Icarus Down: Should Simon be a Pilot or a Postal Clerk?


The photograph on the right is entitled Redwoods, by Nate Dorr. It is used in accordance to his Creative Commons license.

Now that work on the draft of my Lamborghini project is finished, pending editorial queries, work on other projects can resume — including a couple of read-throughs that I promised for some friends. I’m also considering the rewrite of Icarus Down.

When I wrote the first draft of Icarus Down, I knew it for what it was: a first draft. I knew that I was going to rewrite the story in its entirety. Many authors do that with their stories, and more. Even after Plain Kate was accepted by her agent, the sheer number of revisions that were done since then produce a pile of manuscripts a foot thick.

But as I look at this revision, I’m confronted with a pretty basic but comprehensive question: who is Simon? What does he do with his life?

Given that Simon’s the story’s main character, you can see how answering this question will have a great impact on the final form that Icarus Down takes. And for the past month, I’ve been wrestling with this, debating myself, and anybody else willing to listen and have questions bounced off them (mostly :Erin:, but also some of my beta readers, particularly Andrew).

Originally, Simon was a pilot, but as I wrote the final part of the story, :Erin: suggested that I might change this. The story was resolving itself in ways that a pilot wouldn’t easily think of. Icarus Down was turning into a story about the importance of language and in the task of communicating the truth. Perhaps it would make more sense if, instead of a pilot, Simon worked in the Postmaster’s office, manning the pneumatic tubes that sent messages whipping through the nooks and crannies of Iapyx. In her view, not only would this help Simon resolve the issues of the plot, it would present Simon as an ordinary everyman, who rises to the occasion under extraordinary circumstances. I made this change just as I finished the first draft of the story.

But then my mother — a fantastic editor, in my opinion — read through my draft and gave me a nineteen page critique (see what I mean about being a fantastic editor?). In her view, as strong as it was, the big problem with the story was Simon itself. In her words:

The big weakness in the book is Simon (who ought to be your greatest strength)… …You have cast Simon very much as a beta male — he is passive, does not try very hard to hold his own against Isaac, tends to follow Rachel’s lead, chooses a risk-free career, insists on not questioning authority, and does very little thinking for himself. In conversation, his responses often make him seem startled, abashed, or confused. This does not make him a character who engages the reader’s interest or sympathy.

Her suggestion: make Simon a pilot again.

And her reasoning was very sound. Not only would this make him edgier and interesting, it would give him more to lose. His injuries could be such that he has to come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be a pilot again. The drama inherent in the fact that Simon now has to reinvent himself could only enhance the story.

For a while, I resisted this change. It made things a lot more complicated in later chapters. I considered what I could do to start Simon out as a pilot and finish him off as a postal clerk, but wasn’t able to think through when such a change would occur, or how to incorporate that into the story.

Until a couple of days ago.

In some other feedback I’ve received, there are some concerns that Simon spends too much time in hospital, recovering from his injuries. I think one of the reasons behind the complaints is that there is a chapter where the drama falls a little flat. At one point, Simon receives a visit from the mayor of Iapyx himself, and the mayor’s brother, Nathaniel Tal, the city’s chief of security. Although the mayor is as blythe as politicians are, and clearly has visited (with newsmen in tow) to get a positive rub from Simon’s ‘human interest story’, these chapters introduce the story’s main antagonist, Nathaniel Tal. As a result of the meeting, Simon worries about leaving the hospital and re-entering the real world, feeling pangs of guilt over how he might have brought down a popular pilot (Isaac).

That never felt right to me, and the issue of Simon’s guilt gets dropped as the plot moves on. However, if the mayor pays a visit to Simon in this chapter, to not only boost his morale, but to bring news of Simon’s reassignment from the pilot academy to the Postmaster General’s office, I can bring about the career change, and increase the drama of that chapter. Simon’s guilt becomes self-doubt and frustration, and his reluctance to start his rehabilitation exercises becomes linked with his dark thoughts, wondering why he should bother since he’ll never fly again. Then, the accident which occurs at the end of the chapter really drives home to Simon that he can no longer be a pilot.

I think this is the way I’m going to go. I need to draw Simon out, make him stand up for himself a little more, and seem less like an accountant clutching his papers to his chest. And I can’t just leave aside the drama inherent in a character being forced to re-invent himself. The change looks as though it will bolster a series of scenes that some of my readers have criticized as ‘slow’.

Rewriting often involves making these connections, spotting opportunities you’ve missed, and taking advantage of them. And from this, you can also see how a character’s profession helps to define the readers’ perception of who they are. These details are often unsettled until late in the revision process. It’s entirely possible that, between now and when Icarus Down achieves submittable quality, things could change again.

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