Friday, November 11, 2011

And the question goes to...

by Meredith Cole

Panels. Conferences. Book signings. Reading your work out loud. It's enough to make writers, who spend most of their time with only a computer to talk to, lose sleep at night.

I still remember my first Bouchercon, seeing a panel comprised of Laurie King, SJ Rozan, Val McDermid and Laura Lippman. They sounded so poised, confidant and articulate. They were charming and funny. They had the audience eating out of their hand. And on my first panel... I no doubt sounded like an idiot.

No one gave me any really hard questions, so I can't blame my moderator or the audience. But I was really nervous and insecure about talking about my book. I made notes. I wrote down a summary of my book (just in case I forgot what I'd spent several years writing) and my bio (in case I forgot who I was). I tried hard to keep breathing so my heart didn't explode. And when it was over, I went somewhere and collapsed.

So what happened? Did I slink away and never do another panel again? Uh, no. When my book came out, I went on tour. I did another bazillion panels. I got better. I answered most of the questions I heard at least once before so I had practice. I listened and learned from other more experienced panelists. I moderated a few panels. I didn't sound so idiotic. I made audiences laugh and want to read what I had written. I started to have fun.

But there's always a few questions that stop the panel in its tracks, and most writers hate getting them. So if you want to pour cold water on a writer's happy parade, jump up and ask the following questions:

  • How much did you get paid for your last book?

I don't know about you, but I work for food. And books. If you want to get rich, become a banker. 

  • Who is your agent and can you recommend me to them?

Not unless I know you and your writing. Sorry. My agent is pretty busy trying to get me more money (for food, etc.) on my next book.

  • Why is publishing so unfair (because they have not recognized my genius)?

I don't know. I'm not an editor, or a publisher. I just write books.
  • How come so much crap gets published every year?

See above.

  • And last, but not least--the question that isn't a question at all but a pitch for your unsold manuscript to the room. I've written a book about blah, blah, blah, and I'm so and so, and on and on and on...

The writers on the panel usually freeze and sit there with a slowly drooping smile on their face wondering when you are going to stop talking and ask a question. Of them. About their book. Because you perhaps were not listening earlier when I said I'm not a publisher, editor, etc.? And the audience gets restless because they came to hear the panel talk.

But usually the audience has wonderful questions, and even sends out a few curve balls to keep the authors awake and on their toes. And everyone leaves the panel pumped up and excited and ready to go back to their computer and write.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Geez, Meredith, you trotted out all the old and dreaded chestnuts. My favorite (not) is the last - the question that's not really a question. Having been a moderator quite often, I've had to learn how to nicely shut that individual down.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Meredith: Those are the worst ones, aren't they? Because, really, there is no good funny answer.

Sue Ann: How do you shut down #5? I've seen it a lot, and would like to know a gracious way to stop it.

Meredith Cole said...

I'd love to hear Sue Ann's secret, too. Shutting it down always feels so rude, but letting it go on feels like you're doing a disservice to the authors and audience.

Reece said...

As an attorney, it took a while for me to get used to public speaking on a panel without the dreaded PowerPoint.

And I want to have Sue Ann moderate my next panel -- she sounds like a good enforcer.

Gabi said...

You haven't lived until someone asks you if you research the sex. I'll take a tip from you and write down some answers next time although I doubt you -- of the bazillion panels and great reads -- ever suffer from brain freeze.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

It took me a while to learn how to deftly shut down the droners without feeling guilty. If I see it happening, I interrupt (and apologize for doing so), explain we have limited time, and if he/she does not have a question that pertains directly to the panel, then to please let someone else ask a question. Usually the person is so astounded and annoyed at being interrupted, they stop. If they don't, I explain they've used up their time and choose another person to ask a question. I do a lot of workshops, and there's always someone like this in the audience. I simply explain that their question is off topic and move on.

But I'd still like to know how to graciously stop a panel-hog in their tracks.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I want you to be my moderator, Sue Ann!

Meredith Cole said...

I vote that Sue Ann will be our moderator at our first official Criminal Minds panel. All in favor say aye!