How I Write – Ciarán McCabe

Ciarán McCabe is from Drogheda, Co Louth and has an MA in Screenwriting and a Degree in Directing for Drama. He has high hopes of one day seeing his feature scripts on the big screen, and his children’s fiction being published. Since he was a wee lad, he has aspired to have his literary collection replace the ‘Ann & Barry’ series on the Irish primary school curriculum.

What are your earliest memories of writing?
Aged 9 we had to write a one page essay for homework in English class. I got carried away from an overexposure to Roald Dahl stories, and ended up writing eight pages. Unlike a history or nature essay – it was sheer enjoyment, and my imagination just rolled out of me. It was escapism for me. There were no boundaries. To my horror, the next day we had to read it out aloud in class – I was the last to put my hand up. After page three of my mini epic, Ms Jackson had to carry the essay reading into the next class – which was fortunate because it was Irish class. I thought my classmates liked my story, but looking back, perhaps they felt that anything was better than getting drilled on the ‘modh coinniollach’ verbs.

What is your writing routine?
I write the old-fashioned way – I start with pen and paper. I never think and type when initially writing script and story. To me, it’s not natural – it doesn’t flow. Scribe first, type, print, and then rewrite/amend with a red pen. During the MA in Screenwriting, one of our lecturers, Eoghan Harris, hammered home the simple discipline of ‘Rage & Rewrite’. Write like a demon in the pm, and in the passive calmness of the am, rewrite. You have to be in the zone for writing – you can’t just turn it on and off like a tap – half an hour squeezed in here, half an hour there just doesn’t lend itself to healthy writing for me. I write for myself first, and then I worry about the audience/reader.

You came to script writing through film studies – tell us about your study of the craft and how film has always drawn you?
From an early age, I always knew I wanted to be involved in something that allowed me to stretch the imagination. The obvious road to this was through Film. I went to IADT in Dun Laoghaire which became the National Film School during our time there. I was lucky enough to specialise in Directing for Drama in my degree year. This allowed me to build up a reel of award-winning broadcast short films and mock commercials. After I graduated, on the strength of the reel, I joined an Advertising production house as a Director for Commercials. The lack of opportunities and the emphasis on strict and structured format were very frustrating. I found the area of media where you attain the most artistic freedom is through writing. The options in writing are only as limited as your imagination.

Eighties coming-of-age movies are still my favourite. Growing up, we recreated the adventures of the boys in The Goonies and Stephen King’s Stand by Me. The Goonies allowed me to step out of my life for 114 minutes – doing what every boy dreams of – searching for hidden pirate’s treasure. If that feeling of escapism and belonging can be created, whether in writing for a novel or a film, you have succeeded.

Tell us how you came to do your MA in Screenwriting?
Coming home frustrated one day from my job, my wife handed me a newspaper advert for a Masters in Screenwriting back in my old haunt, the national film school. I applied and was lucky enough to be accepted. As intense as it was juggling my ‘bread and butter’ job, with a full-time college course, when you dive into something you love, deadlines no longer become daunting, exercises become enjoyable challenges. I found that since I went back and did the MA, I have become more efficient with my time – stretching the hours between work, writing, and fatherhood. You are forced to be more economic with your time – otherwise something has to give.

After working in advertising you left to set up a family business. How did this affect your film or writing work?
For me, working a 9-5 drains a lot of the life out of trying to forge a career from my main love, writing. Your free time is sparse so you have to be economical with it. After I completed the MA, I put my graduation script aside to concentrate on growing our family business. I had an itch. I kept returning to the script, threatening to do a second draft. It was by no means finished but I knew it had potential. We were blessed with a baby son 16 months ago. In my naive mind, I was under the delusion that I could get the script redrafted to a presentable level, while continuing my 9-5, and getting to grasps with a newborn. I learnt very quickly that this was not going to happen.

So, with the approval of a supportive brother whom I work with, and my wife’s blessing, I took a 10-week sabbatical from the family business to get rid of this particular itch! Most encouraged it, but there were one or two raised eyebrows and uncomfortable smiles: “yeah, but writing, it isn’t a real job”.

The whole experience was quite overwhelming – suddenly you are out there on your own.  Writing can be a very lonely experience. Unlike college, I had no deadlines or guidelines other than those that I set myself. But you have to stay disciplined and focussed on the craft of writing – otherwise a mid-morning episode of Jeremy Kyle could be very inviting.

Tell us about the script you have written, the background to it and your process in writing it?
My MA script started out as a time-travel tale, but over the course of a number of early redrafts of my outline and treatment, it gradually turned into a horror, a cross between a horror and a thriller – a ‘chiller’ you could say. I obviously had a dark side that I didn’t know about!

It is a feature-length script, approximately 100 pages. My script is titled Tainted.  It is a story about a father who struggles to accept his son who has Asperger’s syndrome. When he eventually learns to accept him, it is too late – his son is gone. The father faces a journey to try and get his son back while his life falls apart before him.  I am currently redrafting it so that I can get a script editor on board.  From there, I intend to approach a number of film companies so that they can try and source funding. I’ve found my place with writing so, unlike during my college degree years, I am happy to take a back seat and let someone else direct it.

How competitive is the script writing business – are there many opportunities in Ireland?
The scriptwriting game in Ireland is very difficult. Irish film is currently rekindling the golden years of the late eighties/early nineties in terms of worldwide accolade and awards with the likes of Room, and Brooklyn. But this is the cream at the very top. Even after a production company may decide to commission your script, this isn’t quite your ‘I’ve made it’ moment. You could be fortunate that your script goes into production. Or as more often happens, the production company can’t raise the relevant funding or after much back and forth, redrafting of your script by you, plus further deliberation, the production company eventually decides that there just isn’t a market for your particular genre at this time.

I’ve learnt to try and keep my passion for writing, while not being too precious about my work.  If you take criticism personally, or refuse to back down on a suggestion from an agent/script-editor, you’ll get nowhere. You’ll just wear yourself out. If I get the same repeated constructive comments in my feedback, I can’t be precious – I omit or amend. There is a fine line between passion and stubbornness. Afterall, it’s the reader/audience that will determine if your writing is a success or not.

Scriptwriters will often tell you that the film that got made was no longer their story. In the long wait between tapping the keys to spell ‘THE END’, and the film eventually hitting the big screen, producers, directors, actors, and editors have all given it their slant in a grand collaboration. As a result, the essence of your story is often lost by the end product.

For me, that’s the major difference between writing for screen and writing for a book – with a book you hold more control with the final story released to the public. Yes there are editors, agents, and publishing houses who will work with your writing, but nowhere near the multitude of artistic inputs that take place on a film production of your script.

Tell us about your children’s fiction work?
As a side project to scriptwriting, I’ve been writing a children’s book called Bobo & Tutu Nini. It’s about a boy and a pack of friendly wolves, and the boy’s attempts to save his local woods. It’s a polar-opposite to my horror, a great break for when I hit a brick wall with the script. Surprisingly, I feel that one has complemented the other in terms of helping me to write my way out of story problems.

The children’s book idea came about out of frustration. I was uninspired with the books I was reading to my son.  I know at the infant age, colour and textures are the most important elements in their development, but why not complement it with a solid story? It would make it easier on the parents and teachers as they read it for the 42nd time.

In the coming weeks I will get an illustrator on board for my book – this is a process that I am really looking forward to. My story involves a lot of colour and relies heavily on the five senses. Currently, it is aimed at 3 – 5 year olds. When complete, I intend on giving it to a few teacher friends to test on their class. I’m not sure how to go about trying to get it published after that. I know the film script process, but manuscripts and books are all new to me.

Do you communicate with many other writers?
I stay in touch with quite a few guys from the MA. It is important to stay up to speed on what’s going into production, who is getting development funding, and what specialised courses are available out there (Screen Training Ireland offer subsidised short intensive writing courses from time to time). The main advantage of staying in contact is that you get to bounce rough ideas and polished treatments off one another, often giving or taking brutally frank feedback. You need honesty in writing. I love my dear mother but I wouldn’t dream of giving her anything of mine to read – of course she’s going to tell me it’s lovely!

Have you ever suffered from writers’ block?
Writing is an organic process that allows your story to evolve through trial and error. You try something and everything just clicks. Other times, you just hit an almighty brick-wall intent on smashing your imagination to smithereens. At the end of some days, I’ve found my story development has gone backwards. What I’d thought was literary gold, with the benefit of a re-read and reflection, is in fact, below-par writing defunct of perhaps plot, good dialogue, or character development. When this happens, I walk away from my desk – I go for a jog, watch mind-numbing TV, or go out to the yard and kick stones! Like a lot of obstacles in life, when you come back to a problem after a break, it doesn’t seem quite so daunting, and you tackle the issues one at a time. But you have to accept that you will have unproductive days. It’s how you react positively to these off-days that will determine your success as a writer.

What do you like to read?
A lot of my reading these days is via the internet – this is a sad reality but if you can’t beat the technology race, join them. I recently went back to a battered copy of JD Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’. The character of Holden Caulfield is so complicated with so many layers that you can’t put the book down. The most impressive feat of Salinger’s writing for me is that it was written 65 years ago yet still feels very contemporary.

I try to read as many scripts as I can – they are very accessible, anyone can google them to find PDFs.  I watch the film soon after reading the script – it’s a very good analytic tool for scriptwriting. It enables you to get a handle on dramatic beats and important elements such as sequence tensions.

Where do you write?
My desk is against a wall.  This is not great for creativity. I’ve been meaning to move it for a while now. I’m a dab hand in the art of procrastinating.
Ciaran McCabe

LadyNicci comment: I’ve always wondered about script writing. I watch lots of dialogue driven TV shows and who doesn’t love a good movie? The discipline is very different to fiction writing though, as Ciarán explains, more technical. Even to have your work produced involves far more variables than a fiction writer hoping to sell to a publishing house. Self-publishing means fiction writers know they can always put their work out into the world – not so for script writers. Ciarán describes the reality of being a writer – studying the craft, working in it, then taking on a ‘bread and butter’ role to support his family. Still, through it all, he has never lost his passion and this is why he returned to study and later took a sabbatical to work on his writing. With this drive, I look forward to seeing either a script of his on screen or one of his children’s books in my own hands. Maybe he could combine both? Bobo & Tutu Nini sounds perfect for the children’s channel!

H0w I write

How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email with How I Write in the subject line.

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3 Comments on How I Write – Ciarán McCabe

  1. A very honest and inspiring summary of your journey Ciaran. Can’t wait to see the finished product! Please do send be a copy of your children’s book do I can test it on my students!

  2. Nice interview. Wishing Ciaran all the best in his current and future endeavours. One feels it’s going to be good.

  3. Lovely interview Ciaran. Would love a copy of the children’s book to read to Maddie and Seamie. Best of luck X Patricia

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