Like many other writers, I spent a few years teaching writing, among other subjects, to people of all ages--college students on up to retired folks and occasionally middle and high school students in weekend workshops. Each class was different, but I relied on several favorite writing exercises to get students writing. I still find myself thinking of them when I face a particular challenge in a manuscript. Here are a few I think are worth trying, no matter where you are in your career.
First, write one descriptive paragraph for each of three people: someone you know very well; someone you have seen in the neighborhood but have never met; and someone you make up.
Second, write a three-page dialogue of two people meeting for lunch, or a coffee break. One is unhappy with his/her job, and the other is satisfied with work.
Third, what is a zipper and how does it work?
Fourth, write the opening page of a short story or novel from the point of view of each of the main characters in the story.
Fifth, if you are a woman, describe your Saturday morning as if you were a man. If you are a man, describe your Saturday morning as if you were a woman.
Sixth, write about things that are silver.
In each exercise, the writer is challenged to observe and record, to think through a specific behavior or incident. In a good story, there is no room for anything vague or unclear, and the greater specificity or detail, the more compelling and involving the narrative.
In For the Love of Parvati, the third Anita Ray mystery, I open with a scene of peril, a man tied under a bridge in a rural area, with the monsoon raging and a river starting to flood. The idea came from an effort to describe a bridge I encountered and how unstable parts of it had become over the decades while other parts looked as sturdy as the day they were constructed. I liked the contrast, and out of that came the opening scene.
In the second Anita Ray book, The Wrath of Shiva, Anita has several conversations with people she is trying to get information from. The key to a strong dialogue is creating the tension between two people who have different goals. Anita goes from store to store, and her goals clash with each storekeeper's.
In the first Anita Ray, Under the Eye of Kali, the opening scene at a breakfast table introduces several women, some of whom I imagined and others whom I had seen in the States or in India. Only the waiter is real.
Readers pick up a book looking for an experience, and it is the writer's job to create that experience, that journey into another world. These exercises are steps on creating that journey.