By Holly Cave, Senior Creative
7 February 2023
I write about science and innovation. I also write about worlds ruled by unfamiliar things. My working life fuels my creative life, but the reverse is also true: Being an author has taught me everything about resilience and getting the job done.
Another word for creativity is courage. Attributed to Henri Matisse, this one of the Canva-prettified motivational quote you see plastered everywhere when you’re embarking on the journey to becoming an author. Many years down the line, I know it to be true.
Let’s skip to the good bit. In 2014, I self-published my first novel, The Generation, and managed to sell the audio rights to Audible, who made it into an audio book. In 2018, my sophomore novel, The Memory Chamber, was published in the UK, Germany, and Serbia, and the TV rights sold to a major US production company. The dream came true for me.
But getting to that part took an incredible amount of hard work and resilience that staggers me when I reflect on it.
My creative journey started easily enough, sitting on my dad’s knees in front of his typewriter. My father was unemployed for many of my pre-school years – the archetype of a struggling writer – and we would entertain ourselves all day while my mum went out to work. One of our favourite things to do was to write stories together. He would ask me questions about what happened next and demarcate spaces in the text where I could draw pictures to accompany the words. I can smell the paper, the mild metallic odour of the typewriter, and the cigarette smoke clinging to my dad’s shirt. I can hear the clickety-clack stamping of the keys and the excitable ping of a new line. I often awoke to the same noises at night, muffled by a closed door.
My dad had successes when he was younger, but I don’t believe he published anything that he was truly proud of in the time I knew him. I’m too lazy, he told me more than once. That’s my problem.
Writing must have looked arduous and unrewarding to me as an older child and teenager. I focused on science and went on to study biology at university. But creating my 20,000-word final year dissertation was a total joy. And once working as a curator at the Science Museum, I found myself resenting every moment in which I was doing something other than researching or writing.
I wrote most of my first novel while I was on a career break in my twenties. It was fun, carefree. I was writing for me, with an audience of one. My now-husband and I would sit on the makeshift bed in the back of our car, and I’d watch him read what I’d written. One by one, ninety thousand words appeared on paper and became The Generation.
When I got home, my dad put me in touch with his old agent, who was semi-retired. He meant well, but it was a doomed relationship in which the agent would take months to read the latest draft, before telling me it still wasn’t good enough. I made it better, editing it time and time again, and by the time that I angrily cut ties with him, I had grown a fire in my belly.
I sent it to a very long list of literary agents. Some replied to say the book wasn’t for them, but that I should send them anything I wrote in future. I was told that getting a response of any kind was positive. This journey has been about cherishing every skinny bone tossed my way.
Self-publishing was wild. It deserves its own post, or indeed its own novel. Needless to say, doing everything off my own back was a huge learning curve. Clicking submit and knowing it was finished and out there in the world was reward enough.
I wrote another book, and I sent it back to the agent who had given the warmest response to The Generation. She told me later that she receives over 300 submissions every week. To be plucked from the slush pile was astonishing. We met in person in March 2016, when I was four months pregnant. I remember choosing a baggy top to disguise my growing bump; it was only months down the line, after signing a contract, that I felt safe to tell her about the imminent arrival of my son. I remember walking down Regent Street, my phone to my ear, telling my dad that she’d offered me representation. He died unexpectedly a month later.
I took calls from LA-based television production companies while my new-born son cried in my lap. I edited and re-edited The Memory Chamber in the first few months of his life until it was ready for publication. There have been huge disappointments and existential crises.
I’ve since been trying to write my next novel. So far, I’ve written and shelved two entire books. Hundreds of thousands of words. After the birth of my daughter, I stopped writing for about a year. For a while there, I thought I’d never go back to it. But I persist. And I’m now finalising the first draft of a third novel.
Being an author has taught me that if you create things and put them out into the world, what you are doing is kindling hope. Hope that readers find it and love it. Hope that your humble story is one day translated into Italian or made into a blockbuster Netflix series. Hope that one day you’ll be able to do it all over again.
And while I’ve learnt that creativity requires immense courage and perseverance, I also know that is only possible if you love the process. Enjoyment fuels courage, courage fuels perseverance, perseverance fuels hope. And I’m sure that cycle is true for more things than just writing novels.