What Writers Should Know About Panels At Cons & Conferences

You’re a writer, so maybe you go to conventions and conferences.

Winter has relinquished its icy grip. The Day God has grown angry, which means the year has yielded to summer. And that means it is now con season.

Which means you will, at a con, either:

a) go to a panel

or

b) be on a panel.

Which leads to the question of, what makes good panel etiquette?

As always, this means I have thinky juice. If it is a topic — really, any topic will do, from breeding bears to drinking beers to bedazzling beards (aka “beard-azzling”) — then I will have thoughts because I am deluded enough to believe that my opinion matters. (Spoiler alert: it don’t).

So: let’s talk about panels and the things you might wanna know.

1. You Are Not A Walking Talking Advertisement

Some writers will go to panels, and they will set up what looks like some kind of storefront, some library-shaped battlement. They will place their books all around them. They will put up signs and business cards and pull the little clicky-cord on a neon sign behind them. And then they will proceed, during the answer to every question, to say things like WELL IN MY BOOK even when it is woefully irrelevant to the query queried.

Listen: you are an advertisement for your book. Not all that extra fiddly marketing shit. Not the castle of books you built around you. Not the mobile of postcards or the pinata shaped like your protagonist or the ventriloquist dummy who interrupts every other speaker to say BUY MY BOOK.

Just say cool stuff. Be honest, earnest, helpful, funny if you can manage it. As with social media, be the very best version of yourself. Talk about your book, in brief, when it is relevant.

You are not a Spam-Bot that uploaded itself to reality out of the Matrix.

2. Panels Do Sell Books

If you’re an author: being funny, engaging or informative on a panel can sell books. I’ve done it. I’ve seen others do it. People walk up, and having been unfamiliar with you, they say: “I liked you on your panel, ‘Gender Memetics and Gun Control in Sword & Sorcery Fiction,'” and then you chat with them and they buy your book. It’s amazing. They don’t buy it because you threw your book at their faces during the panel. “My answer to that question is –”

*throws book-shaped fastball into audience member’s face, breaking their nose*

If you’re an audience member: hey, when you go to a panel, and you dig what some of the authors are saying, at least consider buying a book. It’s not a requirement. It’s not the price of admission. But maybe kinda sorta pleeeeaaaase consider it? That is, in part, what we as authors are hoping you’ll do. If we can’t sell books, we can’t go to cons in the first place.

3. Equal Time, Motherfuckers

Do not dominate the proceedings.

I know. You have shit to say. This is your time to shine, you crazy diamond.

It is. It really is. They’ve passed you the mic. The audience is captive. Maybe you’re on the panel. Maybe you’re asking a question from the audience. But please, let me caution you:

Keep it brief.

Not so brief you stammer out some blurted burp of information:

URBAN FANTASY AHHH LOS ANGELES INTERSTITIAL UHH I THINK EPIC FANTASY IS ROTHFUSS *flings sweat-slick microphone to the next author*

But brief enough so that you get to the point and execute on the question at hand.

Translation: don’t make it all about you.

A panel is, what, maybe 50 minutes? The river needs to move. It can’t get dammed up with too much garbage. Make a case. Present information. Move on. Let all the authors speak. If you blather on for 17 minutes about “reverse worldbuilding in the splatterpunk genre,” then the moderator might just move onto the next question.

A good moderator will skip your chatty ass next time, hoss.

It’s up to you to watch the clock. Set your phone in front of you, run a stopwatch display.

4. The Celebrity Effect

Sometimes a panel will have what you might think of as a “heavy-hitter.” Some major bestselling author like Patrick Scalzi or Seanan Patrick Hearnethfuss, and you need to recognize that a lot of the people in the audience are there to see the heavy-hitting bestselling author. They just are.

That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

Usually.

If you’re on a panel with an author of such Deep-Seated Bad-Assery, that’s an opportunity to talk to that author’s audience for a minute. They get to share that with you, and you get to share stuff with that audience. It’s a nice coming together moment, and also means you might be speaking to a larger audience than you might normally rate.

I have heard horror stories where the Celebrity Author is aware of his own status and proceeds to do exactly what I told you not to do, which is Dominate The Proceedings. Thankfully, I’ve yet to experience this, but, seriously, I’ve heard tales. Horror stories. It is what it is, I guess.

5. The Fine Art Of Moderating

Moderators: this is an important job. I know — you’re not being paid for this gig, I get it. You’re a volunteer. I am sympathetic. But about… at least 25% of the moderators I see are not precisely ideal, and a kick-ass moderator is the key to a kick-ass panel. You’re equal parts carnival barker and pitch-man and fight ref. You need to steer the discussion. You need to give equal time to participants. You need to be amusing all your own and know how to ask the questions the audience wants to hear. You are a juggler-of-chainsaws. I don’t envy your role, but you were given the wheel just the same: don’t steer us off the cliff, kay?

Speak up. Move the discussion along. Visit with all the speakers.

And, Cardinal Sin time? Do not take up more time than the panelists by answering your own questions. I’ve watched panels like this. I sat on one, once. Ugh. The moderator has a book — or just has feelings — and asks questions only to answer them himself, first or last, taking up scads of time away from the panelists. No, no, no, ew, no.

It’d be like watching a referee suddenly jump in the game to score a goal unit with the ball.

Stop that.

Just… stop it.

(One of my favorite moderators ever: Patrick Hester. He of SFSignal and Functional Nerds. He of the Scrivener Wisdom. Great dude. Amazing moderator, aware of his role at every moment.)

6. The Diversity Tango

A lot of panels end up being a bunch of dudes. White dudes. And, hey, that’s fine, as long as the panel is called “WHAT STRAIGHT WHITE DUDES THINK ABOUT MILITARY SCI-FI,” but if it’s not, then that’s a smoldering hunk of buffalo dooky. The best are when panels about diversity are completely non-diverse (“HEY PANEL OF WHITE GENTLEMEN, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT LADIES AND POC IN FICTION? YOUR OPINIONS ON THIS SUBJECT ARE VITAL”).

It is your job, as audience and authors, to look at the panel composition beforehand and contact the cons/conferences to demand they do better. And the cons may respond with some fol-de-rol about how there aren’t any women who write this genre or any people-of-color who write that genre, and then your job is to write them with a list of names who do.

Listen, stuff like this is hard, but it’s important. We have to get a little agitated, a little angry, to make changes in this space. Change is happening, but it requires action.

As the government says in order to make us more paranoid:

IF YOU SEE SOMETHING

SAY SOMETHING

7. A Note To Dudes

Sometimes, I have noticed an effect where men at panels talk over the women at panels.

It’s like they’re just waiting for them ladies to shut up so they can get to their point.

Don’t do this.

I mean, nobody should do this to anybody, but it seems of particular prevalence in this direction.

Oh, and if you sexually harass someone during that panel, you should be Tasered. (I mean, obviously, don’t sexually harass anyone anywhere, but on a panel? Really? Ugh.)

8. How To Be In The Audience And Ask Questions

If your goal as an audience member is to get up to the mic and then say:

“My opinion about Victorian dragons is that –”

*15 minute diatribe ensues*

You’re a bad audience member.

*swats you with phone book*

Stop that. Your job is to ask questions.

You are not a panelist.

I know. It’s hard. YOU HAVE OPINIONS. Now is not the time. People paid to be here. They are sitting in the audience waiting to hear the wisdom — sometimes, “wisdom” — of the gathered participants. You are not a participant. If you didn’t show up, you know what would happen? Literally nothing. They’d still open the doors. No one would say, “Hey, where’s Dave, that guy who wants to bore us with his lecture about steampunk appetizers?”

9. Self-Publishing Isn’t Usually Represented

Usually, the only time you’ll see a strong author-publisher presence is when it’s a panel on self-publishing. This is both a shame and somewhat understandable. 

It’s a shame because, hey, lots of great self-publishers out there. They have lots of vital things to say about their experiences. Excluding them means to exclude their POV.

It’s understandable because the rotten apples in the self-publishing bushel have made it hard to include those authors, even the good ones, because of the sheer weight of self-published shit-slurry that gets flung through the door once you open it. By which I mean, once you open to self-published authors, you will be besieged by them. And often not the good ones. Anybody who published any dungbucket on their own suddenly wants to sit on every panel, and given that cons and conferences are often volunteer-run — it’s just too much. (Being a hybrid author is usually a good way to end-run around such wariness and forbiddance.)

10. “I Don’t Know” Is A Perfectly Valid Response

You don’t have to answer a question.

No, really.

If you aren’t prepared to answer it — it’s okay to shrug and be all like, “Man, I have no idea.” It’s doubly okay to then pass the mic to someone else who you feel is more qualified. “I think Anastasia Smock would have a better answer since she wrote about incontinent pirates in the third book of the Scumbeard Cycle, THE WEE-WEE SEA.” Equal time matters, but also deferring to experts and not filling up space with hot breathy irrelevance has value, too.

11. Communicate With Panelists And Moderators Early

If given a chance, chat with the panelists beforehand — maybe even over email a week or two before the event — just to get comfortable with folks. Moderator, too — it’s better to talk about the panel long in advance rather than, like, 30 seconds before: “DON’T ASK ME ABOUT TOPICS RELATED TO BIRTH CONTROL, PONIES, LIGHTNING STORMS, ACAI JUICE, ABORTION, TERMINATORS, AND INCONTINENT PIRATES.”

12. Get To Your Panels A Little Early

Don’t be that sloppy fool who comes in like, ten minutes after everything has begun, making a racket, eating a sandwich noisily. This is true of authors and audience members. Come in. Sit down. Panel starts when the panel starts.

13. Project Your Voice

You won’t always have a microphone. Make yourself heard. Speak with confidence —

Or, at least, clarity.

People came to hear you and the others.

They didn’t pay to watch you stare at your hands and mumble.

14. Pay Attention

Don’t be fucking around with Flappy Bird on your phone while others are talking. Listen. Respond. Ask questions of your own. This is a dialogue, not a “tune out until it’s your turn to speak” event.

15. My Favorite Thing About Panels…

… is when the moderator is no longer necessary. No harm no foul against the moderator, but the coolest moment in a panel (and more rare than you might prefer) is when all the participants evolve the straight-up Q&A into an outright discussion. Folks ping-ponging back and forth in conversation rather than reading rote-feeling responses one after the other?

That is priceless, and what all panels should aspire to, in my humble, worthless opinion.

* * *

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