"A relentlessly witty work of satire, the mastery of which is veiled behind Shelstad’s deceptively clean and cool prose.” —Fawn Parker, Giller Prize–longlisted author of What We Both Know
“The Canadian literary landscape is all the richer for Sam Shelstad and his brilliant twisted books.” —Anna Fitzpatrick, author of Good Girl
Sam Shelstad’s brilliantly funny, slightly unhinged creative writing guide is How Fiction Works by James Wood meets Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.
To the untrained eye, Sam Shelstad may look a lot like a Value Village cashier who shares an apartment with his Uncle Herman and has just emerged from a failed relationship with a woman forty years his senior whom he met at his mother’s book club. But Sam is a successful novelist—or will be soon, he’s certain. The manuscript of his debut novel, The Emerald, is currently on the desk of a celebrated indie publisher. While he waits to hear back, he’s hard at work on two ambitious writing projects. The first is the Molly novel, a fictional rendering of Sam’s newly defunct relationship. The second is a guide for aspiring fiction writers like yourself. The two have much to teach one another, and much to teach you.
Drawing on examples from the work of greats like George Orwell, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro, Clarise Lispector, and Sam Shelstad, The Cobra and the Key takes the novice through aspects of character, detail, plot, style, point of view, dialogue, and meaning. Before long, you’ll be ready to print off your first draft and embark on revisions. Then it’s time to learn some of the tricks of the publishing biz. Having just been threatened with legal action by his soon-to-be publisher for stalking said publisher’s son via Instagram, Sam knows a thing or two about that too. Are you ready to get serious about your writing?
About the author
Sam Shelstad is the author of the story collection Cop House (Nightwood Editions, 2017). He is a regular contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and his work has appeared in magazines including The New Quarterly and Joyland. He was longlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize, a runner up for the Thomas Morton Memorial Prize, and finalist for a National Magazine Award. Shelstad lives in Toronto. Citizens of Light is his first novel.
Excerpt: The Cobra and the Key: A Novel (by (author) Sam Shelstad)
Imagine you are standing in a gymnasium with numerous wooden chests spread out across the floor. Each chest contains one of two things: either a cobra, or a story. As much as you do not want to interact with the dangerous snakes, your curiosity is too great. It’s human nature to crave stories. We need them. So you gamble and open up one chest. It’s a story. You sit down and read, relieved to have avoided an encounter with one of the cobras and grateful that you get to enjoy a story. Once finished, however, you find yourself feeling anxious. The story was fine, but nothing special. You need to open another chest in the hopes of finding another, better story. In fact, you will not be satisfied until all non-snake chests have been opened and you have recovered every possible story. And so, inevitably, you open a cobra chest. You are bitten and the poison slowly kills you.
Let’s now go back and add to this scenario a much larger chest, which sits in the center of the gymnasium and contains an endless supply of stories. These stories, it turns out, are the greatest stories ever told. Beautiful, impactful, masterful stories—much more interesting and satisfying on every level than the ones contained in the smaller chests. The only problem is that this large chest is locked. And the key to open it is located inside the stomach of one of the cobras.
Now, when you go around opening chests, you actually want to open a snake chest. Because if you do, and are able to kill the cobra before it bites you, you might find the key to the big chest. Then you can retrieve the really good stories.
The cobras, you see, represent various problems that writers encounter: problems relating to plot or characterization, for example. The aim of this book is to teach you how to kill the cobras before they can bite and poison you. Once you finish this book, you will no longer fear the cobras. You will be able to kill these different cobras and eventually find the key, open the big chest, and gain access to the higher pedigree of stories.
Now let’s get to work.
All you need to write is a piece of paper and a pen. Most other forms of artmaking require expensive equipment or intense scheduling. Think of everything that must come together for a symphony to reach its audience: all the musicians and their instruments, the endless rehearsals, booking the concert hall, and so on. Meanwhile, a gifted novelist can simply write “Paul listened to a beautiful song” and achieve the same effect. Or try and comprehend the expenses, time, and coordination that go into a film production. Months or even years of work, involving hundreds of people and it all costs a fortune. Yet the slobs watching the finished product need to continuously shove popcorn and candies into their mouths in order to enjoy themselves. And then half of them fall asleep in the theatre anyway. The writer wins again. What about paintings, one might suggest. The tools required aren’t terribly expensive and a compelling work can be completed in a relatively short period of time. And don’t they say a picture is worth a thousand words? With a couple of mouse clicks, however, a writer can copy and paste an image of a painting right into their book. Checkmate.
If you’re having trouble getting started, a nice way to loosen up is to use writing prompts. Search “writing prompts” online and you’ll find endless examples. Sometimes these exercises can actually lead to completed, published stories—even successful novels.
For instance, one writing prompt I found challenges you to write about a stranger sitting next to you on the train and then leaving behind a mysterious package when they disembark. Do you investigate the package? What’s inside? If I were to engage in this exercise, I might have my protagonist open the package and find a balloon with a note stuck to it that says “pop me.” Curious, my protagonist searches around in their bag, finds a pen, and proceeds to pop the balloon. What they don’t realize is that the stranger was an assassin and the balloon is filled with a poisonous gas. This works well because it’s surprising that the balloon has poison in it and it gives me an exciting ending.
Another prompt asks what your character would do if, out for a walk one morning, they come across a hooded figure standing on the other side of the street, pointing at your character and mumbling something. What do they want? Again, I think the balloon of poisonous gas could work well here. The hooded figure is an assassin who hands your character the balloon and tells them to pop it when they get home. After some trepidation and searching around the house for something sharp, they do so, and die from the poison. Another exciting ending. The poison balloon actually works for quite a few of these.
Sometimes the title of a book or story will come later in the process, whereas other times it can actually be a starting point. A good, solid title can guide your work from the beginning by establishing subject, tone, and theme. The 1,200-page novel I’ve been working on for several years and only recently finished composing is titled The Emerald. I landed on The Emerald early on in the process and having it there to inspire me in moments of doubt has been a wonderful creative boon. It’s the perfect title: The Emerald. It’s simple, easy to remember, and brilliantly mysterious. What is this emerald? Where did it come from? How big is it and what does it look like, exactly? Is it very expensive? What happens to it? With two words—one, really—I’ve already grabbed your attention and filled your mind with interesting questions.
If you’re having trouble coming up with a title for your work, walk over to the bookshelf and peruse the spines. What titles work for you, and what ones fall flat? Looking over at my own shelf, I see The Brothers Karamazov. A fantastic title—what a crazy name, “Karamazov,” which makes me imagine these insane brothers. I spot Infinite Jest, which suggests that the book will have no conflict, and is therefore unsuccessful as a title. Better luck next time. Now I see Bear by Marian Engel. How could I not read this immediately? A bear is conflict incarnate. Success. Then I come to Slaughterhouse Five, which is a curious example. The word “slaughterhouse” is quite good, but “five” makes me think I have the wrong book: surely, I need to start with the first in the series, Slaughterhouse. Too confusing. Finally, my eyes fall on Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. I’m definitely getting Marian Engel vibes here. But while the first three words would make for an incredible title, this is spoiled by the inclusion of the last two words. I would have swapped out “It Away” for “Runs Amok.”
Grammar is important and if you find that this is an area in which you could use some help, I recommend the concise and widely praised The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Learning and remembering all of the finicky little grammar rules can be rather challenging, however. Luckily, there is a workaround: if your narrator is an idiot, then they wouldn’t use proper grammar. Write about dumb people, have them narrate your stories, and you needn’t worry over grammar again.
“The Cobra and the Key is a relentlessly witty work of satire, the mastery of which is veiled behind Shelstad’s deceptively clean and cool prose. A true pleasure to read—tongue planted firmly in cheek.” —Fawn Parker, Giller Prize–longlisted author of What We Both Know
“Reading The Cobra and the Key made my stomach hurt, both from the belly laughs and the creeping dread it inspired. The Canadian literary landscape is all the richer for Sam Shelstad and his brilliant twisted books.” —Anna Fitzpatrick, author of Good Girl
Hilarious as it is heartbreaking, The Cobra and the Key is an ingenious and wildly inventive gem. I adored this book.” —Binnie Kirshenbaum, two-time Critics' Choice Award Winner and the author of Rabbits for Food
"Deranged and magical. I'm not exaggerating when I say The Cobra and the Key is one of the funniest novels I've ever read." —Michael Hingston, author of Try Not to Be Strange