling all the details."

    One part was a little confusing to me: When Criss started applauding, Harry "took advantage of every clap." But in the next sentence he seems embarrassed, grabbing Criss and wanting to leave (maybe due to his ambivalence about signing up for the Talent Show and his fear of failure?). Then, he does bask in the admiration of his (unfortunately nonexistent) audience. The shifting tone of that section tripped me up a little.

    It's really an enjoyable read. In particular, the part about Lance suddenly and inexplicably becoming so good at magic really hooks me in. Looking forward to seeing the final revision!

  6. Alanna Thank you so much. Yes it needs to be a little clearer on the "clap". By this time they're alone and it's the slow TV "Slow Clap" you've seen on TV usually a friend starts. Most time it builds when the one starts but everybody else went to follow Lance.