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What to do when your writing goes viral

A guide to sorting through agent offers, getting your book proposal just right, and making sure you still have more to say after a million (or more) people read your article.

Take your time

When an article goes viral, you may feel pressure to strike while the comment section is hot – lock in a deal while people are still talking about your subject. Authors and agents caution to take your time. “If something goes viral and you are getting a lot of incoming calls, there is an intense pressure to feel like you have to make a decision immediately. You don’t,” Parker says. “Whenever I talk to someone after something goes viral, even if it feels like they want to work with me, I tell them we don’t have to rush anything. You still get to set the pace.”

Patience applies to the entire process. Sasha Brown-Worsham, whose memoir, Namaste the Hard Way: A Daughter’s Journey to Find Her Mother on the Yoga Mat, arose from a viral article, says her most critical advice to authors is to “fight for the time you need to write a quality book.”

Audrey Clare Farley turned a viral story into the nonfiction book The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt, signing with her agent a couple days after her article caught fire. They then waited four months for Farley to complete writing the book before submitting it to publishers.

Farley’s timeout between going viral and selling meant she knew what she wanted instead of signing in a frenzy. Heiress sold in the first round of bidding following phone calls with several editors. “My editor understood what I was trying to do. She offered a vision for how she would revise the book to make it better, and she helped me to achieve those goals,” Farley says.

Write the best book proposal

Most articles that go viral are nonfiction (though there are the occasional viral fiction examples, perhaps most famously Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” which earned her a book deal). Authors usually finish their novels before querying, so they can send a full manuscript upon request. Nonfiction writers don’t.

The agents who reach out about a nonfiction book thus may ask you for a book proposal, including a full title, synopsis, chapter breakdown, sample chapter, and author biography. It assures the agent that you have a firm grasp on your subject. “You need to break it down and show, ‘this is what I’m going to do in each chapter,’” Hamad says. “You have to show enough to justify writing a book out of the article.”

Change when you need to change

Articles must evolve when they are supersized into books. Don’t be afraid to make those changes.

Brown-Worsham wrote half of her book within three months of signing her contract. She worked from an outline used to sell the book but admits, “a lot of it, I wrote kind of freeform. I needed a lot of help shaping it. Luckily, I was paired with an editor who helped me put it into a more organized pattern so that it really took shape.”

Empty inbox? Seek an agent after a viral article

While agents often reach out to authors of viral articles, it doesn’t always happen. You can still leverage your viral experience. Parker recommends mentioning it early in your query to give the agent an indication of your platform and influence.

“Having a viral article is an opportunity to jump ahead of other submissions – and I assume most agents get 100 a week. You want to get to the top of that line,” Parker says.

How do you know who to query? Parker advises thinking of an agent’s list as a bookshelf. Would your title’s subject and style fit on that bookshelf? Then the agent may be a good fit.

Mental health break II: Remember, you earned this

The whirlwind of a viral experience can sow doubts about your qualifications and work ethic if you compare yourself to other writers who worked years to get a deal. Authors suggest reminding yourself that you do deserve this.

Brown-Worsham’s book proposal and writing process looked different from her friends’. “That it happened this way almost felt like a cheat, and because of that, I struggled to take myself seriously,” she says. “I felt so lucky that I didn’t feel like I could argue about certain things. I wish I’d argued more. I had a product I felt proud of in the end, but I encourage people to take their work seriously. It’s not just a luck thing. It takes a level of skill, and you should be proud of yourself.”


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