There Are No Rules That Can’t Be Broken: Writing Advice from Marly Youmans

Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magainze.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. 


Marly Youmans is a poet and a fiction writer… and a poet and a fiction writer.  Each time she switches between genres, Youmans proves the inexhaustibility of her imagination and creativity.  (See Youmans’ essay, “Luck’s Child,” on page 302 of BookLife.)

Youmans’ fiction ranges from The Wolf Pit, an award-winning Civil War novel, to Ingledove, a young adult fantasy novel. In between fiction projects, she writes poetry, much of which has been collected in Claire and the forthcoming The Throne of Psyche

Youmans will spend much of her summer teaching creative writing at places such as Hollins College and Shared Worlds.  Below, she talks about some of the best writing advice she has given, missed, and received.


Marly Youmans: The advice I frequently give is to finish what you begin because you learn a great deal by forcing yourself to finish a thing, no matter how ill it looks to you! Solving problems by doing is the only way to move forward as a young writer.

“Finish” is advice I dole out often to my daughter, who is a teenage writer and artist and much more.

But what is the best piece of advice that I’ve ever received?

I was a maniacal reader as a child, so it certainly wasn’t advice to read. That is good advice if you’re not much of a reader, but how could you desire to become a writer if you had not been a reader? Every writer has been mad to read at some point.

Writing every day is excellent advice, but I don’t do it. I doubt any mother with three children does.

Probably the best piece of advice I missed entirely was when poet Michael Harper told me with an air of surprise that I was quite good with form. I had tossed off three or four formal poems for an exercise, and everybody else in our group refused to write any at all. If I had taken Michael Harper’s remarks seriously, I might have discovered something about myself and what I loved that took me years to find out on my own because I was under the thumb of what the world said was the thing to do.

But you ask about the best piece of advice that I took and used.

“There are no rules that can’t be broken.” I’m sure somebody said something like that to me early on, and it is true. Rules have a kind of fascination for us. We welcome most the ones that seem like something we already believe or do. We enjoy the silly or odd ones. We ignore the rest. But there is almost no important rule that cannot be overturned. (Some of the seemingly minor ones like not overusing adverbs or using complicated dialogue tags like “he gargled through a mouthful of hot soup” are impossible to overturn except in the case of comedy and satire.)

I wonder what the biggest rule that I have broken might be. I tend to be violently allergic to doing the same thing twice, and that is precisely what many publishers want us to do: the same thing twice. Or thrice. Etc. Perhaps that is my broken rule.

Or perhaps I have just broken the rule that says that one must answer questions in a straightforward and sensible manner. Yes, no doubt I have just broken that good rule.

5 thoughts on “There Are No Rules That Can’t Be Broken: Writing Advice from Marly Youmans

  1. AMEN!!! I agree with you that rules can and should be broken at times. I've read books that the author used WAS in every other sentence–and I couldn't put the book down. Their excellent writing kept me mesmerized. I've never been one to jump through hoops and writing seems to want us to do just that. Thank you for insightful words.

  2. As a writing teacher as well as a novelist, I add this caveat. First, you should know the basic rules, and you should only break them for a very good reason, and that reason shouldn't be laziness or just to break the rules. It should be for the story's benefit, not yours.

    As to "was," the story was strong enough, otherwise, to make up for so much passive verb use.

    Some very poor stylists, Dan Brown is a popular example, are very successful in spite of their style, not because of it.

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  5. Hi Janetta and Marilynn, and thanks for popping by with interesting thoughts… When I when I draft something I am in a more primitive and instinctual place where I'm not going to follow anybody's advice and where the advice I give myself is more instinctual than anything else. But when I revise, I give myself all sorts of advice (and that's where I would've gotten rid of the “was, was, was” repetition.)

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