The six books you can't write without:
GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict, by Debra Dixon. This is the bible of fiction writing, period, boiled down to three basic concepts and a couple of very simple charts.
Screenplay by Syd Field. I don't care that you're not writing a screenplay. This stuff applies to YOUR writing.
Scene & Structure, by Jack M. Bickham. The building blocks of story.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. (And part II, also.) A complete no-nonsense workshop.
Prescription for Plotting, by Carolyn Greene aka the Plot Doctor. Okay, it's a notebook and a bunch of charts, plus instructions for using same. It jumps off Deb Dixon's GMC and goes from there. Other people have charts that jump off from the Plot Doctor. Find it here.
Oh, there are lots of other good books out there, too. I've got some scattered hither and yon. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and David King. The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes, by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders. Writing the Romantic Comedy, by Billy Mernit. Techniques of the Selling Writer and Creating Characters, by Dwight V. Swain. The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus. The Fiction Writer's Toolkit, by Bob Mayer. Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.
Big-name books I can't recommend: Steven King's book On Writing. The autobiography was fascinating, but the writing stuff... well, I'd seen it a million other places. Janet Evanovich's writing book, whatever it was called: kindergarten stuff that was mostly an excuse to reprint excerpts from her Stephanie Plum books to encourage the reader to buy those.
NOTE: Romance Writers of America have THE BEST writing workshops around! Try one at your local chapter or even better, go to Bill Stephens' website to get MP3 collections of almost ALL of the workshops given at each year's Nationals... a writer's treasure that only costs about $100 for about a zillion hours of workshops, publisher spotlights and inspirational luncheon speeches.
You'll have to forgive me. I'm trying to get this website up by New Year's Day and this section will require some serious digging -- although all the books should be in my studio or on my bedstands. Or next to the big blue chair in the living room, where I can reach them easily. I'll get to this... soon.
Robert A. Heinlein did indeed have a problem depicting females of child-bearing age and sometimes his right-wing philosophy got a little too heavy for his books to bear, but two novels are particular standouts:
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: A Lunar revolution parallels the American one. Mycroft is one of the premier sentient computers of sf.
The Rolling Stones: Written long before Keith Richards tried his first guitar chord. A Lunar family (the Stones) goes out exploring the solar system. David Gerrold says that he didn’t lift the idea of Star Trek’s tribbles from Heinlein’s flatcats, but... iIrc, Trek’s PTB contacted Heinlein and got his permission to use the concept before the ep was filmed. Lots of fun and adventure – one of the best kids books written, except that kids won’t understand what sliderules are. You probably don't either, you young whippersnapper. Note: Grandma Hazel of this book is ‘tween Hazel of “Mistress.”
Marion Zimmer Bradley: Darkover series. Books can be grouped chronologically starting at Darkover Landfall, when Terran star explorers got lost and had to survive on a metal-poor planet in the middle or nowhere; or during the ages of non-technology when breeding with the planet’s psychic natives formed a psi-powered ruling social class; or the days of dwindling powers when the Terran Empire rediscovers its lost people.
The books with the Free Amazons of Darkover (the Renunciates) are my favorites, especially the trilogy that begins with The Shattered Chain. Beware the final Darkover books that Bradley wrote: they mostly rehash earlier books and use poor continuity. Of course non-Darkover The Mists of Avalon is an epic classic, though I couldn’t recommend the others in that series (and I haven’t read the ones co-written with Paxton). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Darkover_books
Lois McMaster Bujold. Yes, there are actually one or two LMB books that I don’t like. But the others are ones to treasure. I always keep a box of kleenex by my side when reading her, and make sure that I’m alone so I don’t bother others when I laugh out loud. Her Miles Verkosigan saga is luscious stuff. I started with Young Miles, which is a compilation of two books and one novella, then backtracked to get his mother’s story in Cordelia’s Honor -- a wee bit difficult to get through – and then forged on with Miles’ story. There are directories in the back of the books as to which book comes after what, and amazingly they don't give away too much of the plots.
For non-Miles, be sure to read the Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. (And don’t forget your Kleenex! I cried so hard during Paladin that my eyes were swollen for days!) I’d recommend the third book in that series,The Hallowed Hunt, as well but the climax to that had me scratching my head, wondering if a complete explanation had been left out. Give us a tiny rewrite please, Ms. Bujold!!!
Ursula LeGuin. Need I say more?
Rachel Caine writes both the Weather Warden series (beginning with Ill Wind) and the young adult Morganville Vampire series (beginning with Glass Houses). She’s also got a bunch of books out there that I haven’t read yet, but I’ll be tracking those down. She has an unfortunate habit of ending her books in cliffhangers, but other than that she’ll have you on the edge of your seat. (Her last two books have used the cliffhangers merely to show what the conflict in the next book will be.) Very imaginative stuff, and she respects science.
Patricia C. Wrede’s first three dragon books (beginning with Dealing with Dragons) are not to be missed, along with their heroine, Cimorene. Kids and adults will love these. Caveat: Wrede's done a series with another author and, although it was clever, it was slow-moving and imho should have reached a much higher excitement note.
If you want Regency Romance (a really fun sub-section of the genre), there are no finer writers than Sabrina Jeffries, Karen Hawkins and Julia Quinn. They all like a generous dose of comedy with their stories.
Sabrina Jeffries’s A Dangerous Love and The Dangerous Lord are my faves from her. (Sabrina had an editor who liked her titles sounding alike. Thankfully she finally figured out that this was confusing to readers!)
Karen Hawkins: Try her St. John brothers series (beginning with An Affair to Remember) or her current MacLean family series (beginning with How to Abduct a Highland Lord). Both series have a central fantasy element: a kind of family curse.
Julia Quinn: Any Bridgerton family book, beginning with The Duke and I. The last one in the series -- oh, what was its title? -- was great fun because she started it off with a cliche and format that one is never supposed to use and kept 'em coming, each time turning the cliche on its ear. Lovely!
Susan Elizabeth Phillips writes contemporaries, usually with some kind of sport thrown in. (You’re not supposed to do that in romance!) Lady Be Good was considered a groundbreaking book and it had a splendid first half, but I prefer her recent football stuff. Warning: don’t read it back-to-back as it begins to blend together. But I suppose that’s true of almost all authors. That’s how I stopped reading Andre Norton: I read her first three Witch World novels (which was all there was at the time) one weekend and never recovered from the experience.
Jennifer Crusie: the goddess of contemporary romance. She teaches a FABulous workshop on writing, also. This is a woman who’s not afraid of breaking every rule there is, including her own. I’m particularly fond of Manhunting, which is one of her earliest novels (one she doesn’t think too much of these days) (she’s wrong!) and Faking It, which is more the style she writes now and has an art theme that hit home with me. Btw, Jenny writes the best sex scenes in the business. Like buttah!
I was all excited about Don’t Look Down, which Jenny co-wrote with Bob Mayer (who also runs a terrific workshop) because Jenny kept announcing that it had a Wonder Woman theme. Unfortunately that book is surprisingly meh.
Janet Evanovich: Again, I’m quite fond of an early work named Manhunting. Don’t get this confused with a rewritten modern work, Manhunt, which I haven’t read. I’m leery of Janet’s rewritten work – though usually it’s done with a co-author and this one wasn’t. The co-authored things have been simply awful.
Anyway, Janet’s mostly known for her Stephanie Plum series (contemporary mystery comedy with romance elements) and the first book in that, One for the Money, is one of the best books you’ll ever read. Warning: if you read it late at night, make sure your blinds are closed and every light in the house is on. Also make sure others around won’t mind if you laugh hysterically. Later Stephanie books have proven not nearly as good as the first, although lately Janet seems to be recalling that perhaps her lead character should solve the mystery and deal with the miscreants herself instead of letting the men in her life rescue her.
Maybe someday Janet will let Stephanie's life actually progress -- have her learn her craft better, have her grow up just a trifle more, have her make a romantic decision even if it proves to be wrong -- and then we can get back to primo stuff instead of trying to please the lowest common denominator of reader with easy shtick. Janet does a terrific job at shtick, but she's capable of so much more!
Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis is just as good as the movie (no, I've never seen it on stage) though additional scenes of Patrick as a snotty college student who is very much at home with prostitutes, are a real downer. Stick with the movie, but do try Around the World with Auntie Mame, which is side-splitting and sharp societal commentary for the most part. (Its welcome gets a tad worn toward the end.)
And I'll throw in a mention of Peter Mayle's Provence adventures, beginning with A Year in Provence. I haven't read them all and they're not side-splitting, but they're warm and witty and rather drooly when it comes to the French food.