Rules can serve authors well, but sometimes rules are just made to be broken. This certainly was the case for Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg, author of The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules. When plotting and writing her this international bestseller, she broke as many rules as she could! Now, we aren’t suggesting all writers throw out their rule books for a life of literary crime. But perhaps what worked for Ingelman-Sundberg will work for you, and perhaps it won’t. Either way, there’s certainly something to be said for shaking up your writing by breaking a few classic rules of writing. Here, Ingelman-Sundberg shares the story behind her book and the five rules she always breaks when she writes.
Rule One: Don’t write satire.
In the late 1990s, Sweden started to change. The social system gradually broke down and because of harsh budget cuts elderly people in residential homes were overlooked and treated very badly. Prisoners in Sweden, however, had healthy meals, exercised at the gym, worked in workshops, and were allowed to enjoy the fresh air outdoors every day.
In Sweden you whinge and complain; you don´t write a satire. But I threw caution to the wind and broke that rule. I decided to write a book where I pointed out the problems and mixed severe criticism with laughs. The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules is about a gang of pensioners that steal money to give to the poor and then happily go to prison.
Rule Two: Map out where you want your story to go.
Authors write books in various ways and what is best for one might not suit another, but most authors make plans. They draft a synopsis for their agent or publisher and then they start to write the book. But if I make a outline, I get bored and lose all inspiration. I don´t want to know what is going to happen! So I broke another rule. When I was planning my third book, I described the book in two sentences for my editor. Luckily, she nodded and let me loose. Then I wrote 400 pages.
Rule Three: Take notes.
I do extensive research, but I don´t take notes. You probably should of course—there’s a reason this rule exists! But when I write, instead of doing research on the whole book, I prepare myself for each scene (there are about 60-70 in one book). Tackling one scene at a time, I research as I go. In doing so, the facts are fresh and clear in my brain. When it comes to writing, all those facts provide me with great material and trigger my fantasy. And I have more fun.
Rule Four: Find a quiet workspace.
Loads of authors buy cottages deep in the wood to work undisturbed. I break that rule too. I can write anywhere. I also put music on when I write: loud, happy music when I do entertaining scenes; calmer, classical music when I write about problems or love.
Rule Five: Edit as you go for a better final draft.
Standard practice is to look at grammar and spelling as you write, correcting sentences as you go along. I don’t. I would rather work as a carpenter and designer. First, I build the room—fixing the plot of the story in place. Once the walls are up, I paint it and put tapestries on the walls—developing the characters and working on the setting. In the end I furnish it; that is, I move around words, tweaking scenes and characters further until everything is in exactly the right place. To polish it all off, I add “throw-pillows”: one-liners to add a pop of color the scenes.
Bonus: The one rule you should never break.
When writing and editing, I love watching how the story becomes better and better. Writing, for me, is an entertaining adventure. I throw myself into the middle of the scenes and although my characters actually act, not me, I feel like I’m there too. I’m robbing banks, I’m stealing boats, I feel the joy of giving away that stolen money to the poor, and I laugh out aloud at all the humorous things that happen along the way.
Rules are great—but it’s also fun to break them! The only rule I never break is to live and act your book! And to have fun while you’re doing it. That’s the most important part.
Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg is the award-winning and internationally best-selling author of seventeen books, including The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules and The Little Old Lady Who Struck Lucky Again! A former journalist and maritime archaeologist, she has written across many genres. She lives in Sweden.