Monday, November 18, 2013

Pete Catalano: Rev 2: ZOLTAN THE ADEQUATE



Name: Pete Catalano
Genre: MG Contemporary Humor
Title: ZOLTAN THE ADEQUATE
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 others classes are like with your head-in-the-clouds attitude,” Ms. Shufflebottom said, “but here we do our daydreaming at home. Now sit up, eyes focused straight ahead, 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, or a ploy, something that would get their attention. I needed to get back to my first love . . . MAGIC! I practiced as hard and as often as I could. After school, before school, sometimes even during school, I would run through the tricks and the 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 giving 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 have a chance 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?”
            “My grandpa was one of the greatest magicians that has ever lived,” I explained to Criss. “When I first started showing an interest in magic, my dad was thrilled. After that I tried to make sure I never disappointed him.”
            “Hey I’ve been thrown out of your house enough to know your dad a little bit and he won’t be disappointed if you don’t win the Talent Show,” Criss said, for the first time sounding like he knew what he was talking about, “he’ll be disappointed if you don’t even try.”
            Just as I was about to take Criss’s advice, which the thought of 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 toward the sign-up sheet.
            I had already taken a step toward the sheet when I first saw him coming. Now I stumbled a little as I fell over my own feet, trying to get out of his way.
            “This isn’t a dance competition,” Lance laughed as he watched me flail in front of him. “This is a Talent Show. Those card tricks and sleight of hand of yours won’t be able to compete this time around. Maybe next year.”
            Lance continued 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 as I sidled up next to him. “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 absolute amazement of the roaring crowds in the cafeteria. As each trick he performed became more astounding than the last, more and more people flocked around him. Every guy wanted to be his best friend and every girl wanted to be his girlfriend. 
            “Why don’t you just leave the magic to the memory of your grandpa,” Lance smirked as he walked past us, going back to his fans. “They’ll be plenty of room for you to sit in the bleachers and cheer for everyone else.”
            “I’ll sit under the bleachers and won’t even cheer,” Criss called after Lance.
            “Good comeback,” I slapped him on the back.
            “He’s just a bag of hot air. So,” Criss repeated, “you gonna do something about that or just let it got? If you’re going to let it go, that’s fine, no big deal, let’s just get 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 but Lance had made me even madder. 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, signed my name big enough for someone down at the other end of the hallway 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 hoping just to see me pass 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.

7 comments:

  1. Hi Pete! I love the voice in your first pages and I love Harry. His character shines and I think this manuscript is going to be great. Good work, and it shows how much effort you've put into this.

    The only piece of advice I have for this week is to try and work on the removing the backstory. Some examples of what I mean is:

    " There were just no logical answers for some of the wonders I’ve seen him perform to the absolute amazement of the roaring crowds in the cafeteria. As each trick he performed became more astounding than the last, more and more people flocked around him."
    This is also telling about his abilities, rather than showing.

    Other that, I love this opening and can't wait to read more! Good luck int he future:)

    I'm sorry I missed last weeks comments. We had an early Thanksgiving with my children and because we were traveling and visiting, I didn't have a lot of free time.
    Thank you so much for your advice and comments on my pages. I really appreciate you taking time to help me improve my pages. Thank you!
    Talynn~

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  2. I really like the new layer you've added this time around by fleshing out Lance's character! It just makes me root for Harry's success even more.

    But I'm not sure if the backstory with Harry's family's magical connections needs to be stated outright. It doesn't seem like something he would need to explain to Criss, since presumably Criss would already know. I'm also not sure that Harry would come right out and admit he doesn't want to disappoint his dad. You might be able to just cut that paragraph of Harry's ("My grandpa was one of the greatest magicians..."), and adjust Criss's dialogue slightly to show that he perceives the true reason for Harry's hesitation--which would further illustrate his loyalty and the depth of their friendship. Lance's later line about Harry's grandpa gives readers another hint of his magical heritage... so I think that the point will still come across.

    I also would suggest cutting the second-to-last paragraph, since the only info revealed is that there are 11 talent show contestants--which can be worked in later.

    But other than that, you've done a great job setting this up, and I really want to know what happens next! I wish you the best of luck!

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  3. What I did not explain well in my previous post is that the reader should experience Harry’s dream about the act that causes him embarrassment rather than have this fear broadcast. In the dream before the entire school, Harry does a magic trick. The trick fails and everyone laughs at him. He is completely embarrassed. That’s humiliating enough. It's another leap to have something broadcast in front of the whole world. It would be easier for a middle grade reader to see someone doing something concrete and fail and be laughed at than to face an amorphous humiliation (i.e., no one know exactly how Harry failed to cause such worldwide condemnation.) It also takes the story out of the realm of his school and onto a bigger stage and it does not appear that this is where this story is going.

    Also, it might help this piece if MAGIC—not just the talking of it—were introduced earlier, even if it is a failed magic trick in a dream. I know it is only five pages, but nothing of magic happens in those five pages. It’s all talked about. Instead of having Lance applauded for signing his name to a piece of paper wouldn't it be more fitting for him to do some kind of trick—perhaps a distracting illusion—and the next thing you know his name magically appears on the sign-up sheet. That might be something worthy of applause and it brings in the element of magic.

    Could something like this:

    “I would run through the tricks and the steps in my head until I couldn't think about them anymore.”

    Be shown as a scene of Harry actually performing a trick that is shown to the reader--even if it is in his head. This is what I mean by no magic.

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  4. Perhaps, the reason why Lance is so good is that his parents have paid for him to go to magic schools all across the country. He has learned under the guidance of some of the best magicians around. (However, probably revealed later, Lance is only a good imitator. He doesn't come up with his own tricks. He copies everyone who has ever taught him. His unoriginality is the chink in his armor though this might not be immediately apparent but something that comes up later. However, it could be underscored by some of the things Harry says, “Did I see X, the Magnificent, do the same trick on the Tonight Show. Oh, that’s the old X trick.” The way Lance is written is someone who does magic that amazes and astounds everyone, ESPECIALLY HARRY. It might be a different case if Lance amazes and astounds everyone EXCEPT HARRY. Either Harry can see through the showmanship or has an idea of how Lance did the magic trick. It doesn't appear to me that Harry would be a good magician if he can’t conceptualize how another magician might have done a trick. All Harry may have at his disposal is his grandpa and a bunch of old mildewed magic books at home. He doesn't have the fancy training or the expensive trick cards that Lance does. Harry’s tricks are homemade from junk around the house. But he is an original thinker. That’s the one weapon he has against Lance. Chris could help bolster his friend by relating some of his feats. Right now I'm not given much of an idea of how Lance got so good. Also, magic is something that cannot be faked. So I also have to wonder how Harry is supposed to be able to overcome someone who is so clearly better than him unless I have some idea of his opponent’s weakness.

    I think the sign-up scene is a better but still needs work. The cartoon character Charlie Brown, for example, thought that with enough determination, teamwork, and effort, his team could win a baseball game (even though everyone else knew that Charlie Brown would never win a ball game or kick a football). I don’t see anything in Harry that demonstrates he believes he can win, and I don’t think there is enough social pressure aside for Chris that gives him enough motive to sign up for the talent show.

    The piece should delve deeper into the world of magic and illusion even at the start. I don’t get much of a sense that either Lance or Harry can do any real magic unless I see it on the page and have a sense of how the strings are pulled and the illusion pulled off.

    I am still not a fan of the use of the word Adequate. It’s as if Harry Potter’s friends Ron and Herimone called Potter Harry the Average because they thought the word average was funny. Average isn't’ a very funny word and though Potter may appear average his skills are anything but. I still don’t see how the term Adequate applies to your Harry’s stage name.

    This could be a great read for the middle grade reader who not only gets to engage in story about real magic as it is practiced, but also gets an inside glimpse into how illusions work, the history of magic, etc.

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    Replies
    1. Paco, I appreciate all the time you've put into the feedback, thank you, but I'm afraid you are way off base and concentrating on the wrong things in most of it. Good luck with your writing.

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  6. Hi Bill! I still really love the humor here and the play with how magic is used by Harry. I think it's such a neat idea that magic hasn't been able to (so far) help him overcome who he is as a person. I do think the flashback works better here now that it's explicitly introduced, although I'm still not clear why you start the story where you start it...I don't mind the flashback, but the story starts with him daydreaming in class, which doesn't seem like a very dramatic moment to flash back from (as opposed to flashing back the moment before he steps on stage for the Talent Show..that would add dramatic tension to keep me wanting to read and find out what happens, but the way it's structured now just feels a little jumbled). I think maybe there still needs to be a little more foreshadowing of where the story is going in order to grip the reader from the beginning.

    I also like how you've expanded on the signup moment and the dynamic with Lance and the rest of the school. The pacing feels more even here and I can tell it's an important moment for Harry and the story. There are a few bits of the humor moments that to me felt like they dragged a little or went on a beat too long.

    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.

    Here...we know what a slow clap is. The humor fades when it's explained, so I don't think the last clause is necessary.

    Just as I was about to take Criss’s advice, which the thought of 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 toward the sign-up sheet.
    I had already taken a step toward the sheet when I first saw him coming. Now I stumbled a little as I fell over my own feet, trying to get out of his way.

    Here, I think there is just too much telling going on in the writing. The interaction between the two could show how intimidated he is by Lance and the situation (in a comical and poignant way), without Harry having to say that he's terrified and that Lance is his nemesis. Maybe you could try using just physicality to show this and make the prose more immediate, rather than reflective, the way it's written now. I'm not a humor writer, so it's hard for me to give specific examples, but I've always loved Gordon Korman's middle grade books...he does underdog humor really well.

    Thank you for working so hard on this and good luck as you keep working on it! I've really enjoyed watching your work progress!

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