You are what you eat when it comes to stories.
In my MFA program, we were required to read 80 books over the two-year course of study. Like most writers, I was already a voracious reader, but time constraints and job demands had meant that I read far fewer than 40 books a year. (I did, however, manage to watch a fair amount of bad and mediocre TV.)
In reading such a large volume of books, though, I came to embrace some tenets of story consumption:
1. You will inevitably be influenced by the stories you are consuming.
This is okay, by the way. The essence of artistic development and improvement is imitation. It’s not a problem to let stories influence you. But they will influence you–consciously or subconsciously, like it or not. If you binge watch How I Met Your Mother, you’re likely going to see some influence on how you’re thinking about scenes, situations, humor, dilemmas, etc.
What this means for you: be sure to read stories that are like the one(s) you’re writing. If you say you’re writing a paranormal romance but you never really read that stuff, that’s foolish.
2. Be sure to read some stories you don’t like or enjoy.
When I say you should read stories like the one(s) you’re writing, I don’t mean you should exclusively read such stories. It’s good and wise to read a wide variety of stories. I’m very suspicious of any writer these days who makes blanket statements about genres (“Oh, I don’t really like science fiction.” “Romance just doesn’t appeal to me.”). There is no genre or category of writing that cannot offer you something. In other words, there are no bad genres, there are only bad stories. And you can learn something from all of them.
In fact, there’s a two-pronged takeaway here: First, you can learn something from good stories in genres you wouldn’t normally consume. Second, if a book doesn’t engage you, study why it doesn’t engage you. You need to know what to strive for and what to avoid.
3. Put some hyped books on your list.
If a story captures the cultural imagination, it’s doing something right. There’s no debate there. Even if the book is full of atrocious or sloppy writing that makes you both angry at the fact that the publishing world rewards such tripe with money and envious of the attention, there’s still something worth paying attention to. I’m not saying you should read all the bestsellers and cultural phenomena, but you should try to stomach a few of them and glean what lessons they do have to offer. The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, 50 Shades of Gray, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones–these stories are all doing something very well. Certainly not everything. But something.
4. Read like a writer and like a reader.
You have to do both. You have to slip in and out of both roles constantly. When you’re reading like a reader and you’re really hooked, you have to stop yourself and maybe even re-read what you just read and scrutinize what the story is doing to hook the reader in you. And if you’re reading like a writer all the time, you might miss out on that simple pleasure that readers enjoy–and that you’re trying to elicit within your readers.
That said, I understand how painful it is to read The Da Vinci Code like a writer.
5. Consider logging your story consumption.
Include everything you can, and keep track of time. In any given day, what novels, TV shows, films, news stories, biographies, short stories, YouTube videos, or overly-long Facebook posts did you read and how much time did you spend on each? At the very least, log the big stuff: books, films, TV series. And at least once a week, engage in some sort of evaluation or criticism of it–either in writing or in a conversation with a friend or colleague.
You may already log your reading on Goodreads or something, but I want to urge written reviews rather than ratings. Ratings will do nothing for your progress as a reader. For more, see this essay by Eleanor Catton.
Try this log for a month at least. It will be illuminating. And it might help you re-prioritize a bit.