Most books on creative writing have a nugget or two, at least, which will be just what you need to hear. With a few, their value may be that you find yourself disagreeing, and in asking yourself why, you come to some of your own conclusions. But as with anything anyone says about writing, you need to bring your Accept-Adapt-Ignore scanner to play on the advice. In other words, you always need to keep an ear pricked for that still small voice inside you which is saying, 'Yes, but...'
On the other hand, if the voice isn't whispering but is shrieking its protests, allow the possibility that what the book suggests is just exactly what you need to help you beyond your present limits. If you're a clear thinker, orderly, a planner, who hates the thought of writing exploratory rubbish, fine. But if the suggestion of freewriting, say, fills you with horror out of all proportion to the reality, maybe that's telling you that there's stuff under there which is rich and strange and undisciplined and, scary though it might be, it's just what you need to lift your writing to the next level. If the thought of cold-bloodedly setting up narrative triangles or a reflecting subplot fills you with horror, because how could you then trust that the right, true, honest material will spontaneously arise... maybe that's telling you that the kind of clearer focus that a bit of planning forces, is just what your writing needs to become clear to others.
Quite often what a book says may be right, but it may also not be as simple as that, and with a book (unlike with a teacher) you can't have a conversation. On the other hand, you can come back to a book, read a bit of it, and so on. Some books focus on one particular aspect, some try to be a complete how-to-write course. Inevitably, each approach has its own advantages and drawbacks.
I would say, though, that it's possible to become a how-to-write book junkie, just as some become a course junkie, or a writers-circle junkie. A book will not teach you how to write, any more than buying an exercise DVD will reduce your blood pressure or your waistline, but only help you to work better at teaching yourself. Buying another book by someone else is not the answer to writing a good book yourself, let alone selling it, and no book on earth will teach you to write a bestseller, whatever the title. But, having said that, I've got very good stuff out of books, and particularly so when my circumstances, my writing or my confidence meant that I wasn't going to start asking real, live people for help.
This is partial list both in the sense that it doesn't contain ever book worth bothering with, because I haven't read them all, and because it's inevitably slanted towards books which set about things in a way that makes sense to me. Click through to my bedside table if you want to know what how-to books are on there at the moment: eventually they'll make it through to here. The Society of Authors has an excellent list here, including links to their own, essential guides and articles on all matters professional, and of course any of the writing magazines will have reviews and mentions of new books.
I do hope, too, that commenters will add their own favourites, and if you do, please say a sentence or two about what kind it is, and what's good about it, so that this page becomes really useful. There are a few here which I haven't read enough of to comment sensibly, but I have reason (recommendation, or I like the author's other such work) to think are very good. I've broken them down into categories, but obviously there's a huge overlap: books which are mostly about finding inspiration also talk about how to approach editors, and so on.
And I haven't included links or publishers because a) they change and b) the first thing anyone who wants to be a writer should learn is how to track down a book, and decide if it's for them. May I only suggest that a good independent bookshop or the independent booksellers' online site The Hive, are very good places to try first. For books which are out-of-print, so you have to buy second-hand, AbeBooks is still much more comprehensive than the biggest online bookseller, even though it's now owned by them. And no, I will not put the so-called classic, Strunk & White's Elements of Style on this list, and if you want to know why, I refer you to this article.
One final caution: with all books which discuss writing from punctuation to author's tours, check whether the writer is American or English, because on all these things we truly are two nations divided by a common object, the book. Also check whether they're actually talking about script-writing, because that's a completely different game. And finally, before you take any advice to heart, check whether you, and they, are talking about fiction, or trade non-fiction, or specialist non-fiction. The realities of the book trade, from submissions to festivals, are very, very different for each of these.
HOW TO READ BOOKS: where it all starts
The Art of Fiction - David Lodge. Started life as a newspaper column and is a delight to read. Incredibly insightful couple of pages on a slightly random selection of questions - Suspense, Skaz, Lists, Beginnings - each using an example from literature, which somehow add up to a really useful toolkit.
Reading Like A Writer - Francine Prose. Rather more organised, not into the conventional plot-character-dialogue, but into the units of writing: word, sentence, paragraphs, and only then character, gesture (fascinating and not discussed enough), dialogue, and so on. Also makes a powerful case for why Chekhov is the greatest short fiction-writer ever. Highly recommended.
How Novels Work - John Mullan. Also brought out of a newspaper column, organised more conventionally. Very good and covers all the ground, also coins the term 'inadequate narrator', for which I will personally love Mullan for ever.
How Fiction Works - James Woods. More of an essay than a book, but amazingly insightful, and has the most subtle exploration of that very slippery topic, free indirect style, that I've ever met.
13 Ways of Looking At The Novel - Jane Smiley. Does what it says on the tin: explores how novels work from both writerly and literary perspectives, followed by a gazeteer describing the 100 novels that she read to find out what the beast actually is.
Aspects of the Novel - E M Forster. The granddaddy of discussing fiction from the writer's perspective, and written (and titled) in conscious opposition to Henry James's The Art of the Novel, which is also fascinating but pretty heavyweight unless you're already a James aficionado.
The Modern Library: the 200 best novels in English since 1950 - Carmen Callil and Colm Tóbín. A subtitle like that is asking to be argued with, but as a Cook's Tour of the best of books of all kinds, from all ends of the market, it's a very good place to start.
The Child that Books Built - Francis Spufford. In exploring how books worked for him as a child growing up, Spufford illuminates how fiction works for all of us.
The Seven Basic Plots - Christopher Booker. Fascinating and very substantial discussion of the fundamentals of how storytelling works. Also useful for throwing at burglars.
Into the Woods: a five-act journey into story - John Yorke. A very insightful and clear exploration of how storytelling is powered by character and change. Yorke comes from TV, so like a novelist he thinks in long-form, with the challenge of getting the audience not just to stay, but to come back.
WRITERS ON THEIR OWN WRITING: I'm rather a fan of this kind of book too, because you're less inclined to take what's said as gospel - as a textbook to be worked or a source of 'right' answers - and more able to pick and mix what speaks to you.
Negotiating with the Dead - Margaret Atwood. Lovely stuff, beautifully written. May I introduce you to your 'slippery double'?
On Writing - Stephen King. Haven't read it yet, but I know a lot of people, and by no means only horror fans, who like it a lot.
Advice to Writers - ec. Jon Winokur. A delightful anthology of aphorisms, quotations, anecdotes and occasionally wisdom. As long as you know never to take an aphorism as a rule, or believe that it's as simple as that, it's very illuminating. Funny, too.
How Novelists Work - ed. Maura Dooley. Essays from distinguished writers such as Caryl Phillips, Penelope Fitzgerald and Maureen Duffy which discuss how they do what they do.
12 Short Stories and their Making - ed. by Paul Mandelbaum. Each story is reprinted for you to read, followed by a Q&A with the writer. Fascinating accounts of how good writing comes about.
Making Stories: how Eleven Australian Novels were written - ed. Kate Grenville and Sue Woolf. Includes Peter Carey talking about and reproduces drafts of Oscar and Lucinda
The Paris Review Archive. Not a book - although you can buy various anthologies selected by date and theme - just the online archive of the goldmine of interviews from literary mag The Paris Review. Includes the great and the good of literature (mostly) in English, from those who were old in the 1950s to those who are up-and-coming in the 2010s...
COMPLETE COURSEBOOKS: even if you're a hard-core fictioneer, exploring poetry and life-writing is immensely valuable.
Creative Writing: a workbook with readings - ed. by Linda Andersen. The textbook for the Open University CW course A215. This is the one to take with you to your desert island or your off-shore lighthouse, as it's very thorough and progressive. It's organised into weeks which build on each other if you choose to work it like that, and includes all the readings it discusses. Covers starting out, fiction, poetry, life writing, and getting published. If you do the course you also get several CDs of interviews with writers, but even without those, it's a goldmine.
The Creative Writing Coursebook - ed. by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs. Another very thorough book. Like the Anderson, it has several contributors, so you don't feel so locked into a particular way of writing.
The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing - David Morley. Not a systematic course, more a fascinating exploration of how Creative Writing works as a discipline. Also has all sorts of interesting exercises.
Taking Reality by Surprise - ed. by Susan Sellers. From 'Freeing the Imagination' to 'Publishing', fifty novelists, poets, editors and journalists cover all the stages.
BECOMING A WRITER AND KEEPING GOING: help with the mysterious stuff of where your writing comes from.
Becoming a Writer - Dorothea Brande. The original and still the best about how to find and develop the material you need, and how to cope with and encourage your writerly self in all its messy inaccessibility. Also excellent for going back to, when the market for ropes is doing its damnedest to mess with your writerly head.
How to Be a Writer - Barbara Baig. Yoga for writers: thoughtful explorations and exercises to stretch and relax you into finding the best writing you can.
Writing down the Bones - Natalie Goldberg
The Artist's Way - Julia Cameron. Not just for writers, although she is one. I know singers and cinematographers and nurses who've found it valuable. Even if you don't follow her 12 steps in detail, it's hugely thought-provoking and helpful.
The Sound of Paper - Julia Cameron: specifically for writers. On the slim, aphoristic side, but always insightful. She does know whereof she writes.
Bird by Bird - Ann Lamott. The originator of the essential concepts of the Shitty First Draft, and the chattering white mice. Also lots of other good stuff from the inspiration-perspiration interface.
HOW TO WRITE FICTION: the craft and art
Writing Fiction - Linda Anderson and Derek Neale. Draws on the same material, readings and exercise as their classic and brilliant Creative Writing: a workbook with readings, but specifically for fiction. Really excellent.
The Art of Fiction - John Gardner. A classic by the longstanding guru of the original Iowa writer's workshops, agreeably trenchant in its judgements, and ready to be argued with. But hard to beat for seriousness, perceptiveness and clarity. The only book I know to discuss psychic distance. Also has a big set of really good technical exercises at the end.
On Writing Fiction - David Jauss. Subtitled, "Re-thinking conventional wisdom on the craft", and first published as Alone With All That Can Happen. Jauss writes short fiction, but this set of essays on such things as present tense narrative, epiphanies, narrative (i.e. psychic) distance, sentence structure and flow, are enormously illuminating for even hard-wired novelists.
Writing Fiction - Janet Burroway. This is the classic US textbook, thorough, well-structured and full of good sense. The fact that some of Burroway's principles and ideas have been simplified and rigidified into the "rules" that get peddled in the dafter writing blogs is not Burroways fault. Stick to her and you'll be fine.
How to Write - Harry Bingham. A good, thorough and substantial guide to writing book-length fiction and creative non-fiction for the book trade that we live in now, from dreaming to punctuation to pitching. As you'd expect from the author Getting Published (see below) it's very good on the practicalities - and mysteries - of finding the intersection between what you write best, and what you can actually sell, but How To Write is about how to write what you write best, as well as you can and then a bit more.
Write to be Published - brisk, sensible advice on all the stages from the first inklings of an idea to sending your work out, from the vastly experienced Nicola Morgan
How Not to Write A Novel - Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. I haven't dared read this yet, but it has many fans. Funny, which is always good. It is possible to take this writing lark too seriously.
Fiction Writer's Workshop - Josip Novakovich. Good, thorough stuff, conventionally arranged by Plot, Character, Dialogue and so on.
The Fiction Writer's Handbook - Nancy Smith. Brief, well-organised run-down of what matters, conventionally organised. Sometimes less is more.
HOW TO WRITE: specifics
Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction - yes, I wrote this one. Despite the title, it's not at all just for beginners at either historical fiction or writing in general, and since most of the problems and opportunities of writing historical fiction are the same as for writing any other fiction, it should also be useful to anyone doing any kind of fiction writing. Until I get round to writing the book-of-the-blog, this is the closest that exists.
The Way to Write - John Fortune and John Moat. The founders of Arvon write a brilliant, slim book about how to handle words. It's not the whole answer, but it's a darned good place to start. Introduction by Ted Hughes, so you sometimes find it listed with him as the author.
Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer's (and Editor's) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths - Susanne Alleyn. Great fun and also very useful. Clear explanations of everything from thou/thee/thy/thine, to titles, (im)proper behaviour in different classes and genders, the lessons to be learnt from programmes like The 1900 House, and of course those underpants.
The Joy of Writing Sex - Elizabeth Benedict. A good, thorough book about this notoriously difficult aspect. Even tackles The Condom Moment.
The Way to Write for Children - Joan Aiken. Who else could they have asked to write the Children's book in the excellent Way to Write series?
A Career in Crime - ed. by Helen Windrath. Val McDermid and others explore how to tackle crime, from character to endings.
Writing a Thriller - André Jute. Ruth Rendell endorses this one - what more could you ask?
Story - Robert McKee. The classic on plotting, stemming from scriptwriting which is a much tighter form, but full of wisdom. Just don't let yourself end up writing all your novels as scripts-in-waiting (though it did Michael Crichton no harm), but allow our beloved baggy monster of a form to be itself.
Rewriting - David Michael Kaplan. It's a true cliché that for most writers, most of writing is in the re-writing. More generous with examples of good (re-)writing than many, too.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers - Renni Brown and Dave King.
Solutions for Writers - Sol Stein. One of the classics, discussing fiction and non-fiction equally. I do try not to blame him (and Gardner and McKee) for excellent insights which others have since turned into iron-clad orthodoxies
Solutions for Novelists - Sol Stein.
Research for Writers - Ann Hoffman. The standard guide, from how to keep organised to how to track down travel times or past parliamentary speeches. Make sure you get the most recent edition: online searching may lure you into buying an earlier edition, and this stuff does go out of date to some degree. (Like so many books about the practicalities of writing, it's published by A & C Black, so you could always check with them.)
Teaching Creative Writing - ed. by Graeme Harper. A lot of us will end up teaching, or doing teaching-like work such as editorial reports for aspiring writers. Both an exploration of how to teach, and a useful compendium of ideas and exercises for all sorts of forms, including radio, new media, and even research in the new academic discipline of creative writing. If I were feeling grumpy I'd complain that it, in itself, is a bit inclined to succumbe to edu-speak and office-speak, with passive-voice verbs and zombie nouns lumbering through too many pages.
Write a Great Synopsis - Nicola Morgan. Excellent, practical advice on the whole business from the Crabbit Old Bat, with worked examples and advice from agents. Funny too, and the first e-book to make it onto this list. Download in Kindle/mobi or e-pub formats from here: http://www.nicolamorgan.com/author/category/publishing-advice-books/
Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers - James W Hall. Not nearly as naff as the title suggests - and it was suggested to me by one of my most literary-writer friends. A fascinating anatomy that uses books like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Godfather and Gone With The Wind to explore what it is that makes a book either an instant smash-hit, or a slow-burn classic, or both.
THE WRITING LIFE: realities and practicalities
Scrivener for Dummies - Gwen Hernandez. Whether you're a close-your-eyes-and-write merchant, or someone who likes to work out every beat for the whole thing before you even think about your opening line, whether it's a PhD or a time-travelling memoir that you're writing totally out of sequence, Scrivener can, with a bit of homework and a teaspoon of patience, make it all infinitely easier.
Dear Agent - Nicola Morgan. More excellent, practical advice from the Crabbit Old Bat, this time on the submission package: covering letter, synopsis and first-three-chapters. Funny, too. Download in Kindle/mobi or e-pub formats from here: http://www.nicolamorgan.com/author/category/publishing-advice-books/
Getting Published - Harry Bingham. Brought to you by The Writer's And Artist's Yearbook. Harry writes novels and non-fiction, runs the UK's biggest writer's services company, Writers Workshop, and knows whereof he speaks.
Wannabe a Writer? - Jane Wenham Jones. Funny and human about the realities of writing, and the only book to take seriously the very important problem of writer's bum.
Wannabe a Writer We've Heard Of? - Jane Wenham Jones. Funny and human about the realities of the being and staying a published author. It's not all champagne and chauffeurs; in fact almost none of it is, and the rest is what this book's about.
Have You Got A Book In You? - Alison Baverstock. Explores the writing life from the point of view of whether really you want to be and whether you could be a writer, with quotations from those who did and have and are (just about) surviving.
On Becoming a Novelist - John Gardner. More of a long essay, but an interesting and revealing meditation.
The Forest for the Trees: an editor's advice to writers - Betsey Lerner. Part how-to-write, from a distinguished US editor, but most valuable is the exploration of what it's like to be published, the realities of the authorly life, how it looks from the publisher's point of view, and how to cope with it all. It also has a list of things that writers should know about publishers, but don't, and what publishers should know about writers, but forget.
101 Ways to Make Poems Sell - Chris Hamilton-Emery. What the founder of brilliant indie press Salt doesn't know about promoting and marketing poetry and literary fiction isn't worth knowing. Invaluable for any writer - which is every writer - whatever they write, who needs to get out there and find readers.
The Naked Author: an author's guide to self-publishing - Alison Baverstock. The digital world has changed everything for self-publishers. The opportunities are huge, but so are the pitfalls; this is the guide to how it all works.
Marketing your Book - Alison Baverstock. The classic: Baverstock also wrote the Society of Authors' leaflet on the same subject.
The Freelance Writer's Handbook - Andrew Crofts. I must get this book and I'm sure my bank manager would be pleased if I did. Crofts is a much-respected writer in many areas including ghosting.
The Society of Authors - has several very good leaflets on all aspects of the business of being a writer, from agency contracts to your literary estate. Free to members, a few pounds to non-members.
The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook. Essential compendium and very useful articles. Just remember a) to cross-check everything with the agent, publisher or magazine's website, which may be more up-to-date, and b) to ignore its advice not to submit simultaneously, because so many take too long to respond (if they ever get round to responding at all) for that to be practical. There is also a specifically Children's Writers' sister edition.
REFERENCE BOOKS FOR WRITING - Just my favourites. Again, be aware whether what you're reading is written from a UK or a US perspective. The rules and customs are very different, from commas to query letters. For example, I personally - entirely personally - have never heard a single thing quoted from Strunk & White which I didn't disagree with.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
Making Sense of Grammar - David Crystal. I love this book, because it's deliberately built as a companion and extension to Crystal's basic book, Rediscover Grammar, and so goes beyond the rules to explore why and how each bit of grammar and syntax affects the things you want to say, and the way you want to say them. Invaluable.
Fowler's Modern English Usage. My favourite, when I do want to find out what the "rules" are - relatively relaxed, but clear about what does actually matter.
Thesaurus - Bloomsbury Reference. Miles the best. Don't get a thesaurus organised like a dictionary, it's not nearly so fruitful.
Slang Thesaurus - Jonathon Green. The only one where you can look up the polite word, and get the slang one.
Rediscover Grammar - David Crystal. Descriptive, angled at understanding grammar to make it work for you, not prescriptive in terms of getting it right and getting it wrong.
Oxford Everyday Grammar - John Seeley. Not quite so comprehensive as Crystal, but exceptionally clear at explaining (and cheaper).
The Penguin Guide to Punctuation - R L Trask. Bilingual UK and US. Once you understand how to punctuate properly, you can start using it expressively.
New Hart's Rules: the handbook of style for writers and editors. Actually it's not so much style as everything you could need to know about apostrophes, italics, foreign languages, numbers, how to address a bishop and thousands of other copy-editorial bafflements. Particularly useful for academic writers, self-publishers and anyone else who isn't going to get much copy-editing.
The Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors. All those tricky words, mis-spellings, UK/US differences, which words of foreign origin get italics, accents and so on. Even if you are going to be copy-edited, one has one's professional pride.
Copy-Editing - Judith Butcher et al. The professional's bible: everything from what order to do everything in, to how to mark up scientific papers. Also a rather painfully professional price (especially since the rules and conventions do change, so you do want the most recent edition) but there's always the library.
REFERENCE BOOKS FOR RESEARCH. But don't forget that a library card should give you access to the big, expensive online resources, such as the full OED, Dictionary of National Biography, the Times Online Archive (every newspaper back to the 18th Century), the big electronic databases of academic journals such as JSTOR, and so on. If you just google First Names, for example, you won't get a tithe of the information or the nuances that a proper reference book will give you.
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Not just obscure myths and fascinating phrases, also a godsend if you need to know the old-fashioned and modern quarterdays (different in Scotland), game seasons, origins of St Elmo's fire and a million other things.
A Handbook of Dates: for students of British History. A life-saver for all historical writers: the complete calendars from AD 400. Even has one for the awkward year of transition between Gregorian and Julian, for every European country. Saints days, regnal and papal years, law terms, etc. etc. How else are you going to discover that a certain popular historian has got the wrong day of the week for a battle?
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory - ed, by J A Cullen. Excellent for decoding those highbrow reviews, and saving the life of anyone who finds they're supposed to know this stuff for their MA or, even more likely, their PhD. Also good for throwing at a very small burglar.
The London Encyclopaedia - ed. by Christopher Hibbert et al. The book you need if London past or present is a character in your fiction.
Hall's Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art. Not just for art historians. You can look up the saint/muse/virtue/concept, or you can look up the symbol.
Oxford Dictionary of First Names. Much more useful than those silly little gifty books. Very good on cognate names across different languages, and so on, and not bad for when a name was and wasn't in general use.
The Oxford Companion to... just about anything. I have Companions to English Literature, The Photograph, Art, The Romantic Age, Quotations, Black British History, The Mind, and The Oxford Medical Companion (though for the detail of what being ill with anything actually involves, I find the next entry more useful:
Nursing Practice: the adult - ed. Margaret Alexander et. al. (Pub. Churchill Livingstone). You want to know what happens when someone dies from septicaemic battlewound? This is the book for you. There is a companion volume on nursing children, but I haven't been able to bring myself to need it
Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: a writer's (and editor's) guide to keeping historical fiction free of common anachronisms, errors, and myths by Susanne Alleyn. Great fun and also very useful. Clear explanations of everything from thou/thee/thy/thine, to titles, (im)proper behaviour in different classes and genders, the lessons to be learnt from programmes like The 1900 House, and of course those underpants.