I would like to introduce a new mantra into the writing world: Own the risk. Own the rejection.
I'm afraid I feel a rant coming on, and it's not even one I haven't indulged before in a variety of forms. However, I think some of this really bears repeating.
I'm going to use prologues for this example, but I could just as easily have picked said-bookisms, head-hopping, big opening battle scenes (sorry, SB, not picking on you and Michael), dream openings, flashbacks, etc.
So we as aspiring writers go to a writing forum and post a message entitled something like this: What's so bad about prologues? First of all, let's note that the language here indicates we are not unaware that agents and editors and a good number of our fellow writers have indicated in blogs and interviews and at conferences that prologues will usually get us rejected. But but but we want to put a prologue in our novels.
So we post this plea for validation on a writing forum and this is what happens (more or less). A dozen or so people will respond and maybe debate a little. Two of these people will point us in the direction of two or three agent blogs or interviews wherein the agent lists backstory prologues (*cough*allofthem*cough*) as one of their top 3/5/10 reasons for rejection. They are assuming we don't already know it will add significantly to the rejection risk. Eight of these people will get out their pom-poms and their South Park Michael Jackson voices (Blanket, let's play. Not playing is bad. That's ignorant. Yay, let's play.) and commence to validate our decision based on the fact that they like prologues and agents are mean and ignorant and they also have prologues in their books. And they also have prologues in their books. Mutual validation, anyone? Then two people will actually explain that there's nothing wrong with prologues in theory but they are a problem when the writer does [insert pitfalls] and very few people actually do them well because they are very difficult but we can pull it off if we are careful to [insert technique for overcoming the clearly stated drawbacks]. Notice I used the 'insert-an-explanation' format here, because this also applies to the other types of pitfalls I listed earlier.
But back to my point...
When we knowingly break a writing rule, guideline, expectation it boils down to taking a risk. The cheer squad might want to paint the practice as some sort of exercise in integrity (cue "Wind Beneath My Wings") driven by our muse/heart/divine writing guide aimed at the dark and evil heart of the Ebil Heartless Agent Gatekeeper, but it comes down to playing the odds. How many Don'ts can we fit in this novel before it's a rejection by the middle of page 2? How many can we have and still make it to a partial request? How many can we have and make it to a full? How many can we have and still... I said it before in another post. We rolls the dice, we takes our chances. If we do it, we have to own it. Validation be damned.
If the dice come up snake eyes, it's not the agent's fault or the editor's fault. We knew the rules of the game before we rolled the dice, and we even knew the dice were weighted against us - by the small odds of getting published in the first place, but also because we might have loaded the dice ourselves by doing several of the things agents, editors, and writers (the ones who can actually fill in the blanks in that explanation template) warned us not to do. We cannot now cry about losing the game. Well, we can, and plenty of people do. See bitter whining and railing against traditional publishing, found on any writing forum. But it's a pretty silly, pointless thing to do. Am I saying we should never roll the dice, even a little, even once? Nope. I'm saying we need to own our choice and not blame others when the risk doesn't pay off.
RAH! RAH! RAH!
I've posted before about an insidious kind of writing frenemy, the clueless cheerleader, the super nice person (there are several on every forum) who supports every winge we have about writing. Why can't we...? And she's there to say (cue voiceover from Glenda the Good Witch) oh yes we can and it's beautiful and follow your heart and click your heels and you'll be in New York in no time. But we want to... And he will say of course you should and so do I and so did this writer a hundred years ago and agents just want to suck the life out of you anyway and I hate them even though I'm still querying them but I will probably self-publish because agents and editors are such ebil bastards. But they will not explain the pitfalls or caution us as to the risk or advise us to weigh the risk against the potential reward.
For the love of God, don't be this person. Consider the pain the other writer will feel when they send off that manuscript (with the big opening battle scene prologue that turns out to be a dream, followed by an immediate flashback to a scene depicting how the battle really happened with the story head-hopping between 37 main characters), licking the envelope (or perhaps the Enter key) with strains of "Wind Beneath My Wings" still playing in the back of their head, and dissolving into total identity meltdown when the books is (predictably) rejected for doing all those things we have all heard they probably shouldn't have done in the first place. Be mindful of the fact that it's someone else's risk, someone else's heart on the line, and mix cheerleading with a liberal dose of caveat. If we can't provide the explanation for why a practice is frowned upon and preferably some ideas for how to navigate the pitfalls, we probably don't know enough about the topic to be dishing out advice, let alone cheers of unequivocal validation.
Repeat it with me, my fellows. Own the risk. Own the rejection.