Cover image for The Cobra and the Key: A Novel by Sam Shelstad. The background is a burnt orange and there is a black and white cut out image of a man in a suit, he is standing in profile to the camera and is slightly turned away holding a sepia-toned wooden box over his head, which is not visible. He is emerging from a matching box, standing in it up to his shins. The title is printed in a bold, white, all caps, sans serif font reading “The Cobra and the Key” and is pasted around the man with the boxes, “The Cobra” is over the top box, “and” is below and to the left of the man, and “the Key” is further below and to the right. The words, “A Novel” is below the man with the boxes and is printed in a thin, white, letter case, sans serif font. At the bottom of the page the authors name “Sam Shelstad” is printed in a bold, white, all caps, sans serif font. Book cover is by David Drummond of Salamander Hill Design.

The Cobra and the Key

A Novel

By (author): Sam Shelstad
ISBN 9781990071126
Softcover | Publication Date: October 10, 2023
Book Dimensions: 5 in. x 7 in.
264 Pages

About the Book

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(s)

Sam Shelstad is the author of the story collection Cop House (Nightwood Editions, 2017) and the novel Citizens of Light. 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.


“this is a really, really funny short story basically teaching you how to become a writer with some of the worst advice you will ever hear, by the dumbest narrator you will ever meet” —Patton Oswalt, comedian (The King of Queens, Ratatouille)

““Sam Shelstad,” the hapless narrator of the new novel The Cobra and the Key by Toronto-based writer Sam Shelstad, has a problem. A series of them, in fact . . . And this is the novel that we read: a writing guide whose author misunderstands every writing tip and misuses every quote while he’s trying to process his own life.”Globe and Mail

“a satirical novel centred around the life of a writer named Sam Shelstad who is busy at work on a book about his failed relationship, while he awaits word from a publisher about the manuscript he’s sure will make him a star.” —CBC Books

“wry and amusing literary satire” —Zoomer

“This diary of an unlovable loser should prove a roaring good time for fans of dark humor and anyone who has ever read a self-help book whose writer emphasized self over help.” —Shelf Awareness

“In the realm of literary fiction, Sam Shelstad’s novel The Cobra and the Key stands out, offering a remarkable blend of narrative and unconventional writing guide.”BNN Breaking

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

“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 Critic’s Choice Award winner and the bestselling author of Rabbits for Food

“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

“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

“A satirical meta-novel about writing and publishing, featuring Sam Shelstad, a Value Village cashier” —Quill & Quire

“The Cobra and the Key . . . places Sam Shelstad, for my money, among the funniest writers in Canada. . . [T]he misplaced brio in The Cobra and the Key makes for a solely hilarious, if not relatable, read.” —The Bookshelf

“for anyone interested in the writing life, or involved with writing and publishing, Shelstad’s metafiction will elicit chuckles of recognition, and the ridiculousness of the satire some definite belly laughs.”Quill & Quire

“a Value Village cashier while waiting for the world to recognize his literary genius, is presented in the guise of a guide to writing fiction” —Globe and Mail

“The type of book you buy multiple copies, and give them away to all your friends. Hands down, my favorite novel of 2023.”—The Grind