#046 Dom Carter

“If your idea doesn’t work as a headline, it’s never going to fly.”

Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #046 with Dom Carter.

Dom is a lead writer for The Daily Mash, a UK-based satirical news website and has also written for The Mash Report and Late Night Mash TV shows. He’s a freelance writer with an excellent work ethic and a keen eye for finding the humour in the news. This one is PACKED with practical advice for anyone with an interest in satire or topical writing and a story that will resonate with all writers.

Honestly, get a notebook ready.

When did you start writing?

I drew lots of comics as a kid which I think uses the same part of the brain that lends itself to writing and storytelling, so I guess that was the start of me writing without really realising it.

In terms of comedy I think it was when I was about 14. I’d just watched Phill Jupitus’ Quadrophobia stand-up on VHS and it was a revelation. He joked about and riffed on things in a way that felt so relatable, and the comedy felt so far ahead of other routines I’d seen up until that point. It wasn’t until I was in my mid twenties though that I started submitting stuff to Newsjack, but in all that time I was always thinking about topics in that sort of stand-up way, trying to find a funny angle on them. I just wasn’t doing the graft of actually hammering the ideas out via writing.

What was your first paid writing job and how did you land it?

I think the first time I was given actual money for stringing words together was for a company which produces blog posts that make websites appear higher up in Google. If you know what SEO means you’ll know what I’m on about.

These articles would be about all sorts of odd things like airport car parking and the advantages of different kinds of casters. This led to a job where I wrote about carrier bags for a packaging wholesaler. Then I moved on to write website copy for an online accounting company, which was around the time I got a small interview in SFX magazine. It was a tiny column where I talked to one of my former creative writing lecturers about her recently-released book. I massively over-prepared and they only needed a fraction of what she said. It was a good lesson though – understand the brief before doing the work.

Are you a full-time writer or do you balance it with another job?

I’m a full-time freelance writer for various clients, mainly magazines and websites.

I made the leap in September 2019, so not long before Covid struck. Looking back on it I don’t think I would have made the leap even a few months later. Going freelance was nerve-wracking enough even without a pandemic to contend with, but it was also really enjoyable to be my own boss. Plus it gave me a head start on this whole working from home malarkey.

You’re a lead writer for The Daily Mash. Before we get into that, can you explain what The Daily Mash is for anyone who doesn’t know?

The Daily Mash is a UK-based satirical news website. It tackles issues of the day as well as handling observational stuff, usually skewering middle class sensibilities. Wikipedia says some people somewhere compare it to the US site The Onion, which is flattering. I’ve been lucky enough to write for it for a couple of years now.

“One technique I have is where the headline reads like a totally normal headline until the last word.”

What is your process like for writing a satirical news article?

I watch about three screens displaying the news at once and neck so much coffee I’ll probably still be awake long after I’m dead.

Really though it depends on the day and the news. If there’s a big breaking story then I’ll try to approach it from different angles and come up with various headline ideas. The headline is the whole take in its most condensed, funny form, so if your idea doesn’t work as a headline, it’s never going to fly. On slow news days I tend to cast the net further wide and tackle broader stuff depending on the time of year.

As for the actual process of writing the articles, I tend to have a series of approaches in my head on standby that I can run the stories through. Sometimes I’m looking for one specific detail in a story that I can pull out and use as a jumping off point, other times I’m thinking about how the story could affect the man on the street and find some humour that way.

One technique I have is where the headline reads like a totally normal headline until the last word, at which point it subverts your expectations. For example I did a story last Christmas Eve where the headline was “Kid leaves out sherry and mince pies for Jeff Bezos”. Another good one somebody else wrote was “Man joins gym to shed personality”.

You’re always looking for a way to throw off the reader in a silly way that still makes sense, and when you’re relying on just a headline, saving the sucker punch to the last word is a good way to turn a sentence into a zinger.

I asked writers on Twitter about how the pandemic impacted their writing. Whilst some people (understandably) slowed down, you found that it pushed you to work harder. Can you explain what your experience was like?

When the pandemic hit, writing for The Daily Mash suddenly became my main source of income because other clients scaled back their freelance budgets. It was a very bizarre situation to find myself in, having to make fun of the pandemic on a regular basis. Almost hilariously bizarre, but mainly stressfully bizarre.

I’d be sitting there watching rolling news updates about restrictions and death rates thinking: somehow I need to make up something funny about this or I won’t be able to pay the rent. I couldn’t claim furlough pay or government grants either because I’d just missed the cut-off date.

I can’t speak for the other writers on the site, but for myself I think there was a caution about the pandemic and how to handle it. It’s unrelentingly grim, but in 2020 there was obviously no escaping from it so I had to write about it. At first I think I sort of tip-toed around it, making jokes about toilet roll, that sort of thing. But then at some point I just had to lean into it totally because making fun of the pandemic was a relief in a way.

As for the actual writing, the pandemic forced me to find new territory for jokes. All of a sudden you couldn’t write gags about going to the pub or hooking up with someone because those things just weren’t topical anymore. Or if you did write about them you had to turn the logic of the situation inside out and make jokes about not doing those things.

But while the pandemic turned observational comedy on its head, it opened up fresh angles too. I found myself writing about a man who was so bloody familiar with his local park that he could recognise individual blades of grass, and a school kid who thought he’d brought Covid about himself because he hadn’t revised for a test and prayed for a miracle.

So I was still tackling the news using the approaches and techniques I mentioned above, but they were being pushed to their limits and creating some really weird stuff in the process.

“When people tap into an obscure interest and make it relatable it results in a good story because that passion and knowledge shows on the page/screen.”

What are some of your favourite articles that you’ve written? Do you find that you’re good at predicting what will receive a lot of hits or is it still surprising?

Every now and then I submit headline ideas that are purely for my own amusement, so if they ever get picked up then that’s fun. I think there’s some sort of ratio that freelancers in the arts use, and the idea is that they’ll do a certain amount of professional commissions and a certain amount of personal work that’s just for their own gratification, so that’s where I got the idea from.

One example of this kind of story was “Knowing all the Doctor Whos in order will get you 70 points instantly, immigrants told”, which I came up with after Priti Patel announced her points-based immigration system. I thought it was so stupidly obscure and nerdy it would never get picked up, but it did and I managed to sneak in some ridiculously niche jokes that I reckon about four people must have enjoyed. There was another one like this where I wrote about a 2000AD reader who ruins his date because he says the woman looks ‘Zarjaz’ (a slang word from the comic that means ‘excellent’.)

I think when people tap into an obscure interest and make it relatable it results in a good story because that passion and knowledge shows on the page/screen. As a satire writer you just want to write the best, funniest story possible and give people a laugh, and if you’re enthusiastic about the topic then that will come across.

Another writer for the site, Angela Channell, did this with a great story about Lord of the Rings names. It packed in so much in-depth about the characters that it really elevated the story.

As for predicting what will receive a lot of hits… I still find it surprising. I try not to get too hung up on the numbers side of things though. You never know how much of a kick people really get out of a story besides a click. Obviously if something could have performed better then you can learn from it for next time, but I like to think that if people enjoy a story then that’s something that can’t really be captured by hits alone.

For example there was a story I read on the site long before I worked on it which I absolutely loved. It was all about how Ed Miliband only lived on a diet of Wagon Wheels. That used to pop into my head fairly often and I’d re-read it just to enjoy it, but that sort of appreciation isn’t the cold hard number that editorial boffins like to tally up.

“Don’t hang around thinking about writing for years like I did, actually do it! You never know what might happen.”

What advice do you have for anyone who aspires to write for The Daily Mash?

I think it’s the same advice you’d hear for writing for any publication, whether that’s a magazine, newspaper, website or whatever. You need to be familiar with it first and foremost. Like, really familiar with it. There’s a sort of cadence and rhythm to the writing, and getting acquainted with that will put you on the right path. Then I think it’s a case of deciding if your jokes or sense of humour are a good fit, coming up with some article ideas, then pitching them.

Don’t hang around thinking about writing for years like I did, actually do it! You never know what might happen. Oh and be funny.

Are there any article cliches that you’re tired of reading?

Not really, no. I think some topics or punchlines can become over-familiar, but even they can surprise you by coming around again and becoming relevant in unusual ways. There’s truth in cliches, after all.

You’ve written for The Mash Report and were on the writing team for Late Night Mash, heading into a TV writers’ room for the first time.

Was this a Zoom or physical room? How’d it go?

It was a Zoom writers room, thanks to Covid. I had an amazing time and it really was one of those bucket list achievements. Watching the telly people say words that came out of your brain is one of the most exciting experiences. It doesn’t feel real.

I sat in on one episode, and helped to contribute headlines to the news desk section, as well as writing up sketches based on headlines submitted by other writers. Creating a sketch based on someone else’s premise was new to me, but I really enjoyed it. Having that foundation means you can focus on a certain theme or angle and try to rinse it for all it’s worth.

I really hope I get to take part in more writers’ rooms in the future.

Besides getting invited to more rooms, what are your current writing goals?

My main writing goal is usually hitting the next Mash headline out of the park. Besides that I’d like to write a sitcom spec script and have a go at improv. I’m not sure which is more intimidating. Tackling a comedy script feels very daunting but with improv there’s the risk of public failure.

Outside of nuts and bolts writing though I’d just like to get to know other comedy writers and chat to them. Writing comedy can be quite solitary sometimes so it would be fun to talk to like-minded people.

What’s the plan to achieve the goals?

There are improv classes in Bristol which isn’t too far from me which I’d like to check out, and that would also be a great way to meet people. As for writing a sitcom script, that’s a case of inching towards the finish line. I think I need to learn more about how sitcom scripts work rather than just diving into writing. Although even just typing that makes me feel like I’m making excuses for myself.

What is your writing routine like? Do you have a dedicated space or any set rituals?

If it’s Mash writing I usually drink a lot of coffee, pace around a lot, and listen to a song that’s caught my attention on repeat very loudly for about ten minutes. I usually do these things while I’m kicking the opening of the story around in my head, but once I have it figured out I switch off the music and just sit down at the table in my living room and write it.

Non-Mash writing, personal stuff, is much more disparate and loose, and usually scribbled by hand. This is only a tiny percent of my writing though and I haven’t seen it through to a finished story yet, so clearly it isn’t the best working method.

“You need to sit down, you need to get words on the page, and nobody else is going to do it for you so just get on with it.”

You messaged me after I published my blog on the Athlete’s Mindset for Writers as it resonated with you. What’s your work ethic like and do you find it possible to switch off?

I’m quite tough on myself. I think there’s a fair bit of mystique surrounding writing, and I can be pretty no-nonsense about it. You need to sit down, you need to get words on the page, and nobody else is going to do it for you so just get on with it.

This doesn’t mean that writing doesn’t feel good or rewarding, but I’m wary of shrouding writing in some sort of mysticism or whatever. ‘Writer’ is quite a loaded word that I think can come across as quite presumptuous, so maybe my work ethic is a self-imposed reaction to that.

As for switching off… no, I don’t think I can. I mean, I’m not writing every second of the day, but I think if you write then you’re observant. And if something catches your eye then you almost can’t help it, you’ll squirrel it away in your head or make a note to come back to it later.

You’re based in Bath. What kind of opportunities do you have available to you there or since Covid, does location not matter so much now?

There are amateur theatre groups, open mic nights, and the annual comedy festival, all of which I need to explore further.

Sadly I think location still matters. There was a spell in 2020 where comedy venues and programme recordings were more accommodating by offering remote viewing, but I think it’s already reset to what it was before, which is a shame.

I managed to attend Newsjack recordings as an audience member via Zoom which was brilliant fun, and something I wasn’t able to do before, and I learnt a lot from it. It’s a real shame there won’t be any more series.

Is writer’s block something you ever experience and if so, how do you deal with it?

I used to feel it more than I do now, and I think that’s because I was hung up on trying to write perfectly. Writing every day with quick turnaround times has been a good way to temper that. Of course I’m still aiming to write as well as possible for The Daily Mash, but the nature of the short deadlines stops me from being able to achieve ‘perfection’, and that means I actually get on with it.

Giving myself the freedom to write without that internal expectation has been a healthy, productive step.

“If you’re getting rejected then you’re actually creating the work and putting it out there.”

What advice do you have for dealing with rejection?

It sounds brutal, but get used to it and don’t take it personally (both easier said than done).

If you’re getting rejected then you’re actually creating the work and putting it out there, which is more than most other people, so you can take pride in that.

Rejections are also a learning opportunity. If there’s feedback, take it on board. If not, maybe ask the editor or whoever to give notes – just make sure you do it politely.

Rejections aren’t the end of the story and they can strengthen your next piece of writing. It used to send me into a tailspin of self-doubt, but it’s just part of the writing process. Admittedly not the most pleasant one though.

If you could reboot any series or movie, what would it be and what would you change?

This is such a tricky question. I generally prefer to watch new programmes instead of reboots, because I think reboots are usually constricted by the source material.

There are lots of shows and cartoons from my childhood that I love and that I think still stand up today, but do they need to be rebooted? I don’t know. Having said that, I’d love to see a new episode of Him & Her, and I wouldn’t dream of giving Stefan Golaszewski notes on how to write it.

Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)

Besides this Fry and Laurie sketch, I’ve never really been taught the mechanics of how jokes work. It’s been more of a self-taught and instinctive process.

“Go deep and really nerd out on what you’re interested in, because it will teach you what works and what appeals to you.”

Mainly I would recommend that writers study what they love. There must be a programme or a story that made you want to write, so examine it. Really break it down and try to put it back together. It sounds mad but I’d even recommend literally typing up and copying your favourite scenes or passages. I imagine it’s similar to how aspiring musicians learn to play their favourite songs when they’re starting out. It gives you a feel for what a quality version of your craft feels like in a way that you can’t totally appreciate just by absorbing it passively.

If people have made podcasts or YouTube videos discussing your favourite programme or film, go listen to them. Go deep and really nerd out on what you’re interested in, because it will teach you what works and what appeals to you.

Like, I’m a big Doctor Who fan and there’s no shortage of people online discussing the writing of individual stories. So I listen to people chatting about them, forming opinions as I go, and trying to feed back what I’ve learnt into my own work. There’s also a book by Doctor Who writer and executive producer Russell T Davies and Doctor Who Magazine journalist Benjamin Cook called The Writer’s Tale, and that’s a fascinating insight into what writing a TV show is like. Even if you’re not a Doctor Who fan it’s a unique glimpse into the brain of one of telly’s leading writers, so why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of that? He’s also quite dismissive of the rigorous act structuring found in various ‘learn to write’ guides, which I find reassuring.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you?

Buy The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. This is sort of like the Yellow Pages of writing which contains up-to-date contact details for editors and advice on how to make it as a writer.

I used to work in a pasty kiosk, and on the way to the stock room I’d get to cut through a WHSmith and I’d read this book off the shelf. Back then the idea of being a paid writer felt like a complete impossibility, but I remember spotting one passage in The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook that said comedy is always in demand. This leapt out to me and spurred me to give it a go.

I spent the next couple of years rewatching my favourite sitcoms, analysing how they worked, what I liked and didn’t like, reading websites like The Daily Mash and trying to recreate them. It still felt impossible that I could ever be part of that world, but it started me on the journey to where I am now.

I still feel like an absolute beginner writer, but it feels like incredible progress from where I used to be. Maybe it will contain something that will prove useful to you too.

Viz-style covers for fictional magazines Dom would make up while on breaks at work in a pasty shop.

What’s the worst part of being a writer?

It would be easy to say something cynical here but honestly I can’t think of anything. I love it. It’s an endlessly rewarding problem solving process. Sure, there are some days when you’re not into it and you can’t seem to get going, but when you get down to it, put the words on the page and watch something come to life, it’s the best.

What makes you laugh more than anything?

Conner O’Malley.

You can follow Dom on Twitter and visit his website.

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