The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (HarperCollins 1988).
At the top of the mountain, the writer asked the sage for the Secret of Shifting Untold Units.
The sage paused.
"Short sentences," the sage finally said. "Dramatic pauses. Then a long, jarring sentence that somehow makes itself and the shorter surrounding sentences seem all the more profound.
"That is where you start," the sage said. A hawk landed near his feet.
The writer was disappointed and could not hide his sadness.
"I have journeyed ten thousand steps to learn the Secret of Shifting Untold Units," the writer said. "I want to sell 85 million books, like Paulo Coelho. Yet all you give is a syntax lesson."
"Syntax is the manner in which words combine to create phrases," the sage said. "It is important to immediately define every unusual word. Nudge the reader gently. Never challenge the reader, or she will buy a Mary Higgins Clark book next time."
"That is helpful," said the writer, "but there is more to writing a best-selling book."
"Much more," said the sage. The hawk pecked at seeds on the ground.
"Use indefinite nouns like 'the boy' and 'the juggler,'" said the sage. "That makes it seem as if a dream. Select a vague Important Thought, and repeat the Important Thought throughout the book, always capitalized. Is this what you seek?"
"Yes," said the writer, taking notes with his instrument.
"Use elemental words. Fire. Water. Sugar beets," the sage said. "Symbolic animals are good, too."
The hawk stopped pecking and stared at the sage.
"Make obvious allusions to each of the world's largest religions. Billions of people will think the book speaks to them," the sage said.
"How do I end the book?" asked the writer.
"A good question," the sage said.
The two sat in silence.
"No, really, enough with the portentious pauses," the writer said. "How do I end the book?"
"Remember that Important Thought you repeated every five pages?" asked the sage. "Create a climax which dramatizes the Important Thought in a mystical yet painfully literal manner. Have the hero prevail, and wrap up every loose plot thread in the last two pages. End on a note of triumphant achievement, so that your readers will feel uplifted."
"And that is the Secret of Shifting Untold Units?" the writer asked.
"That's how you earn out your first advance. Then crank one out every year or so for the rest of your life," said the sage.
The writer climbed down the mountain and wrote as the sage instructed. After facing adversity and confronting self-doubt in a picturesque setting, the writer spoke with a healing vision that demanded nothing of the reader. But the market for feel-good pabulum had been saturated by Paulo Coelho, and the writer's book was remaindered within months.
The hawk winked at the sage and flew away.