Why are rules written? In the broadest terms, rules are created to avoid repeating past errors. Whether preventing those errors results in saving lives, or protecting financial interests, or simply ensuring a game is played fairly, past errors are often the basis of rules.
Rules about writing do not typically save lives, protect financial interests, or ensure fair play, although writing in the general sense might do all these things through clarity and avoidance of ambiguity. So, why does fiction writing need rules? The answer is the same: to avoid repeating past mistakes.
Fiction writing often involves long years of making mistakes. These mistakes are important in the formative years of becoming a writer. A writer without juvenilia would be as strange as a fully-formed adult being born. Eventually, learning to prevent mistakes leads to efficiency. The fewer errors you make, the more productive you can become, which is a desirable thing for writers, but you must first make mistakes in order to navigate away from them.
Time to revise one of my earlier statements. For a paid writer, rules can protect financial interests by helping to avoid wasted time. To this end you should make a habit of writing rules for yourself—reminders of where you took a wrong turn and the better path to take. I like to formulate these rules as tweets, posts, and essays, or pithy little statements saved in a file. They are reminders to my future self but can be equally useful to other writers.
The question to be asked is: why spend the time making mistakes and writing your own rules when there are so many rules out in the world already on how to write fiction? Being taught creative writing, reading books on the art of fiction, learning other writers’ rules, these are all useful things, but if we rely on these alone our writing risks becoming an amalgam of other people’s opinions.
To establish a balance requires an awareness of common writing rules, like show, don’t tell. But the rules of others are not a simple path to writerly nirvana. They must align with your own rule making, because if they don’t fit how you write then they might not be useful rules at all. They will distort your voice.
I’ll explain by sharing with you an approach to writing that I first encountered in a primary school, which is called A CARP PIE. Its basis is an acrostic:
One of the most interesting things about A CARP PIE is that it’s impossible to trace its origins, because there is no named author or creator. It doesn’t appear to exist in a book or printed resource. And yet its (online) history of posters and worksheets date back more than a decade, and I know from experience that it has been employed in schools prior to that.
There are school websites that make frequent reference to A CARP PIE and I’ve also found GCSE revision material with reference to A CARP PIE. But given its lack of formal presence, I would like to float the idea that someone simply invented A CARP PIE as an innovative lesson or a lecture on education. Somehow it caught the imagination of a few teachers and from there it took hold.
The lack of a printed resource is in and of itself telling, because the ideas contained within A CARP PIE run counter to anything a publisher or editor would typically put their names to. When I first encountered A CARP PIE, it was a moment of disbelief, because of the way in which the writing system encourages what I have always understood to be ‘bad’ writing.
Let me explain. A CARP PIE encourages students to jazz up their writing by starting as many sentences as possibly with adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, and -ing words, and then injecting more wherever possible. To demonstrate this, I offer the following example:
Above, high in the sky, floated a hot air balloon. Fearfully, one of the occupants was wondering what might happen if there were a storm. He searched for land. Waiting, he listened to Eminem on his MP3 player. Bradley, who was on the first flight, suddenly needed the toilet. Desperate and anxious, he searched around for a hole in the bottom of the basket.
Ignoring the overall content and construction of the paragraph, focusing only on the sentences, there is no development—we are hit in the face with emotions and actions before any context is provided. The reader feels like they are stop-starting, jerking forwards. The ‘exciting’ words at the start take all interest out of the remainder of the sentences. And yet this example is repeated in multiple resources.
Imagine a novelist writing a story with the following piece of action (taken from another A CARP PIE teacher example): “Although Geoffrey jumped carefully, he failed to land on Mr Curley’s car.” It wouldn’t ever be printed, because the very things which A CARP PIE tells us to insert, conjunctions and adjectives, are the very thing a writer would remove for being clunky.
The problem with A CARP PIE is not in providing an acronym for remembering different elements of a sentence, but in the suggested employment of these elements. I can only think of one justification for using A CARP PIE in this way, and that is to have a practical way to reinforce the understanding of linguistic and grammatical terms. But the system places understanding terminology ahead of understanding writing, and I find it a cause for concern that this method skews a child’s understanding of ‘good’ writing in the direction of something that lacks maturity and which in the world outside school will appear naive.
Imagine writing a letter to a prospective employer:
Suddenly, I had a job at an amazingly well-lit supermarket. Blipping tills were joyously busy everywhere. I loved every fantastical second working there.
Adding stuff, switching things around, doesn’t always add impact or improve a piece of writing. It can do the opposite. The examples provided demonstrate that the whole idea is a false premise to begin with, and I feel incredulity at the confidence and vigour with which A CARP PIE produces statements like: “In weaker writing, sentences mostly begin with a noun, or the definite article (The).”
If this is true, then most novels are made of ‘weaker writing.’ It’s as if everything that constitutes what the fiction writing community regards as good writing has been inverted. The world described by A CARP PIE feels utterly alien, and I feel lost among it. If the statements made under the umbrella of A CARP PIE are true, then everything I believe, having committed my whole life to reading, researching literature, publishing, editing, and writing, is wrong.
I suspect part of the original justification for A CARP PIE was that it was perceived to add excitement and without breaking any grammatical rules. But grammar should not be played like a trump card, overcoming all other issues. A CARP PIE fails at a far more important level, in the very area it seeks to succeed: it does not engage readers because it tries too hard.
My sympathy lies with the students and teachers having to write and read texts laden with adjectives and adverbs. It ignores the consensus of the fiction writing community, which uses terms like seasoning to refer to adjectives and adverbs. Season lightly is the common message.
We have a situation in schools where writing is a point-scoring exercise; an age-old problem in teaching English. I remember my own frustration at writing stories and essays for GCSE English. It should’ve been my favourite subject, but I refused to bow to expectations, and this didn’t end well for my final grade, because I didn’t follow the rules. But sometimes rules are wrong, and even as children we recognise this. And yes, some children can detach themselves, or not care at all, but others can’t. It means too much to them.
A CARP PIE’s demand that you begin sentences in new and surprising ways doesn’t provide you with the tools to present an honest portrayal through writing. Language loses its utility, and protests from students appear utterly lost on its advocates. One of the most shared and repurposed resources is introduced with the following statement: “More commonly known as A CRAPPIE among the students, it can be effective in any subject, not just English.”
No address is made about why students call it A CRAPPIE, and the message is lost on all the commentators, none of whom acknowledge that it’s called a crappie because that’s what it is! People commenting have mostly given the resource four stars and upwards.
I admit that it is unusual for an essay primarily aimed at writers who have already left school to focus, as this one does, on a primary school teaching system, but in primary school is where the foundations of writing are laid down. Using Twitter as a measure of activity, the peak for A CARP PIE was between 2011 and 2013. Discussion was ongoing through 2014 and into 2018 but the enthusiasm visibly subsides, and I know through experiences with my own children that teachers are no longer committed to A CARP PIE. The online bubble is finally bursting.
For a writing system as flawed as A CARP PIE to take hold for so long a period of time, and for it to be ingrained in the heads of so many children—so many future teacher—there is always a risk that it resurfaces. This is why, rather than shuffling it under the carpet as an embarrassing period for education and mentioning it no more, we must face up to why it was a bad system and put it to bed once and for all.
The universal advice I wish to deliver is that you should trust your instincts, make your own judgement, and write your own rules against which to test the rules of others, and in that way avoid the disaster of following schemes like A CARP PIE. Start to question the rules that we take for granted as a writing community. Otherwise rules won’t stop us from making mistakes at all; they’ll railroad us into them. Simply put: A CARP PIE must die.
© 2020 Anthony Levings
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.