Before I launched Genji Press — my milestone marker for when I got good and serious about this writing thang — I spent entirely too much time thinking about the surface aspects of the great things I admired, because those were the parts most readily assimilated and copied.
Cargo cult thinking, I guess you could call it. This story has these elements and this flavor; therefore, if I write something with these elements and this flavor, I'll have something as good, and (not coincidentally) something just as deserving of success. Took me a while to figure out why this was such a lousy path to walk. Not just 'cuz it was imitative and deadly to actual creativity, but because this was exactly the same model used by every ninny in marketing, advertising, and sales to whomp together products that existed mainly to be sold to a gullible audience.
It took a long time for me to realize I had to study other peoples' works not as things to model myself after, but as embodied examples of the processes used to create them. It was the process that mattered, not the artifact, but too much of the time we settle for only the artifact because we don't have much information about the process. If the process is about learning how to communicate something personal and make it universal, that's one thing. If the process is about determining the most efficient and targeted way to separate you from your money, not just once but again and again, that's another.
What I take away most from Stanley Kubrick and 2001, for instance, is not the surfaces (the icy precision, the oft-discussed themes of dehumanization and transcendence), but the way those things ended up being embodied in the works — how Kubrick started with a great deal more than we ended up seeing with 2001, for instance, but ruthlessly pared away everything that did not absolutely have to be there to make his points. His work ended only when there was nothing more to leave out, to paraphrase Miles Davis. "What did this person do?" is where to start, because we all have to start there. "Why did they do it?" is the step after that. And then comes, "Where is my own 'what' and 'why'?" The real lesson is always a tough one, and always a few steps removed from the thing itself.