(This is based on one of my Aspiring Author columns on my website, since removed.
I'm often asked by unpublished writers about reference books on writing I find helpful.
First, I truly believe the very best way to learn to write is to write. There really are no short cuts when it comes to finding out what sort of story and characters you write well. Also, I'd caution against too great a reliance on such books. That way leads to "by the book" writing, and you don't want to write like everybody else; editors are looking for writing that's "fresh," something that stands out from the crowd, not fits right in. Yes, there are conventions in genre fiction, but I'm not talking about plot or characters or "happy endings." I'm talking about how you tell the story.
However, there certainly are plenty of how-to books out there, and yes, I've used them. Sometimes, when I'm "stuck" on a particular scene or plot element, I turn to these books to help me figure out why I'm stuck, which usually translates into "where I've gone wrong."
So here you go, Margaret's Favorite Writing Books (in no particular order):
BEYOND STYLE: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing by Gary Provost
TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER by Dwight V. Swain
WORD PAINTING: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan
BUILDING BETTER PLOTS by Robert Kernen
NOVELIST'S BOOK CAMP: 101 Ways to Take Your Book From Boring To Bestseller
WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass
ETA on the blog: I'm ordering two more writing books this week, based on the advice of fellow writers.
WRITING ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BRAIN: BREAKTHROUGH TECHNIQUES FOR PEOPLE WHO WRITE by Henriette A. Klauser
THE 38 MOST COMMON FICTION WRITING MISTAKES by Jack Bickham (although this one has some scathing reviews on Amazon, I figure if I can get one or two new approaches or takes on writing, it'll be worth it.)
Sometimes, though, a writer needs something different from a "how to." Sometimes, you need inspiration to stick with a craft that is often lonely and frustrating.
Here are some books I've found very helpful in that regard:
BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT by Dennis Palumbo
WORD WORK: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer by Bruce Holland Rogers