When you devote your life to any creative pursuit--but writing in particular--it's inevitable that the logic, lessons, and challenges of your craft become relevant to the machinations of your life propper. As such, guides to writing often have a way of doubling as guides to living. And in life, like in the arts, you need to be very careful who you take advice from.
Perhaps the finest example of this is John Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel, written literally alongside his composition of East of Eden. In the form of letters to his friend and editor, the book offers wonderful insight into Steinbeck's life and craft. A less fine example of this is The Cobra and the Key, a guide to writing written alongside the author's composition of a new novel, his struggles to publish the previous one--a 1, 2000 pager titled The Emerald--as well as his attempts to reclaim the heart of his septuagenarian ex-girlfriend and navigate cohabitating with his psychologically unsound uncle.
The Cobra and the Key, following last year's Citizens of Light and the previous story collection Cop House, places Sam Shelstad, for my money, among the funniest writers in Canada. Aloofness grounded in kindness made Citizens of Light equal parts hilarious and moving, but the misplaced brio in The Cobra and the Key makes for a solely hilarious, if not relatable, read.
Professional writer Sam--his cashier job at Value Village is more grist for the mill than actual job--has learned a thing or two about the craft of writing in his many years spent on his masterpiece. While he waits to hear back about The Emerald's certain acceptance with an esteemed small press and begins work on his next masterpiece, he begins to compile all his writerly knowledge into a guide to assist aspirants. It turns out, writing a winner isn't all that tricky. You've just got to know the tricks.
Got a bad case of writer's block? "Insert a new, unhinged character into the story and have them go on a shooting rampage."
Think you'd like to try your hand at a thriller? Easy. "The trick with these stories is to include a large cast of sketchy and suspicious characters. Pretty much everyone in the book should be a likely suspect... They should all say mean things and have a history of criminal activity and no alibi. One character, however, should be incredibly kind and sweet... Your reader will never suspect that they are behind the crime, but at the end of the novel, you reveal that this nice character did the murder."
Bursting with ideas but feeling held back by finicky stuff like grammar? "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 about grammar ever again."
The tidbits of advice on plot, character, style will tell you as much about Sam and his various binds and jams and pickles as they will about writing. In their raving concision and incessant TMI, the chapters of The Cobra and the Key are reminiscent of the bewildering, wrongheaded profundity of one-liner or one-premise humour writers like Jack Handey. As far out as any of these observations might be, there's assurdely something correct or recognizable in each one. And it's this caveat that elevates Shelstad above the handy-but-cheap descriptors like quirky. For sure there's a silliness and inelegance to the whole affair, but so is there in life, and Shelstad has as firm a handle on that as any so-called serious writer.