Updated: Jan 16, 2021
My last blog was about writing a horror story. But what do you do with the piece once you’ve polished it until the words are shiny as old bones? The traditional route would be to seek publication, often as part of an anthology. That’s a perennial option but if your main focus is simply finding readers, Reddit’s thriving creative writing platforms are worth checking out. And r/NoSleep is the current king of stories that go bump in the night.
There aren’t many places on the internet like NoSleep. A forum for short horror fiction, the subreddit sees roughly 100 posts per day uploaded by amateur writers searching for eyeballs. And if NoSleep has anything to spare, it’s eyeballs.
Here at the tail end of 2020, the subreddit has 14.4M members. While not all of those are active (NoSleep spent years as a default sub so there are certainly millions of dead accounts), the top daily post on the sub will usually see between 2k and 5k upvotes, Reddit’s basic marker for engagement. Top posts for the month often crack 10k and the highest of the year might see 20k+. For any amateur writer seeking an audience, those numbers are bonkers in the best way.
There’s nothing like NoSleep online in terms of daily reach or reader participation. The subreddit is a weird, wonderful, occasionally frustrating, perpetually unique experience. Let’s take a look at NoSleep and the communities that whirl around in its orbit.
The elevator archive summarizing NoSleep is this:
Started as a spooky subreddit in 2010, became a depository for some classic creepypasta, exploded in growth, got some mainstream attention when stories got optioned by Hollywood, the vanilla goldfish incident, a big push for copyright awareness, and boom, we’re all caught up.
I may have cut a few corners there.
If you want a more detailed breakdown of the history of NoSleep, I highly recommend author Nick Botic’s clever 100% True series on YouTube. Here’s a link to the episode dedicated to r/NoSleep, Creepypasta, and internet horror.
Along the way, a few stories from the sub have made a splash outside of the online horror community. The Left/Right Game, Borassca, Spire in the Woods, and We Bought a Ranch all started on NoSleep and have gone on to receive mainstream recognition. The Ranch series is the most recent to take off, receiving a seven-figure deal for a Netflix adaptation.
With so many readers hungry for stories and the potential to have work picked up by traditional outlets, NoSleep sounds like a slam dunk, right?
Well, remember the frustration I mentioned back at the beginning? It wraps around NoSleep like vines curling up a perfect chimney. This is a frustration made of three parts, though each part has significant upsides.
NoSleep has a lot of rules for what you can post. Since the sub has its roots in creepypasta, scary encounters, and urban legends, all stories posted to NS are supposed to be “plausible.” In practical terms, this means you can’t share content that could be easily proven false. I’ve heard it referred to as the “window check,” meaning if you could look out your window and see the story isn’t real (global alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, nice weather in March) then you can’t post that plot to NoSleep. One of the sidebar rules of the sub is, “Everything is true, even if it’s not.”
This funnels acceptable stories towards a few commonalities:
Usually told in the first-person point-of-view (though there are some workarounds that allow third-person limited)
The narrator of the story must be alive at the end or at least plausibly capable of posting the story to the internet.
The narrator, and anyone who comments, has to treat the story as real.
Yep, NoSleep has a kayfabe rule. In the early days of online horror, it made sense. There was a real blurring of the line between fact and fiction in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. A few NoSleep stories have even snuck out into the blogosphere and local news where they were reported as at least quasi-legitimate. Pretty neat.
However, after a decade of NoSleep, there are few readers who approach the platform truly fresh and unaware that it contains fiction. Some readers and writers still enjoy the rule for the nostalgia factor and interaction, others dislike it for limiting the conversations we can have about the actual stories. Personally, I’m neutral on it. I don’t mind the rule but wouldn’t be heartbroken if it changed.
There are quite a few additional rules that detail title requirements, posting limitations, sensitive content, the inclusion of numbers or addresses, how to link multiple posts into a series, and more. Most of the requirements are clear, if daunting when first considered. But NoSleep also includes rules about what type of horror stories can be posted. A plot can’t be more tragic than it is scary, or contain more comedy than terror, or be unbalanced in any way towards a different genre.
The narrator of the story is supposed to be clearly afraid. If a post is judged to include too much of any genre that isn’t horror to the point where it changes the focus, it will probably be removed. If the OP (original poster/narrator) of the tale doesn’t seem scared enough of the situation...that could be a removal.
I say could and probably because measuring the genre ratio of a story is deeply subjective. Some days it feels like rolling the dice. I think the current moderation on NoSleep leads to far too many stories being removed because they don’t fit easily into traditional creepypasta molds.
However, if you read the rules closely and don’t get too experimental with your plot, most of the time you’ll be able to avoid a removal. If you have any questions or concerns, you can also submit the story to the mod team directly through modmail. You may need to wait a few days for feedback, you may be asked to make some edits you don’t agree with, but you will end up with a story that should be removal-proof.
Now, as previously mentioned, every frustration has an upside. The benefit of NoSleep’s stringent moderation is that it presents a branded, bespoke experience to readers. The subreddit rules trade flexibility for flavor. NoSleep isn’t just a horror writing forum. It’s unique, niche, comfortably monolithic. I don’t personally think the pros outweigh the cons of such a system, but I know that there are plenty of passionate writers and readers who disagree with me.
So, you’ve considered the rules, crafted a solid NoSleep story, and the post is sticking. Lovely...but now for the second frustration.
With so much traffic, so many readers, and at least a scratch-off chance of having a story purchased for adaptation, it’s no surprise that some NoSleep writers will result to elbows and knees when trying to scramble to the top of the daily heap. Of the 100 or so posts put up on the sub every 24-hours, only about 10 on average will see triple-digit upvotes. Then usually only one or two of those stories will break 1k upvotes. It’s a scrum, a scrap, a tussle, a beautiful bedlam.
Just picture Jon Snow trying to pull himself out of the pile of dying soldiers in Game of Thrones. NoSleep can be downright claustrophobic at times. That’s part of the joy of it. I think a lot of writers are competitive by nature. We want to see our stories stand out, get noticed; not just noticed but recognized. Not every writer craves story engagement. Some don’t even look at the number of upvotes a post gets, or any comments.
I know those carefree writers exist in the same way I know Australians are real: academic certainty but without ever having met one in person.
The truth is, most of us share work so it can be consumed, preferably devoured, by eager readers. In the jostle of NoSleep, this often leads to other writers trying to sabotage one another with downvotes. The issue is compounded by Reddit’s algorithm which heavily favors the first hour of a post to determine where it ends up on the Hot track. Early downvotes can smother a story in its crib.
So, if you are a writer posting to NoSleep, don’t downvote other stories without good cause. I know it sucks when you see your own percentage dip right out of the gate, often before anyone could possibly finish reading your story. Don’t be tempted to pass along the negativity. #highroad
That’s not to say stories should never be downvoted. If they are offensive or completely inappropriate for the subreddit or plagiarised, go ahead and slam that little blue arrow. My rule of thumb is to only downvote a post that I’m also reporting, which is not something I do often.
Even if you manage to survive the hail of sharp, angry downvotes, making your way to the top of Hot isn’t easy. You need a title that hooks, a strong posting window, and lots of luck. Writing a quality story also doesn’t hurt.
I’m working on a posting guide for NoSleep and other creative writing forums that details everything I learned in the last year. The guide will be three sentences long. Please keep an eye out.
Yet again, the frustrations of knives out competition comes with perks. It feels good when you finally have a post click and take over the top spot for the day. Sinfully good, like it should be illegal, or at least immoral. The tough road also keeps you on your toes as a writer, constantly tweaking, experimenting, grinding out a readership that will stick with you. We’ll talk about that in the next blog.
Now, the third and final major obstacle to learning how to stop worrying and love NoSleep: rampant IP theft and copyright infringement.
You’ve successfully navigated NoSleep’s rule infested waters, posted an awesome story with a catchy title and now you’re drowning in upvotes and Reddit awards. Congratulations. Now some people are going to steal your story. Probably.
There’s a good chance it will be narrated by a few YouTubers who neither credit you nor ask permission. You may see the story pop up on Instagram or Facebook or another website or your cousin’s newsletter. Your content might be translated into a dozen different languages and shared across a hundred platforms without your permission.
It sucks. But, it’s typical so don’t sweat it too much. Most NoSleep writers will have stories stolen at some point. A lot of people assume that, because something is free to read, it’s free to take. There’s a woeful lack of understanding of copyright among online communities. Luckily, you do have options.
If you find a story of yours reposted or narrated without your consent, you will usually be able to file a DMCA strike. Often, reaching out to the offending party and explaining that they don’t have permission to use your work will be enough to get them to take it down. I highly recommend visiting r/SleeplessWatchdogs for more information on copyright and IP theft and how to respond.
The upshot of all of the theft...well, there isn’t really a benefit. However, it’s a symptom of an industry that has sprung up around NoSleep and online horror that includes narrators, podcasts, adaptations, anthologies, and freelance opportunities. You won’t make money from posting stories to NoSleep but it can lead to paid commissions via the little satellites that float in Reddit’s orbit.
While some narrators will try to steal your work, others will pay for it. Podcasts are much the same and there are aggregate websites out there that purchase the right to repost stories and will occasionally even directly commission new content from writers. If your goal is to make a couple of bucks with your fiction, you don’t have to wait for Netflix or Amazon to come knocking. There are several paths to consider when aiming to turn your hobby into a side-hustle.
But that’s a topic for the future.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. And if you’re considering sharing a short horror story online but find the process intimidating...it is and we’ve all felt that same mix of excitement and dread. I would encourage you to take the jump. Even if your story is removed or flops or gets used without your permission. The readers you find will be worth it, whether it’s one or one thousand.
However, if you find that NoSleep doesn't fit your style, there are alternatives...
More on that later.