Behind The Rewrite: 5 Revising Strategies for My Mother’s Secret Historical Novel @IamAlinaAdams

Behind The Rewrite: 5 Revising Strategies for My Mother’s Secret Historical Novel @IamAlinaAdams

revising strategies

Welcome to New York Times Bestselling Author Alina Adams, who is returning to the blog to share 5 changes she made to her latest book, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region. Keep reading to get insight into Alina’s revising strategies on this intriguing historical fiction book, which is rooted in detailed research about a little known chapter of Soviet and Jewish history. 

Change #1: The Beginning

The first draft of the book which became My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region opened with three chapters setting up the “present day” sequence—San Francisco, CA 1988. (When the bulk of the book takes place in the 1930s and 1940s, 1988 is “modern.”)

It introduced the heroine, Lena, her difficult relationship with her withholding mother, the death of her beloved father, her teenage daughter, and her controlling husband—as well as the man who would become a potential love interest in the future. The three chapters went into great detail about why Lena always felt unloved by her mother, and how her faltering marriage got to this state: Lena used to love that her husband made all of her decisions for her. It made her feel that he cared about her in a way that her mother did not. Now she feels smothered. Her husband’s not the one that changed; Lena is. She knows it and blames herself  . . . but she still can’t help feeling like she wants out. It’s guilt about her daughter that’s making her stay.

However, the feedback I got was to get to the “good stuff”— the story of Lena’s mother and her desperate escape to Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region on the border between Russia and China in the mid-1930s—faster.

So the original three chapters became a single prologue which, in the hardback version, now runs a tight 12 pages. I still hit all the main points, but much more compactly. You have to wait for Part Three to get the details. And learn how it all turns out.

 

Change #2: In the Name of the Father

The first lines of the book read: Lina Mirapolsky’s father was dying. Her husband was trying to get a discount on it.

The newly truncated prologue still opens with the death of Lena’s dad, and her surprise at the way her mother reacts to it.

In the first draft, Lena has always known that he’s her stepfather and adored him anyway.

In the rewrite, his cryptic, dying words send Lena on a hunt which reveals that the man who raised her wasn’t her biological father.

I initially deliberately avoided that, because it felt too cliched, but was ultimately convinced to put it in for the “wham” moment which closes out the prologue. Curious to hear what readers think!

 

Change #3: Straight Ahead

Part Two of My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region follows Lena’s mother, Regina, from the time a neighbor in her family’s Moscow communal apartment introduces 12-year-old Regina to the dream of Birobidzhan, getting her involved with the Yiddish-language newspaper she publishes as well as the historic figures committed to the cause of an independent Jewish homeland in the Soviet Union, until 18- year-old Regina is forced to flee Moscow to avoid being arrested along with her neighbor and all their compatriots.

In the original draft, the story is told chronologically. In the published version, we first meet Regina as she is fleeing, and the question of what she is fleeing from is left unanswered until much later in the story, when she is forced to confess all. The idea here is to set up suspense as to why Regina is on the run, what she is hiding, and her reasons for being so secretive with everyone she meets, including the man she starts to fall in love with.

 

Change #4: Slap, Slap, Kiss, Kiss

In my first pass, Regina’s initial meeting with her future love interest is full of antagonism. Regina smugly feels she knows what’s best for Birobidzhan because she’s read books about it better than Aaron, the man who has lived there for years. This leads to lots of witty banter—the kind I frankly, love to write. But it also made Regina come off as unlikable. (I was writing her as a know-it-all teen-ager who would eventually come to realize the error of her ways, wise up, mature, and admit her youthful folly. But I guess nobody wants to wait that long.)

Now, Regina is still cryptic with Aaron, but it’s because she has a secret she doesn’t want him to discover, and also because she is deliberately turned against him by a third party with his own agenda.

The pair still argues and banters, and I was even able to keep some of the same dialogue. But the context and motivation is different, making her less of a brat, and more of a scared kid.

 

Change #5: Where the Wind Takes You

My first idea for Regina’s story was to have it take place exclusively in Birobidzhan. The little-known history of the place, as well as the paranoid atmosphere—anyone could be arrested at any moment, everyone was always spying on their neighbors, loyalties were constantly shifting, and what was politically safe to say one day could, overnight, become treason—seemed ripe for gripping narrative possibilities.

But then, I decided to up the stakes. Historical fiction, especially featuring Jewish characters, has plundered every aspect of the Holocaust. There isn’t nearly as much written about what was happening at the same time in the Soviet Union.

The USSR lost over 24 million people in their “Great Patriotic War,” roughly half of them military, the other half civilian. The Russians then—as now—fight by throwing bodies at the enemy, treating them as disposable. And then there were the Nazi prisoner of war camps. Western powers were signatories to the Geneva convention. The Soviets were not. Even when they were kept in the same camp, American soldiers were treated much better than Soviet ones. (There’s a reason there were no Soviet prisoners having a goofy, fun time in Hogan’s Heroes.)

Once I did my research there, I decided to throw my heroes from the frying pan of Josef Stalin’s Great Terror into the fire of a Nazi POW camp.

After all, isn’t one aspect of compelling writing to make it seem like things can’t get any worse  . . .  and then make them get worse?

 

More About the Book

historical novel

Buy it on Amazon

With his dying breath, Lena’s father asks his family a cryptic question: “You couldn’t tell, could you?” After his passing, Lena stumbles upon the answer that changes her life forever.

As her revolutionary neighbor mysteriously disappears during Josef Stalin’s Great Terror purges, 18-year-old Regina suspects that she’s the Kremlin’s next target. Under cover of the night, she flees from her parents’ communal apartment in 1930s Moscow to the 20th century’s first Jewish state, Birobidzhan, on the border between Russia and China. Once there, Regina has to grapple with her preconceived notions of socialism and Judaism while asking herself the eternal question: What do we owe each other? How can we best help one another? While she contends with these queries and struggles to help Birobidzhan establish itself, love and war are on the horizon.

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More About Alina

Alina Adams

New York Times Bestselling Author Alina Adams draws on her own experiences as a Jewish refugee from Odessa, USSR as she provides readers a rare glimpse into the world’s first Jewish Autonomous Region. My Mother’s Secret is rooted in detailed research about a little known chapter of Soviet and Jewish history while exploring universal themes of identity, love, loss, war, and parenthood. Readers can expect a whirlwind journey as Regina finds herself and her courage within one of the century’s most tumultuous eras.

Alina is the author of soap-opera tie-ins, figure skating mysteries, and romance novels. She was born in Odessa, USSR and moved to the US with her family in 1977. She has covered figure skating for ABC, NBC, ESPN and Lifetime, and worked for the soap-operas As the World Turns, Guiding Light, All My Children, and One Life To Live. Her historical fiction novels, The Nesting Dolls (2020) and My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region are based on a combination of family history and rigorous research.

Read Alina’s previous Behind the Rewrite post, about her novel The Nesting Dolls, here.

Visit Alina around the web.

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Alina Adams’ Behind The Rewrite: Back And Forth With HarperCollins @IamAlinaAdams

Alina Adams’ Behind The Rewrite: Back And Forth With HarperCollins @IamAlinaAdams

 

HarperCollins new releases

I remember hearing New York Times bestselling author Alina Adams speak at a conference about her figure skating mystery series many years ago. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Alina through social media, and when I heard about her new release, The Nesting Dolls, I knew that if she wrote a Behind the Rewrite post, it would be packed with information. Alina touched on five important areas to consider during the editing process: structure, narrative voice, title, prologue, and the importance of sympathetic characters. I think readers will be fascinated to learn how she struggled with choosing a title for her book. It also struck me that she included a prologue in her novel. I usually advise clients to be careful with prologues as many don’t work, however, Alina’s prologue is an example of one that was successfully executed. Below, you can learn more about the editing stages of The Nesting Dolls and how she went back and forth with her editor at HarperCollins, a big 5 publisher. 

My historical fiction novel, The Nesting Dolls came out on July 14, 2020 from HarperCollins. It tells the stories of five generations of Russian Jewish women, taking place in Odessa, USSR during the 1930s and Stalin’s Great Terror, Odessa, USSR in the 1970s during The Great Stagnation and the Free Soviet Jewry movement, and present day Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. 

My editor bought the book in June of 2018, but it took over a year of back and forth edits for the manuscript to be finalized. Here are the top 5 changes that were made:

Change #1: Structure

The Nesting Dolls is told in three different sections, the 1930s, the 1970s, and 2019. In the original manuscript that I submitted, the story flowed in intertwined chapters. I.e. Chapter One: Daria 1934, Chapter Two: Natasha 1973, Chapter Three: Zoe 2019. The first change my editor made was for me to restructure so that we got all of Daria’s story, then all of Natasha’s, then all of Zoe’s. (Even though, for one rewrite, I convinced her to let me try it backwards, first Zoe, then Natasha, then Daria. I thought it might make it more intriguing, but, in the end, we went back to the chronological version.) My father is happy that we did. He says he gets too confused reading stories told out of sequence. (And speaking of my father, watch him explain how to make vodka from potatoes – a key part of The Nesting Dolls plot – here!)

Change #2: Narrative Voice

In the original draft, Daria and Natasha’s sections were in the third person, past tense, while Zoe’s was in first person, present tense. Since she was the modern character, I thought it would give more immediacy to her story. My editor felt it didn’t allow us to get to know Zoe as well as we did Natasha and Daria, since she was not the best judge of what she was actually thinking and feeling and, more importantly, what effect her behavior was having on others. In this case, she felt we could understand Zoe better if we observed her, rather than letting her tell us about herself.

Change #3: Title

The book went through multiple titles. I’d initially called it, Love Is Not a Potato. Because that’s the first line of the book and refers to the Russian expression, “Love is not a potato. If it goes bad, you can’t throw it out the window.’ (It rhymes in Russian and, as we learned from The Lego Movie, everything is true because it rhymes.) My agent thought it sounded like a children’s book. So I changed it to Mother Tongue, because a big theme in every woman’s story is communication, both the political – in the USSR, saying the wrong thing or even speaking the wrong language could get you deported to Siberia – and the personal, parents and children not saying what they mean, or misunderstanding what is said. My editor thought Mother Tongue sounded like a nonfiction title. We wanted a title that suggested Russia, as well as love, family, and relationships. Unable to think of anything, I turned to Facebook, where one of my friends offered The Nesting Dolls. Nesting dolls are dolls where one is inside the other, inside the other, inside the other. It was perfect, since, inside everyone, are all the family members who came before, and what they lived through. They’re what make you, you!

Change #4: Prologue

The Nesting Dolls always had a prologue. I love to read them, so I write them – when it fits the story. But, in the original draft, the prologue merely set the scene and introduced some of the characters we’ll get to know later, in the present day. My agent suggested making the prologue more compelling by incorporating the story’s climactic dramatic event – the potential exposure of a deeply held family secret – as a tease, to whet the appetite for the drama to come!

Change #5: Likeability Factor

Some of my characters are more likable than others. One, I was told, came off as particularly abrasive and unsympathetic. She mostly complained about her life, blamed other people for it not working out the way she would have liked, and dismissed those who wanted to help her. My editor’s notes were very specific about making her more of a character to root for. I did it by making her more proactive, more heroic in the actions she took, and more aware of other people around her. I added more difficult challenges for her to overcome to show that she was a good person at heart… she just had a tougher time being vulnerable than most. She’s still not the most loveable person in the world, but trust me – she’s much improved!

how to title a book

Want To Read The Book?

The Nesting Dolls is a historical family saga set in the USSR is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. A Book Club Reading Guide is also available

Spanning nearly a century, from 1930s Siberia to contemporary Brighton Beach, a page turning, epic family saga centering on three generations of women in one Russian Jewish family―each striving to break free of fate and history, each yearning for love and personal fulfillment―and how the consequences of their choices ripple through time.

Odessa, 1931. Marrying the handsome, wealthy Edward Gordon, Daria―born Dvora Kaganovitch―has fulfilled her mother’s dreams. But a woman’s plans are no match for the crushing power of Stalin’s repressive Soviet state. To survive, Daria is forced to rely on the kindness of a man who takes pride in his own coarseness.

Odessa, 1970. Brilliant young Natasha Crystal is determined to study mathematics. But the Soviets do not allow Jewish students―even those as brilliant as Natasha―to attend an institute as prestigious as Odessa University. With her hopes for the future dashed, Natasha must find a new purpose―one that leads her into the path of a dangerous young man.

Brighton Beach, 2019. Zoe Venakovsky, known to her family as Zoya, has worked hard to leave the suffocating streets and small minds of Brighton Beach behind her―only to find that what she’s tried to outrun might just hold her true happiness.

Moving from a Siberian gulag to the underground world of Soviet refuseniks to oceanside Brooklyn, The Nesting Dolls is a heartbreaking yet ultimately redemptive story of circumstance, choice, and consequence―and three dynamic unforgettable women, all who will face hardships that force them to compromise their dreams as they fight to fulfill their destinies.

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Amazon

More About Alina

Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, romance novels, and figure skating mysteries. She was born in Odessa, USSR and immigrated with her family to the US in the 1970s. Visit her website at: www.AlinaAdams.com, on Facebook at: AlinaAdamsMedia, on Twitter at: @IamAlinaAdams, and on Instagram at: IamAlinaAdams.

Opportunities For Writers

Are you an author interested in writing a Behind the Rewrite guest blog post? Get the guidelines here.

Are you a writer who could use some editing tips? Check out Stacy’s free resources:

Line Editing Made Simple–5 Days to More Polished Pages  – Free e-mail class packed with line editing tips

Shortcuts for Writers: Editing Made Simple Facebook group – Download the guide, 7 Simple Steps to Nailing Your Book Blurb in Unit 1.

How To Name Your Characters: Tips Every Fiction Writer Should Know – Check out this extensive post on naming your characters, an informative video tour of 7 character-naming sites, and a free PDF guide that summarizes all the information.

Book Editing Blueprint: A Step-By-Step Plan to Making Your Novels Publishable – Learn how to streamline the editing process in this affordable, self-paced online course that will empower beginner and intermediate writers to think like an editor so they can save time and money. A steppingstone to hiring an editor.

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