Read, read, read, READ.
However, there's a catch.
Read what you're interested in writing...but also read everything else. Why? Simple. To learn.
I've learned story structure from literary types like Mark Twain and Raymond Carver. I've learned unusual devices from the beat writers. Nonfiction has given me all sorts of insights into how the world works, but also personal experiences of all types. Never, ever underestimate the personal truth recorded in a memoir. For the longest time I binge-read how to and self help books, not just for entertainment value, but because I was fascinated. I just couldn't shake the feeling that even if they didn't change my life, I might be able to use some of that information somewhere.
Horror has helped me learn to build tension, Sci-Fi has taught me when to rely on research and when to go with the romance of the situation.Anthologies have given me access to authors I never would have known otherwise. Romance has taught me the up and downside to writing with a formula in mind, as well as when research would have helped a plot along and given characters more to do.
Here's the thing. By writing, you learn by doing. By reading, you also learn by doing...by experiencing. You make the journey from acknowledging that something doesn't feel quite right in an author's pacing to realizing just what the bump in the road is (in your opinion, anyway). You discover different ways of approaching the same genre or the same theme. You're allowed to see what tropes are overdone, and you might get insight into how you could change things up a bit, or discover something that hasn't been done enough. By reading everything, you can see what's out there, but also slowly discover where you fit into the giant scheme of things.
I've discovered some beautiful descriptions and stories in short folklore narratives and poetry. I've found amazing storytelling devices in comics and graphic novels, things that aren't usually applied to traditional fiction. Same with the format of long-running manga and even (dare I say it) fanfiction. Think of it - there has to be reasons that certain things appeal to people, so by taking a peek you can see how you can make that work for you.
You also can get an idea of things you aren't comfortable with, or maybe, find hope in examples of how you could approach styles that you never would have tried on your own. Nancy A. Collins and Clive Barker gave me courage to be more graphic in my horror, and Neil Gaiman gave me permission to go back to my love of folklore and start using that as a foundation in my various fantasy work.
You just never know what's going to help you until you start looking.
With that in mind, don't neglect the acknowledgements. People drop some interesting references and names in those at times. I discovered Ray Bradbury, my favorite author, because he was mentioned in a forward in a Stephen King collection. I collect all sorts of industry names by perusing these sections. Pay attention if an author gives you backstory in a short story collection. Places, events, little asides - all of these may turn up gold.
Even if you're not a writer, read everything. By doing this, you slowly expand your comfort zone and your awareness.You'll fall in love with other worlds, open up emotions in yourself, maybe see things in slightly different ways. Why is that important? I'd like to think that it expands tolerance. You never know whose story you're going to end up relating to and who will change your life.
Years ago I passed by the new arrival section in the library and glanced up at the Nikki Sixx photography book/memoir This is Gonna Hurt. At that point in life, I had some fairly strong opinions about Motley Crue. I loved the music, but interviews I read left me cold. I couldn't look away from the cover of that book, though, and as I flipped through it, I was thunderstruck. I think I read that thing in less than a day, then read it again. And again. I still go back to that book because it encourages me in an aggressive way to be more creative, to be better, and I need that. It made me realize that by pre-judging the author because he was in a certain band with a certain stage persona, I was acting in a way that was against what I believed in: empathy, tolerance, and giving people a chance. It gave me back my love of Motley Crue, actually, but it also led me to others. By name dropping artists like Lita Ford, it made me realize that rock isn't just a dude's game, which helped to further get the chip off my shoulder. It introduced me to people like Amy Purdy, who modelled for the book, and the challenges she's overcome in her life - plus, that provided research for a title I was working on, as well. I've gotten so much gold from that book over the years, and it never would have happened if I'd just wrinkled my nose and walked on by.
I'm not saying you have to love everything or even finish everything. Just get out of your comfort zone and read, read, read.
So what do you love to read? What else could you be reading? What's your favorite title? Do you have something that came out of nowhere for you, something that you never dreamed you'd like until you read it?
What are you reading?