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Two percenters club: Potomac Falls turns out novel writers

The 2017-17 Potomac Falls High School Novel Writing Club sits in the library during one of its weekly meetings. Courtesy Photo/Stephanie Weinbrecht
Of the hundreds of thousands of people who set out to write a novel, only 2 percent ever finish. Thanks to one club, Potomac Falls High School in Sterling has many of these accomplished "two percenters."

The Potomac Falls Novel Writing Club is now in its third year, and it keeps on growing. The club got its start in Riverbend Middle School, when Sterling resident and New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Stephanie Weinbrecht’s daughter expressed interest in writing a novel.

Weinbrecht’s daughter, Addison, and three of her friends formed the initial club, and once the girls moved on to Potomac Falls High School, Weinbrecht and the club moved with them.

The club follows a mixture of advice from the Young Writers Program, outlined by NaNoWriMo.org (National Novel Writing Month), which challenges participants to write an entire novel in November, and from Weinbrecht’s own experience in publishing 12 titles under the pen name C.J. Ellisson.

Although the club was inspired by NanoWriMo, which takes place in November, it meets year-round. The first couple months of the school year are spent planning and outlining the novels. Detailed outlines are essential to finishing the books, Weinbrecht said. Students who meticulously outlined their books would finish their novels, whereas students who tried to write fueled by an idea without outlining did not.

“That made the biggest difference,” Weinbrecht said. “They all finished their books that first year.”

After outlining, the writing begins, and all club members try to finish writing their books by the end of November by writing at least 1,000 words a day.

One of the original members, Dana Altarace, said she didn’t realize how much planning goes behind writing a novel. For one of her novels, she met the NaNoWriMo 30,000 word book goal, but the story was not as structured as she wanted.

“I really learned my lesson after that. For the whole month of December afterwards, I rewrote a lot of stuff and had to cut a lot of words, but the whole experience really taught me how important it is to plan out and really make sure you know exactly what you’re going to write,” Altarace said. “And I’m sure this applies later on for when I’m going to write my essays for colleges and other papers.”

The rest of the year is spent editing and revising their books, which Weinbrecht said is the most difficult part of writing a novel.

“The real hard part is editing it and making it readable and engaging,” she said.

Weinbrecht said she tries to prepare students for the difficulty of editing. Many writers read their work and get discouraged, so she told them at the beginning they were likely to be dissatisfied with their first draft, but with editing, their novels will improve. She said that while reading back a first draft can be hard on a writer, her students didn’t give up.

“I was floored because so many adults struggle with that,” Weinbrecht said.

Club co-sponsor Bryan Nowak, another local published author, said one month of writing comes out to around three months of editing. Weinbrecht said she uses editing exercises to show the students how to work in a group.

She’ll have students peer edit each other’s stories, and has shown them how to give constructive criticism. But most of all, she encourages all her students to be proud at having completed the book in the first place and that it will only improve from there.

“Things change and sometimes it’s for the better,” member Dalia Gokce said.

Some members are considering publishing some of their works, but Weinbrecht stresses that completing a novel in itself is a huge accomplishment.

“This is not about publishing. This is about telling a story and learning about yourself,” Weinbrecht said. “You really have to embrace what you did and your accomplishment.”

Weinbrecht’s daughter is one of the students planning on publishing a novel. Addison Weinbrecht’s novels have a similar background to Weinbrecht’s, and the two are planning on making Addison’s books a part of one of Weinbrecht’s existing series.

Of the students who return to the club year after year, some continue to work on previous novels while others write brand new books. Some students have also created series based on previous stories or on novels they wrote while in the club.

Weinbrecht also continues to work with graduated students who continue writing novels. She says anyone can continue writing outside a structured class or club as long as they are dedicated.

“You can do this in your spare time if you plan and are disciplined and make time,” she said.

Students come to the club not only to write stories, but to join a community, make memories and learn lessons along the way.

“We’re all improving, we’re all works in progress and I think that’s a great attitude to take into your life because you learn by doing,” Addison Weinbrecht said. “You don’t give up, especially in writing.”

Along with the inspiration to persevere, the club also has an overwhelming atmosphere of support. Member Annette Toth said she’s learned to go outside her comfort zone and member Kyra Breslow said the club has helped her with her fear of failure.

“This club has taught me that just because when you write it down and it’s absolutely terrible, everyone’s first draft is terrible. That doesn’t mean that you as a person are terrible or your idea is terrible,” Breslow said.

Above all, members encouraged other aspiring writers to write whatever inspires them and to just sit down and start writing.

“You have to sit down and do it,” Addison Weinbrecht said. “You have to make yourself do it because it’s not always fun. It’s not fun, fast or easy a lot of the time. It’s hard, it’s difficult and it’s really slow. It takes months, but as long as you keep at it, you get somewhere.”

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