I have no time for the books that promise a foolproof way to success or tell you how to write the next breakout novel. That's nonsense. No one can predict what's going to be big. The only thing to do is write the book you want to write and write it well.
But I do think there is a place for books on writing. For me, that place is asking the right questions.
Aside from the very basic, "This is a verb. You need to have characters." ultimate beginner's books, I've found a few that actually turned out to be helpful. (The titles are links to the books on Amazon)
1. Elements of Fiction Writing: Character & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
This is actually the latest book I've read and it's been incredibly helpful. I was having trouble with my new book because it's told from two main characters' POVs in first person. I really felt like I hadn't solidified those characters and I turned to this book to help. The thing I liked best about this book was that it didn't tell you how to create in depth characterization. It asks you the right questions so you get there on your own. It really is a book of tools, not answers, and those tools have turned out to be very useful. Card takes you on a journey from basic character creation to understanding your story as a whole and how characterization plays into it. It's well written and easy to follow. I would definitely recommend it to anyone having trouble fully realizing their characters (also take a look at my blog about using the Myers Briggs test to understand you characters here).
2. The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
This book is a really interesting adaptation of Sun Tzu's famous work with a literary twist. It approaches writing a book like a battle. From mental preparation to tactics to what to do after you've "won," it covers the entire experience of writing a novel. It does tend to be overarching and big-picture oriented, but the author does a good job of using concrete examples from real books to illustrate his points. It's full of encouragement and big ideas. It get's you to stop and think, then start writing. The first time I read through it, I kept putting the book down and working on my own book. Any book that gets you to sit down and write must be doing something right.
3. Story Structure: The Key to Successful Fiction by William Bernhardt
I've talked about this book before in my blog The Importance of Outlining, but I really can't stress how helpful this book has been. New York Times bestselling author, William Bernhardt, teaches a series of small group writing seminars that are basically the reason I finished my first book in one year. If you can't afford to take his classes or are too far away geographically, this book (and the rest of the Red Sneaker Writer series) are the next best thing. For me, structure is such an important part of creating a workable first draft. Otherwise you end up with 70,000+ words verging on stream of consciousness. It's hard to organize a mess like that, so why not start out with organization? From overarching structure to how to format an individual scene, this book gives you the nuts and bolts of writing. If you don't know how to use the tools, how can you create something amazing? Every time I start a book (and if I'm having trouble in the middle) I pick up this book. It helps me sort through my pile of scenes and characters and ideas to get to the skeleton of my story. And make sure that skeleton can support the book's weight.
If you have any questions about these books or know of some others that are helpful, comment below!