Although this is the second entry in my “just keep… “ series, this may be the first rule you should keep and the first rule you have probably kept.
(There are people who don’t read much who decide to write novels, maybe because they love TV or video games, but if you don’t have a passion to consume the art form you’re trying to create, I don’t think you’ll be very good.)
One of the most important reasons to just keep reading is to learn through osmosis. Passive consumption works as a form of unconscious learning. You begin to absorb the rhythms of story and prose from the writers that you read. Things begin to get embedded into your instincts and intuition that will come out in your writing. (One reason it’s important to read good fiction.)
You can also do what I call “active reading.” This is when you read fiction with a more critical eye, focusing to recognize the patterns on the page, sitting and analyzing a phrase that had a particularly strong effect on you and to trying to understand why it had that effect. If you come to learn why and how, you will then be able to use those tools and components in your own storytelling.
I find that it is very helpful to look back at a story that I’ve read and analyze it. What made me care? What made me feel? How did the writer achieve getting me through that emotional journey? What worked for me? What didn’t? And, perhaps most importantly, what almost or only partially worked and why or why didn’t it?
As I ponder these things (and write them down), I am more and more able to use the things I’ve learned from my reading in my own writing. I let the fiction I read fill me until I just burst.
I won’t give you a random number of books a year or pages or hours a day, just that you should do it consistently.
Go forth and fill your mind with awesomeness!