Columns > Published on August 7th, 2018

From Creepypasta to Doubleday

I started writing just for kicks. No big dreams. No small ones either. I wanted to write a single short story for some internet pals. This August, my second book drops from the massive machine of Doubleday and Blumhouse Books. Weird.

Creepypasta to self-publishing to Doubleday. That’s not a template. Or if it is, I’m not sure how to use it. I think you could go in any order or dodge any step; each has different merits, but I’m not sure there would be much worth in trying to measure them against one another here.

Instead, what I want to do is talk to you about how I came to trace this route in the hopes that if I can’t offer you a roadmap, you at least might find some useful waypoints along the way.

Strictly speaking, and for the satisfaction of category nerds the world over, I didn’t write a creepypasta. Creepypastas are modern kinds of urban legends – unattributed scary stories that get copied and pasted around the internet. Behold: copy/paste => copypasta => creepypasta.

In 2011, I was just beginning my crippling addiction to Reddit when I found my way to a then small sub called NoSleep. The framework was simple: amateur authors would post stories and readers would play along. “Everything is true, even if it isn’t.” Absolutely killer idea with only two real rules at the time.

It wasn’t quite the Mothman or Bigfoot, but it was spreading – I hadn’t written a creepypasta, but it was becoming one anyway, something passed around the world’s largest campfire.

#1: Respect the believability premise. So, don’t write a story where it turns out that you, the narrator, have been the ghost of an alien the whole time.

#2: Respect each other. So, be nice and play along in the comments.

NoSleep was pretty raw back then, and a lot of the stories did seem real. I read an interview with comicbook author Garth Ennis a while back where he said that you’re never shooting for realism – it’s believability that you’re after. NoSleep had that in spades. The stories were presented with the kind of informal air you might find at a bar when some weirdo starts telling you things you don’t really want to hear about. There weren’t many series. Not back then. It wasn’t really a place for writers. These were just people telling tales, and as long as they at least flirted with believability, everyone would have a good time.

After a few weeks, I started to feel like a freeloader. I wasn’t posting comments, and I didn’t have a story to contribute. It was one or the other, so why not take the path of most resistance? What’s the risk? If it tanks, I can just delete the account and pretend the whole affair had been a bad dream about some other dude with no talent. Ha! What a hack fraud.

It took a few hours, but I put something together. And you know what? It was alright. I stalled for long enough that the session timed out and I almost lost the story, but finally I submitted it. “Footsteps” was live.

Putting yourself out there is tough, even when you’re doing it anonymously. I hit refresh about every quarter-second until I saw it: the very first review for the very first piece of writing I’d ever shared with anyone. /u/texican_jon wrote: “Holy f. The last line sent chills down my spine. This was good stuff. Did anything ever happen after this?”

And that was it; I was in. Encouragement within a couple minutes? From a stranger? “Did anything ever happen after this?” Yeah, you bet it did, brother, and you’re gonna hear all about it. “Footsteps” was self-contained, a whole story. But that wasn’t going to stop me. It’s embarrassing, but I didn’t know exactly where I was heading for a while. So I kept it simple. Each story was like the first – concrete endings every time, because I never knew when the subreddit would tell me to take a hike. But they never did, so I just kept having fun trying to help others have fun. Now and then, someone would suggest that I turn it into a book, which was a neat idea, but the joke was on them, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I kept my head down, and over the next month, I’d written five more parts to finish what I hadn’t truly meant to begin: a series. I called it Penpal.

And that was a wrap. Writing is a lot of work, and I’m not in the habit of seeking that kind of stuff out, so as far as I was concerned I was finished. Donezo.

I think it had been happening all along, but I really only noticed it after Penpal was all sewn up: parts of it were popping up in different places. Tumblr, 4chan, various creepypasta sites, YouTube. “Is this true?” “Did this really happen?” It wasn’t quite the Mothman or Bigfoot, but it was spreading – I hadn’t written a creepypasta, but it was becoming one anyway, something passed around the world’s largest campfire.

I’d worried that people would lose interest while I was still posting the stories. The fact that it was still being shared and discussed months after it was complete was something that I couldn’t just shrug off. Or at least I didn’t want to.

Penpal had legs. I thought I was done, but what do I know? Maybe a book wasn’t such a bad idea . . .

Figuring everything out was harder than I thought, and I thought it was going to be pretty damn hard. I wasn’t going to pursue a publisher; I knew that much. My goal was to make Penpal a physical reality for the existing fans, a bonus for the handful of people who dug it enough to buy it. From what I could tell, it was hard to even get the attention of most publishers without having an agent, and Google searches for “the best literary agents who definitely won’t fleece me,” didn’t bear much fruit. Plus, even if everything went “quickly,” I was still worried about timing. People were interested in Penpal now, but how long would that last? I’d publish it myself then.

I asked a buddy who worked at a printshop if they did books. He said, “No, but we can do yours. It’ll look like garbage.” I mulled that over for a while then decided to use Createspace to print the book on demand so that there’d be no inventory. Luckily for me, I’ve got a few very talented and nice friends who said they’d help me with the design elements. I just needed a little money to, ya know, make the book. I decided to run a Kickstarter. I set a goal of $1,500, let everyone know the Kickstarter was live, then walked up the street to buy a pack of smokes and get out of my own head for a bit. When I got back, the goal had already been reached. I was thunderstruck. Word spread, and by the end of the thirty-day campaign, I’d raised over ten times what I’d sought. I was, what, lightningstruck? Well, whatever the next level up is, that’s where I was. To this day, I can’t really believe it.

Photo courtesy of Dathan Auerbach

A few months later, and Penpal was out in the world. It looked good, professional. And a lot of people thought it was good. From a bashful Reddit post to an actual book that I could hold in my hands? That other people were holding in their hands? I think about that a lot – that right now someone I’ve never met, someplace I’ve never been might be reading my book.

If I’m being honest, I don’t think a publisher would have bought Penpal. Not without revisions. Really, that might have made the book even better, but it also might have changed it, and that wasn’t what I wanted, because that wasn’t what I thought my readers wanted. Penpal was always supposed to be a bonus for my original NoSleep fans. Something cool to put on their bookshelves and think, “I remember waiting for this dude’s posts.”

After Penpal was released, I took what some might call the world’s longest break. Those people would be wrong, though. For one, the band Amebix went like twenty-four years between their second and third LP. Secondly, it’s not a break if you’re done. And as far as I was concerned, I really was done.

I loved writing, though. I mean, I loved it. Building people, pulling the strings of their fates. The kinds of things you’d get called a psychopath for saying in any other context. Maybe it was inevitable that I’d find my way to a new story. And maybe it was inevitable that there would be new challenges waiting for me there.

To this day, my process amounts to write until something’s good. And now, since I wasn’t getting any feedback at all, that was becoming more and more difficult to measure. The only person asking, “Did anything ever happen after this?” was me, and I’ve got no problem telling that guy to get bent.

Still, I had ideas. I tinkered with a few of them, but I kept circling back to a story about a guy and his missing kid brother, the story that would become Bad Man. I worked on it for years. Just here and there, and still just for kicks, because I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Like Penpal, it started as a short story, but this one quickly grew too big for its own skin. I’d never written a novel from scratch before, and I spent a while trying to crush it back down to size.

There’s something strange about self-directed editing. I don’t just mean trying to manifest an outside perspective within the confines of your own skull. I’m talking about the kind of spiral you can hit. When you reach the end of a round of edits, you feel like the book is closer to being done. But when you go back to finesse a little, you’ll always find something that you wish wasn’t there. A paragraph. A line. It doesn’t matter – the effect is the same: if that made it through, then what other duds are still in there? And how could I have believed it was done in the first place? Do this enough times, and you lose the sensation of completion all together.

It was all so much harder now. No feedback. No fun framework. I don’t think it was about validation – a need to be encouraged and cheered on. It was about perspective – a faltering ability to judge what I was doing. By the time I showed one of my oldest friends, I was both nervous that she’d hate it and annoyed with myself for waiting so long to find out. Considering how long I waited to hit “Submit” on my very first Penpal story, I’m surprised my computer didn’t just biodegrade in the time it took me to stop deleting the draft email to her.

I don’t think I ever followed up. I definitely never asked her if she was digging it. That was a rude question that I was pretty sure I didn’t want the answer to anyway. But she let me know when she was done. She said it was good.

She may have been a little more enthusiastic than that, but “good” was all I wanted. Better than a hesitant “okay.” Better than a mumbly “fine.” Certainly better than an “it exists.” It was good and that was great. When I look back, I think I had done a lot of work to convince myself that it would be alright if nothing ever came of Bad Man. Why risk it? People dug Penpal, no need to ruin my legacy, however modest. But I liked the Bad Man story. I really liked it a lot. And now someone else did too. Fine. Full steam ahead, then. I was going to skip the Kickstarter and go straight for self-publishing.

Remember those strangers I was talking about, though? Those awesome people somewhere out there holding Penpal? Apparently, one of them had been an editor at Penguin Random House named Tim O’Connell. He’d reached out to me once before to tell me he’d liked my book. I should have let him know about Bad Man. It’s hard to say why I didn’t.

Partly, it was because I could see the finish line, and I didn’t want some hotshot tying my shoelaces together, didn’t want to waste time waiting around to be told I’d wasted his. But I was also scared. Scared that he might just say, “Nevermind, lol.” I was pretty sure I couldn’t handle that, not right before I was about to publish it myself. I showed him anyway, though. Because he asked. And because of the “what if?” of it all.

I was (and still am) just some dude who wrote what is essentially a creepypasta. Self-publishing was good enough for Penpal, more than I’d ever hoped for, in fact. It would be good enough for Bad Man. But what if I was wrong? Not because I deserved better, but because my readers did.

For everything I cherish about the Penpal process, I know the book could have been better in some ways. I’ve never had an editor. Not really. Never had anyone take a flamethrower to my pages. Before I showed Tim Bad Man, only two people had read it. But their feedback didn’t hurt, and I knew that while that felt good, it might not be good.

I wasn’t actually expecting notes from Tim, but they came. And they hurt. They were critical and accurate and pointed. There were a great many things that contributed to my eventual decision to sign with Doubleday – the promises of store placement and ad campaigns, professional artists and publicists, were enticing, but through Tim’s notes I could see a better book. I wanted that book to be what my fans read.

And you know what? I think it is. I’m nervous to find out if my old fans will like it, hopeful that they will and that I’ll even pick up some new ones. I wonder if I’ll be able to parse everything when the dust settles. This is a different sort of book that was created through a very different process.

Bad Man wouldn’t exist if I had self-published – not in the same way that it exists now. Whether that’s truly a good thing is up to pretty much everyone in the world but me. If not, it’s lucky there are so many other things to read out there. Creepypastas. Forum posts. Self-published novels and ebooks and novellas and short stories. Even blockbusters from the big boys.

Whatever successes and failures are waiting for me down the line, I’m just glad they’re there, glad I hit Submit that first time. If you want to write, I hope you will. The hard parts will always be hard – creating something new, nuance and finesse, showing your friends, showing strangers, knowing when to accept and reject criticism, telling people that you’re a writer when they ask what you do. But getting it out there? That part’s easy. Shoot, you could do that just for kicks.

Get Bad Man at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

DATHAN AUERBACH was born in the southern U.S. and has lived there for most of his life. In 2011, he began posting a series of stories to a forum dedicated to horror. After a Kickstarter campaign that raised over 1000% of its goal, he was able to release the revised and expanded versions of his story as the novel Penpal.

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