My Guide to Conventions #1: The Five Best Questions To Ask A Panel of Writers

(Please note this is snark, based on things I’ve seen con goers do time and time again. Do not do these things.)

Winter lingers on but spring is right around the corner, and already this year’s conventions are underway. Once we start to think of ourselves as writers, it’s natural to want to be around our own kind. Conventions offer ample opportunity to meet authors and other publishing professionals, as well as take in educational panels that might improve our careers. The programming committee puts together a string of panels on various topics and invites participants to spend an hour talking about that topic.

The first thing you have to know is which panels you want to attend. Of course the subjects are important, but ignore that for the moment and focus on the names. Which of your favorite authors will be speaking? Check off those panels first, because this is a great opportunity to meet your heroes without coming across as a “fan”. After all, you’re going to be sitting in front of them for an hour, learning about writing. They’ll know right away that you’re serious about your craft because you bothered to be at their panel. Schedule the rest of your activities around these choices, and make sure to give yourself ample time to get there early and score that front row seat. Middle of the aisle is the best, even if you have to step on a few toes to get there.

After that, just pick a bunch of panels that sound cool. If there’s a topic that you feel you could have been a panelist for, definitely go to that. The programming committee will have spies in the audience to see who asks the best questions, and those people often get invited back next year. Don’t you want to be on a panel? I thought so.

Once in a panel, in your seat, pay very close attention to what the speakers have to say. Unless, of course, you found the panel with the idiot speaker (there’s always at least one, the cousin or girlfriend of someone on programming) who’s talking about things you already know, in which case you can ignore them until question time. Tweet something, or check Facebook or catch a quick nap. People will respect you since they’ll realize that you know so much about writing that you didn’t even need to pay attention.

When you’re ready to be an active participant in the discussion, raise your hand. Usually the moderator will ask to hold all of the questions until the end, but that’s just for people who don’t know what they want to say. You will have read this post and come prepared, so you can ask your questions at any time. Pick from the following list, and be sure the read the notes at the end:

  1. If you’re in a panel about anything related to publishing, anything at all, describe your current novel project and ask for a list of publishers who would be willing to buy it. If the answer is, “We can’t give you a list, you’ll need to submit to publishers you think would be interested in your kind of work until you find the right fit,” just know that this is a test. The gatekeepers want to know if you’re serious about getting published. Do not give up the floor. Do not back down. Insist that they give you at least a few names to start with, and make sure to have a pencil and paper ready to jot down that list. That’s how you make an impression.
  2. If you happen to be on a panel which is largely made up of female or non-white panelists, don’t let them shortchange you! Obviously, these people are only on the panel because the qualified white male authors weren’t available. Ask for a list of the people who were supposed to be on the panel instead, so that you can look up their work. It will balance out whatever information the second-string panelists gave you, and you’ll get a more well-rounded experience.
  3. When you don’t have a question because you already know more than the panelists do, be sure to share your knowledge with the rest of the audience. Raise your hand, but instead of asking anything, begin by saying, “This is a more of a comment than a question…” That way every knows to pay attention to you instead of waiting for a panelist to answer. Then mention a few of the key points from earlier in the discussion – so everyone can see you know what you’re talking about – and explain how those points are wrong.
  4. If the panelists are discussing the history of fiction, genre, conventions, the publishing industry, or anything else, be sure to ask for an annotated bibliography. All of the best panels prepare these handouts in advance, but they’re like prizes for the most astute audience members. You have to ask for them. If the panel refuses to provide you with one, sigh heavily and sit down. Eye rolling is good here too. That way it’s obvious that you know the panel failed in one of their most basic tasks.
  5. Often the panel won’t get to everything about the topic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk about it. If you think they left out something important, no matter how loosely related to the discussion that’s been had, don’t hesitate to bring it up! This could be your chance to get your questions answered from two panels ago.

Once the panel is over, be sure to get to your favorite author, or the one you most need to correct, as quickly as possible. They take the first three audience members and will answer additional questions at length, but time constraints prohibit them from taking more. Those lucky three will get to talk as long as they want about anything they want, so don’t miss your chance! Some of my best times at a convention were hanging out in a bar or even author’s hotel room, talking late into the night about my writing, because I was persistent enough to catch their eye after a panel was over.

Lastly, there are some ways to get more attention if you feel the audience or panel isn’t seeing you. If the panel is dull or the moderator ignores you when you have your hand raised, feel free to leave the panel right then. Even if this means that you have to step over people, make noise, or otherwise interrupt the discussion, that’s okay. Everyone will see that you were too important to be ignored, and they won’t make that mistake again next time.

You should also pay attention to the volume of your voice. If your panel has been full of noisy people, the best way to get them to keep it down in the future is to ask your question in a very quiet tone. You may be asked to repeat it a few times, but don’t get any louder. This will remind people to be respectfully silent when you are speaking. Conversely, if raising your hand isn’t working, you can always just shout your question. Most likely the moderator didn’t see you, because they certainly would have called on you if they had.

Yes, this post is meant to be sarcastic, a list of things con goers certainly shouldn’t do or expect. It’s also a list of behaviors I see at every convention I attend. I hope that by putting it all together, it’s so absurdly over-the-top that readers get they’re not meant to actually do any of it. Plus, you seem like it when I get a bit snarky 😉

Oh, did you hear my latest SF Signal podcast appearance? Episode #175 is The 2013 List of Conventions You’re Looking Forward To This Year, with Gail Carriger, Jaym Gates and Patrick Hester (February 4, 2013).

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