Student writers take on the challenge of writing a novel

UConn students are showing their creative side and trying their hand at penning a novek. (Alexandre Araujo/ Flickr, Creative Commons)

Seventh-semester journalism and French major Daniela Doncel sits down to write. The dog is out of her room, her door is closed and she has posted a sign letting everybody know that she is busy working. The lighting in her room is dim, and she has fruity tea sitting nearby in her Slytherin-patterned mug. Her computer is ready on her desk, and the playlist filling the room reflects what she’s about to write. For three or four hours, that’s all she does.

A native Spanish speaker, Doncel has been writing creatively since she learned English in the third grade. Her first 120-page novel and its 200-page sequel were finished by eighth grade. Her senior year of high school, she decided she really did want to be an author, and so she wrote the first novel she actually intends to publish, which is just under 500 pages. She’s been editing that novel ever since.

Writing a book can seem like a bucket list item you’re waiting to cross off—and that you expect to be waiting on until your 30s or 40s. But, for a number of University of Connecticut students, this goal is much more immediate, despite the challenge of finding time to write in a busy college schedule. This shared ambition to write a novel highlights a number of similarities and differences within the writing community at UConn.

Although Doncel may have been unordinarily prolific for a K-12 student, she wasn’t alone in her attempts. Many student writers date their first days of writing back to elementary school.

Amber Smith, a fifth-semester political science major, recalls writing a story in fourth grade about an uncle and his niece who got stranded on a deserted island with a magical bird who taught them the meaning of life.

Briana McNish, a seventh-semester English major, recalls when she was nine and she would write short little books she could staple together.

Other students can trace their start in writing back to a specific moment. For example, third-semester English major Livia Zapata recalls she started writing “in 2008 when the first ‘Twilight’ movie came out.” After that, she wrote her first 10-page book in fifth grade, titled “You Can Run, but You Can’t Hide.”

Most students downplay their early works of fiction, claiming that they were uncreative and poorly written. Smith characterized her magical bird story as “something really, really silly and dumb,” and Zapata’s first “Twilight”-inspired story had characters named “Robert” and “Kristen” after the actors from the “Twilight” movies. However, for the writers, the value of these short, childish pieces is the way they find inspiration and build a foundation.

“That’s when I started writing a lot, and I realized I was really passionate about it,” Smith said.

No matter where they got their start, aspiring student novelists find communities in different places at UConn. Some students join clubs: Doncel is the president of the University Coalition of Writers, a creative writing club. Others, like Smith and Zapata, meet up with writer friends to hold one another accountable and inspire each other. McNish is even trying to write a novel as her honors thesis. There are also a variety of creative writing classes offered through the English department.

Between the busy schedule of a college student and the youth of the writers, it may seem unrealistic that these student writers will actually see their work on the shelves of Barnes & Noble anytime soon.

“I would like to be published,” fifth-semester digital media and design major Erica Lauer said. “It definitely feels like a pipe dream, like I’m this college student, and I want to have this best-selling novel.”

However, although it’s uncommon, there is precedent for young novelists. Christopher Paolini was 19 when he published “Eragon,” and Veronica Roth was still in college when she sold the movie rights for her novel “Divergent.” (, )

Furthermore, Pegi Deitz Shea, a published author and UConn creative writing professor, said she sees a lot of potential in her writers, if they’re willing to capitalize on it.

“I’d say that 50 percent of the students in an introductory creative writing class have the talent to publish in a variety of ways,” Shea said. “Of that 50 percent, perhaps 10 percent have the drive, passion and resilience (to weather rejections) to see it through.”

That being said, students see a lot of benefits to writing besides just publishing deals.

“I never really write with the intention of publishing anything. I write mostly for myself,” McNish said. “Yes, it’s for my thesis, but it gives me a chance to hone my skills as a writer and also to reevaluate what my intent is with writing, if novel-writing is something I wanted to do.”

At this stage in their writing careers, working on technical skills is a common goal for student writers.

“It was a project for me to ‘show don’t tell,’” first-semester biology major and writer Sara Grant said. As part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo,) Grant has written over 50,000 words. “I really wanted to sit and describe.”

Besides improving their craft, writing can also help writers think through important themes.

“I take these stories as opportunities to learn things about myself,” Doncel said. Doncel said one of the novels she wrote helped her understand her religious identity.

The goals writers have, such as publication, technical development and self-reflection, indicate there’s a lot of variety in how they approach their work. This variety only increases when you consider things like genre and plot.

McNish and Smith both prefer speculative fiction and magical realism. Grant is working on a psychological thriller. Doncel and Zapata focus on fantasy. Lauer is hesitant to name a genre for her work, but said it’s something along the lines of “urban fantasy.”

Even logistically, writers all need a different environment to write. Doncel has a very specific ritual she follows, which includes everything like her tea and her low lighting. Zapata likes to listen to ambient sounds while Shea needs absolute silence. UConn alumna Grace Vasington continues to work on novel projects post-graduation, and she described her ideal writing environment as “a really smooth-riding train with lots of sunlight coming through the windows.”

Perhaps more importantly, a variety of experiences also leads writers to each bring something different to the table.

“I’m actually dyslexic, so when I was growing up I didn’t so much read books as I listened to audiobooks,” Lauer said. “I feel like that really kind of makes me aware of how my story is going to sound.”

While diversity between writers is what accounts for such a broad array of literature on the shelves, Vasington and Shea also echoed the idea that a diversity of experiences within an individual can improve writing.

“As a general rule, read and talk to people about many different kinds of life experiences,” Vasington said. “It’s difficult to be an insightful and sensitive writer if you’re not always pushing yourself to learn more about the world.”

Shea emphasized these kinds of experiences need to be prioritized over time-wasters.

“Limit your non-writing screen time, i.e. f— cell phone games, social media,” Shea said. “Get out and observe, travel, meet new people, try new things, exercise, read, attend cultural events—in other words, feed your imagination.”

Ultimately, while every student writer can characterize themselves in some unique way—by the space they need to write in, the childhood memories they weave into their work or the story that they’re trying to tell—in some ways their goals still tie them together. They all have something inside their mind, whether it’s a story or a memory or a dream, that they need to bring into the physical world. Between classes, clubs, teams, jobs, homework, research and all the other random things that happen in college, these students are all writing.


Alex Houdeshell is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.