I know you’ve said that every writer has their own process and they must discover what works for them. Nonetheless, in your discussions of the craft of writing, you often speak of guidelines for writing or, at least, for the finished product. For example you speak of things to avoid, such as prologues or flashbacks. Have you encountered any occasions where the writer completely breaks the rules or ignores the guidelines that you’ve established (at least for yourself), and what shouldn’t work, works brilliantly?
All the time. That’s why I slap the “many roads to Oz” disclaimer on everything I teach.
The thing about rules and guidelines is that most of them are there because they protect the reader from the writer.
Take prologues, since you mentioned them. Writers love prologues, as a writer I love prologues, because they’re the easiest way to get back story in. But as a reader, I hate prologues because I want to get to the story, and there’s all this crap in my way. Here’s the thing: when your reader opens your story, she wants to love it. You own her for the first page at least, she’s on your side. Now what are you going to put on that page, the protagonist you want her to invest in for the entire book, or some stuff from the past that you need the reader to know before she meets the protagonist? Because if it’s the stuff you need her to know, she’ll try to connect with it, only to find out that the character in the prologue is not the protagonist of the story, she’s the protagonist as a little kid or the antagonist plotting evil or whatever. So you’ve just thrown away your best shot at grabbing the reader and for what? Because it was easier for you? Prologues are stupid writing.
Pretty much every rule or guideline out there came out of writers being self-indulgent and caring more about making their jobs as writers easier than about taking care of the reader. That’s why it’s as important to understand the theory behind the rule as it is to follow the rule. That way when you decide to break it, you’ll be able to tell if it really will make the book better, or if you’re just screwing the reader over because you’re too lazy to take the high road and do it right.
Having said that, I’ve read some rules for writing that are just bonkers, so be careful what you read on the internet.
The best writing rule ever comes from Elmore Leonard: “Try not to write the parts people skip.”
That would be the prologue.