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