Jasper DeWitt wasn’t always a horror writer.
Long before his work captured the interest of Ryan Reynolds, DeWitt’s storytelling abilities were reserved for his friends. They’d play Dungeons and Dragons together, and their quests were based in the dark domains of the Ravenloft universe.
“To get ideas for these, I would obsessively read horror,” DeWitt told Mashable, “particularly from the heyday of Gothic/supernatural fiction in the late 19th to early 20th century. My friends, noticing this, told me I should try my hand at writing horror myself, since I loved it so much.”
Soon Dewitt was writing stories for his friends, referencing in-jokes and including horror beats. Eventually, after these were well received, he decided to see what kind of reception he’d get online.
Reddit — specifically the hugely-popular first-person horror sub r/nosleep — was one of his first stops. It was there that DeWitt shared the story that would eventually help launch his career, The Patient That Nearly Drove Me out of Medicine.
“I decided to see what sort of reception the first chapter would get,” he said. “I expected 200 or 300 upvotes at most, with possibly some good constructive criticism. When it got 2000 in the first day, I knew two things: 1) that I probably wasn’t going to get criticized, and 2) that I should finish Patient and keep writing horror.”
It was clearly the right decision. Thousands of upvotes later, a manager got in touch with DeWitt through Reddit DMs to offer him representation.
Now, three years after his original story was posted, Ryan Reynolds is working on a movie adaptation.
The birth of NoSleep
It’s not hard to imagine why someone like DeWitt would be a good fit for NoSleep.
With its focus on “realistic horror stories” told in the first person, someone with a background in D&D horror storytelling is surely the perfect match for a community that thrives on campfire tales.
Community feels like the right word, too. While researching NoSleep I spoke to three moderators and two writers (DeWitt included), and they all had positive things to say about the sub’s collaborative nature — whether that’s the writing tips and advice offered on sister subreddit r/nosleepOOC, or simply the sense of camaraderie that comes from a shared love of horror.
“We’re a bunch of super dark, twistedly morbid introverts who are writing realistic horror fiction, so we understand each other pretty well,” 37-year-old software developer and NoSleep mod Kyle Burton, who goes by u/KBPrinceO, told Mashable. “We, all people, share the commonality of being able to be scared. We all know darkness, it’s just that some of us are more in touch with it than others. So we hang out and tell each other tall tales to try and spook away the real darkness.”
Burton knows the quirks of NoSleep better than most. He joined the team back in 2010, not long after the subreddit was first created, and he’s witnessed it grow from around 4,000 subscribers to its current count of close to 13 million.
In that time, he’s lost track of the number of contributors who have gone on to build careers for themselves as writers.
“I own at least a half dozen books by authors who were either very active on NoSleep or started there,” he said.
The Penpal legacy
That’s the thing: DeWitt isn’t the only one. A number of writers in the NoSleep community have gone on to find representation, publish collections, or have their work narrated on podcasts.
Some have even signed with major publishers.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is Dathan Auerbach, whose second novel Bad Man was published by Doubleday last year. Auerbach’s first novel, Penpal, began as a series of posts on NoSleep which he eventually turned into a full-length book — a book he self-published after running a crowdfunding campaign that raised almost $16,000.
After Penpal was published, Auerbach returned to NoSleep to thank the community.
“Thanks so much for everything,” he wrote. “I quite literally could not have done this without you.”
A competitive space
So if NoSleep writers keep landing book and film deals, why isn’t everyone cashing in? Why aren’t budding writers flocking to the sub to try and see their own work achieve commercial success?
Well, a lot of them are. And that makes it a very competitive space.
Michael Kelley (u/Blindfate) is a 30-year-old leather scientist who has also been involved in NoSleep since the early days. As well as acting as a moderator on the sub, he also writes horror under the name M. M. Kelley.
Although Kelley said he has seen some NoSleep authors succeed in making a living from their writing, he said there aren’t many.
“I see a lot who are trying,” said Kelley. “Writing is extremely competitive and NoSleep success isn’t necessarily commercial success.”
Kelley described the process of going from NoSleep to a career in writing as “incredibly difficult”.
“I’m watching a handful of friends who are insanely gifted struggle trying to make it,” he said. “Building a following, marketing, all on top of writing are extremely difficult to do.”
I know, from my own experiences, what Kelley means. Alongside working for Mashable, I also write horror: my debut novel, The Moor, was published in 2018, and over the past few months I’ve also tried to jump on the NoSleep ghost train.
It’s competitive, alright. That much is clear right from the start. Multiple new stories are posted every hour, and only a very small handful make it past the 1,000 upvote mark. So far I’ve posted three stories to NoSleep; they all seem to have been fairly well received, but my best-performing story only has around 300 upvotes.
That was good enough to make it to the top five — and reach an audience of close to 20,000 readers — but not good enough to reach to the elusive top spot.
A double-edged sword
The sub’s competitive nature isn’t the only barrier, either. Even for NoSleep’s top writers — people who have already built a large following in the community — a writing career is still a tricky thing to attain.
Rachele Bean (u/dopabeane) is no stranger to NoSleep fame. A huge number of her stories have passed the 1,000 upvote mark, and she’s even had some standalones — for instance her best-performing story, They told me I was nothing but a dog — which have cruised past the 10,000 upvote mark.
“To date, I have six stories in the all-time top 100,” she told Mashable. “The last time I was able to check [before Reddit disabled view counts on posts], I’d accumulated over three million views across all my stories.”
“Plagiarism is an enormous problem”
Although Bean isn’t making a living from writing yet, she told me she’s hoping to change that.
“I recently signed with a manager who has a great track record in my genre, so I’m hoping that goes well, both for my sake and for his,” she said. “Back in November, I published an anthology that’s doing much better than I ever expected. I’m working on a few novels right now. Through it all, I’m maintaining my presence on NoSleep. Really, at this point, I’m just working hard and waiting for something to stick.”
Despite the level of exposure and the representation she’s achieved, Bean acknowledged that NoSleep is a double-edged sword.
“Plagiarism is an enormous problem,” she said. “My stories are reposted all over the internet, both with and without proper attribution.”
Bean cited one of her top-performing series — I Found My Old Copy of My Favorite Childhood Movie. Something’s Seriously Wrong With It — as an example of this.
“A little while ago, I submitted an edited version of the Childhood Movie story for consideration,” she explained. “A few days later, I received a curt response accusing me of plagiarism. It took several days to sort out, but it turned out that someone had already submitted my story to that same firm — and was apparently in negotiations. I was eventually able to prove ownership of the story, but the whole thing was such a nightmare that the company elected to drop the project entirely.
“That brings up the second problem: a lot of publishers don’t want to take a chance on a story that’s already available, especially if it is (or was) available for free.”
A gateway for budding writers
It’s clear that NoSleep isn’t a magic ticket to publishing success. Like any platform it has its drawbacks, and its barriers. There are many writers trying to build a name for themselves through the community, and the hugely competitive nature of publishing means that most of them probably won’t make it.
“There’s more of a likelihood to get published now”
But some of them will. Some of them already have. DeWitt and Auerbach have already made money from their writing. With her new manager and her short story collection, Bean also seems to be on the cusp of turning a passion into a career.
“There’s more of a likelihood to get published now, with collaborative anthologies coming out every few months and self-publishing becoming more common,” 32-year-old Christine Druga (u/cmd102), the head moderator for NoSleep, explained. “And r/nosleep authors having producers approach them to option their stories for TV shows and movies has become a relatively common occurrence — but actually breaking through and making a career of writing is still insanely hard.”
Ultimately, Druga described NoSleep as a gateway — a place for budding writers to gain their following and hone their craft. A place to try out different styles and ideas, and gain experience from successes and failures.
The odds of having your first story instantly become a manager-enticing career-changer aren’t high — but just the fact that it is a possibility only adds to the exciting and addictive nature of this fast-growing horror community.
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