I always look for excuses to get away from my screen and phone after I post a story online. If I stay connected, I refresh the page to see if the upvote count has changed. Then again. And again. My screen is in night mode because I’m civilized so Reddit’s orange upvotes and messages are easily noticeable when they show up. Even more so when they don’t.
I’ve just posted a story to NoSleep, the first part of a planned series. Traffic on the subreddit is light and it looks like I have a good opening. But the story struggles to climb from the #2 spot to #1. That top placement is where all of the readers are through a combination of natural selection and Reddit’s internal algorithms. It’s a juicy apple at the top of the tree and most writers who post to NoSleep want a bite. The problem is, we have to climb over each other to get there. Things can get...competitive.
I spoke to other regular NoSleep posters about how they view competing for readers with other writers, Reddit’s unique “Karma” voting system, and the stress that comes along with wanting to get your work seen. User Peculi_Dar is a popular NoSleep writer who posts a mix of stand-alone stories and series.
“I feel like the competitive side of NoSleep is best evidenced with a series launch. It's so common for authors to post a first part and drop a series if it doesn't do well,” Daria told me. “Even if it seemed like something THEY wanted to write, the entire WIP (work in progress) gets put into question the moment it doesn't take off. I often wish the upvotes were hidden entirely because they really mess with my head sometimes.”
My own part one was knocking at the gate for the top spot on the day it was posted but couldn’t get past another, wildly popular series from one of the most prolific writers on NoSleep. I was too early with my window, that brief opening on the subreddit when the current top story is 10 or more hours old and nothing else is climbing quickly. After about 10 hours, Reddit’s sorting algorithm will start to decay the post, giving new content a chance to overtake the story. However, some posts have deeper hooks than others. If a story is still popular, it can dominate the #1 spot on Hot for anywhere from 10-20 hours.
The longer I stalled at #2, the more likely a fresh story with momentum would run up and climb over my post. I decide to close Reddit and commit to pretending it doesn’t exist for at least the next hour.
“I feel that big time,” said Born-Beach when I mentioned my self-imposed exiles from checking NoSleep after posting. Like Daria, Born has made a big splash on NoSleep in the past year, winning the June 2020 story of the month. Even though he’s got a golden touch and the majority of his stories hit #1 when they’re posted, Born told me it’s still tough to stop caring about the upvotes.
“I had to make a rule for myself to just post and not look at my phone for the next four or five hours because I'd be obsessively checking every few minutes to see if I'd gotten/lost any early upvotes.”
It got to the point where Born said he worried he wasn’t writing stories because they were the tales he wanted to tell but because he was chasing those upvotes, the main sign we have on NoSleep that someone is reading our work. He since adjusted his perception and now tries to focus on the story first before anything else.
I make it 45 minutes into my hour-long Reddit “break” before I fold and check NoSleep. Finally, after about six hours, part one of my series has limped into the top spot. I have a dumb grin on my face for the rest of the afternoon. My mood has improved drastically. With the delay getting to #1, I know this story won’t be a record-breaker, isn’t likely to win any contests or go down in NoSleep history. But it will probably get read by hundreds, maybe a few thousand. And that’s a Hell of a dopamine rush for a writer.
It’s not my first time hitting #1. My percentages are a little weaker than either Peculi_Dar or Born--Beach, but I can usually grab top every third or fourth attempt. It feels fantastic every time. Which makes every time a story doesn’t go the distance feel absolutely awful.
Balance is key, according to RehnWriter. While he’s not as active on NoSleep as he was last year, Rehn has dropped some powerful, highly-read stories, with I Catfish a Different Girl Each Night, and Skater Girl, in particular leaving their mark on the subreddit. There are pros and cons to competition, according to Rehn, with potential for both stress and motivation.
“As for the competition. I am competitive in a way that I want my stories to hit big, but I'm still writing what I want to write. I feel competition like the one on Nosleep is healthy because it motivates you to keep writing and putting out stories, at least it's to me (or was when I was still posting on a weekly basis). I feel competition becomes unhealthy when getting better than others is all you care about. For me, writing is all about telling the stories I want to tell.
Sure, I want them to hit big, but I still tell the tales I want to tell. I feel it becomes unhealthy when the focus of your art is not what you want to do anymore or enjoying yourself, but all about competition and how to one-up other creators. I feel the best thing to do is use competition to motivate you and keep you writing, but it's just that, another tool you can use, but it should never be the end goal and sole reason you write.”
I spend the rest of the day I posted Part 1 checking periodically, responding to comments when I had free time, just basking in the attention like a puppy being complimented on finding an especially impressive stick at the park. But the rush is short-lived. I soon begin feeling anxious about Part 2. It wasn’t finished at that time, might never have been written at all if Part 1 didn’t at least break 1k upvotes. That’s my personal floor on whether I feel motivated to continue a project.
Series on NoSleep tend to see a dip as they go on. Waiting too long between updates can also bleed precious readers. Attention from NoSleep is fleeting and the subreddit has a short memory. I get started on Part 2 immediately. The good vibes from Part 1 fade fast.
“I think the competition becomes unhealthy for me the moment I start writing a story and the more I continue the more I wonder if that’s something I’ll ever be able to fix. It’s worth it but there’s definitely an unhealthy fixation,” said NewtoTownJAM
JAM is a NoSleep legend. She currently holds the #5 spot of all time on NoSleep, has the #1 most upvoted series Part 1, won the July 2019 monthly contest, and has more than 6,000 members on her personal subreddit. JAM is probably the closest NoSleep writer I know in terms of similar outlook on competition. We’re both number watchers, we love winning contests so we can get those fancy flairs, and we’re both keenly self-aware that chasing upvotes can get real unhealthy, real fast.
There’s a saying that, “comparison is the thief of joy,” and constantly comparing stories to other writers or even personal records is a fantastic way to drain all of the fun from the process. JGrupe is another member of the “Remember to Chill” NoSleeper club.
“When I find myself not enjoying writing sometimes I realize I'm getting too competitive and try to just relax and enjoy the process. Getting a #1 story; it's addictive and it's tricky as fuck.”
I post Part 2 three days after Part 1. I’m cautiously optimistic. Part 1 racked up about 1.7k upvotes by that point. Nothing to write home about but a solid start. In my previous series, I’d actually seen a rare bump where Part 2 did better than 1. Maybe lightning would strike twice? I waited for a decent window but repeated my same mistake. My post was too early. The top story had roots and it wasn’t interested in moving. Not for a few hours, at least.
That was my mistake but, hey, all I had to do was pull a repeat from Part 1. Easy squeezy mix a martini. Except that, unlike on the day I posted Part 1, Part 2 was facing a crowded field. My window ended up being about three lightly contested hours to take over top. I was still firmly spinning my wheels at the #3 spot when competition began to show up.
I felt like Thanos watching all of those portals opened in “Endgame.” Series updates and one-shots from popular and rising writers began to roar up Hot. My story managed one desperate jump to #2 before it was overtaken. And that’s where it stayed for a few hours before dipping back to #3, then falling hard. All told, Part 2 received about 400 upvotes. A less cynical version of me would be thrilled that literally hundreds of human people read my story and liked it enough to click the “external validation button.” But all I could think about was the drop-off between parts.
There were 1,300 fewer upvotes. My motivation died an ugly death in the dirt.
Hyperobscure is a rare monster. He’s managed to find success on NoSleep and the smaller but still super active r/ShortScaryStories. With the latter, Hyper wasn’t just successful, he’s not just popular, he’s an institution. For something like 30 or 40 posts in a row, Hyper never missed getting #1 for the day on ShortScary. It honestly might be an even longer streak. Everything he wrote was devoured by readers who were always starving for more.
All of that while also showing up to grab #1 on NoSleep every few weeks just for kicks and giggles. But that level of consistent popularity has a sharp-side, a little razor that cuts any time a story doesn’t perform. There’s a lot of pressure to keep writing, keep posting, keep growing. I’ve had a fraction of Hyper’s popularity and even that caused enough stress that my temples went from “touch of gray” to “accurate Mr. Fantastic cosplay.”
Hyper has posted about his own struggles with competition and trying to meet reader expectations in the past. Recently, he told me a single comment from a reader was enough for a tectonic shift in his perspective.
“I used to be super-competitive, but after the message from a reader I honestly don’t care as much anymore.”
This particular reader is a frequent reader and commenter on NoSleep and r/TheCrypticCompendium. She is also kindness personified and left a comment when I posted Part 1 of the new series to my own subreddit. This is the comment that had an impact on Hyper.
“I have no clue, how I made it through this last 8 months, with my brother passing unexpectedly. Then I remembered, every day I would come here and read. You, Hyper, Common Grackle, and Girl from the Crypt, and I can not forget You Shall Not Pass, helped carry me through, the darkest period, in my life. I’m so grateful to have found your writings.
Thank you for taking me out of my nightmare, and allowing me to have a different one. I don’t know how to tag, individuals. So I apologize in advance, and for also putting this here if it’s not where it belongs. I just had to tell you all, before I lost my courage. Especially Hyper, you have no idea, how many times you actually wrote/spoke me off a ledge. More times than I care to admit tbh. Just thank you. Thank YOU ALL. I am forever in your debt, and invested in your successful writing careers.”
The competitive part of me is happy (but never satisfied) with some of the work I’ve posted to NoSleep. I’ve checked several items off my NoSleep bucket list: managed to get a story into the top 10 of all time, a monthly contest win, and two annual. But by far the story I’m most proud of wasn’t due to its popularity. What made it special was the response.
I wrote, Maria on the Moon, after the passing of my grandmother from Parkinson’s a few years ago, the sudden death of my uncle in 2019, and the chronic illness that’s followed my mother for years. Like her mom, she also suffers from Parkinson’s disease. It’s taken a sledgehammer to her quality of life, left her unable to work, and dependent on family for most day-to-day tasks. The sickness has hurt her, terribly, unfairly, and if you could magically transform a disease into a living being, I’d gladly murder it every morning and eat its fucking heart for breakfast.
My uncle was only 63 when he passed from a heart attack. It was less than a week after he retired. So much life left, all snatched away. Stolen.
Death and illness. The often random unfairness of both is infuriating and tragic and there are so many times where there’s simply nothing you can do. Being powerless when people around you suffer is the scariest thing I can imagine. So I turned my sadness into monsters, into a story.
Grief is a heavy thing. It bites and rips and stalks you in the dark. But when you give it a name and drag it into the light, sometimes that makes it easier.
Maria did well, got read a lot, plenty of shiny upvotes. The comments, though, the messages, the vivid and uncompromising kindness shattered me a little in the best way. A few hundred comments and messages came in with people talking about their own losses, loved ones they would give anything to see again. The experience was cathartic, a collective moment of mourning.
I felt connected to every single person that shared their story, their despair, their hope that some part of a person carries on after death, even if it’s only a memory that we can pass down in the stories we tell. I’m not religious but I like to think every person has a fire and we share the flame with those we care about, and who care about us. Those fires mix together and with that connection, no individual flame ever truly goes out.
Grief is a heavy thing but when we hold it together, it’s so much lighter. That’s how I felt the night I posted Maria. That’s how I still feel when I think about that memory and the comments readers left on Maria. Those stories felt like flowers at a grave. Fields and fields of bright, lovely words that reminded me when we hurt, we hurt together.
I thought a lot about Maria this week and the response from readers. The recent comment that affected Hyper was also on my mind. Motivation came back quick and easy. It was never gone, just...sulking. I decided to post Part 3 of the new series on r/TheCrypticCompendium, a writing subreddit shared by myself and some spooky friends. Doing so meant accepting that the series wouldn’t have a shot at NoSleep numbers. But anyone who wanted to read it and enjoyed the world would be able to find it. I wouldn’t leave the series abandoned, which is always a temptation when drops in karma.
Part 3 is currently sitting around 60 upvotes with three (encouraging) comments. There’s nothing for the post to compete with, no contest to win, no chart to topple. The story is simply there.
I’m a little surprised by how ready I am to write the next part.
P.S.- My short story collection, House with 100 Doors, drops on Amazon this Saturday, February 20. Click the website banner if you'd like the details. Cheers!