Thursday, March 3, 2011

Seated to my Right

By Deborah Sharp
Sleuthfest starts today in south Florida, my home turf. I hope I seem friendly and welcoming to the authors and conventioneers who travel here from elsewhere. I don't want to be like those obnoxious surfers in California, who begrudge outsiders the chance to catch a single wave. ''Locals Rule,'' is their credo. That sentiment resides in other cliques besides surfers, though.

Writers, for instance.

How many of you have felt excluded by the more experienced hands at mystery conferences? Felt like everyone was in the know but you? Maybe it's my own insecurity, but that was how I felt -- a lot -- in the first year or two I spent as an author. It took me at least that long to learn the secret handshake. (Note to the newbies: That's a figure of speech. There is no secret handshake. Or, maybe there is, and they're STILL keeping it from me.)

This weekend, I'll be on a panel at Sleuthfest. Panels can be either a welcoming or an exclusionary experience, depending:
Is the moderator a dear friend of a panel hog, and loathe to rein him in?
Is everyone on the panel -- except you -- from a similar genre, making you the ugly cousin?
Is the panel led by a graduate of the Narcissistic School of Moderating, who believes this session should rightfully be her 50 minutes of fame?

Vicki Doudera, a fellow Midnight Ink author, made a great point recently about panel etiquette on our Yahoo group. Panelists, Vicki wrote, should try to reference other writers instead of acting like they're the only people on Earth who ever wrote a book. They shouldn't bogart the microphone; and they should answer the questions they're asked without using every one as a springboard to blatant self-promotion. Vicki didn't say why she felt moved to post tips for polite panelists, but I'd bet she's been seated somewhere on a Panel from Hell. I know I have. Here are a few of my most-hated panel types. No names, of course, to protect the guilty:
The Unprepared Moderator. Really? You didn't even take 10 minutes to Google me? I don't expect you to read all the panelists' books, but at least have a clue about what we write seeing as how you're supposed to be leading the discussion.
The Name-Dropping Panelist. I was once empaneled next to an author who made much of a friendship with a famous country music star. Each topic raised was another opportunity to brag about how much this certain star LOVED the author's books; how the star couldn't wait to make them into movies; how the star called just to chat about how FABULOUS these books are. Okay, we get it. You're somebody.
The Time-Sucker. You've been there, right? As an author, or maybe in the audience. Tapping your fingers and seething as one panelist goes on and on and on . . . Yeah, you're terrific. One of a kind. Now, stop being a baby and let somebody else grab a hold of that microphone.
How about you? What's your worst panel experience ever? Or, is it just me, and all the panels you've seen or been seated on have been dreams.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I was on a panel once where 1 author took up 2/3 or more of the time with one question, taking non-stop about her book and even reading from it! Yet the moderator said nothing. The rest of us, and the audience, were looking at each other and rolling our eyes. The author was clueless and self-absorbed, but the moderator should have been shot.

Lois Winston said...

I was on a panel once with 5 other authors. No moderator. We agreed among ourselves that we should each do a quick intro, then get into the discussion. We were all newbie authors, so there were no mega-stars in the group.

The person to my right got things started, introducing herself, then giving the title of her book, the publisher, the genre, and when the book came out. I did the same. Then the person to my left started talking. And talked. And talked. And talked. The two remaining panelists followed her lead. By the time they were finished, time was up for the panel. The first author and I never got to speak beyond our quick intros.

Deborah Sharp said...

Sue Ann: another author recently told me ''A good moderator is a thing of beauty.'' Good and strict! Lois: I hate when that happens. Especially as a newbie, you're reluctant to break in when someone is monopolizing, but I think it can be done tactfully, and the audience appreciates it.

Alan Orloff said...

Hmm. I haven't been on a bad panel. (What's that saying? If you sit down at a poker table and you can't figure out who the fish is, then...)

Darrell James said...

Deb, now you've got me checking to see if I fit one of the Panelist-From-Hell Archetypes... hmmm! I don't think so.

I've mostly had pretty good panel experiences, so far (fingers crossed). I have run into the Doesn't-Take-A-Breath-Between- Sentences-Panelist from time to time.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Been there! So much depends on the moderator. And not just for the other authors, but also for those in attendance. I try to always thank moderators who handled a panel well.

Good luck on your panel!

Keith Raffel said...

I like panels where there's a conversation among panelists, not where each panelist answers the question in turn (boring!).

Cricket McRae said...

I agree, Keith. A good moderator can foster that kind of organic discussion.

My panel experiences have all been fair to great. So far. However I've witnessed panels where one person hogs the mic and one where a panelist kept bringing up their connection with a movie star. I ended up walking out, and I wasn't the only one.

Have fun at Sleuthfest, Deb!

Beth Groundwater said...

I'm a moderator/panelist for my "Murder in the Great Outdoors" panel at Left Coast Crime. I know the other panelists think I'm obsessive-compulsive by now, but I sent them a list of 5 questions I plan to cover before opening it up to the audience. I told them I expected them to spend NO MORE than 2 minutes answering each question. And I have no compunction about butting in to say, "Okay, let's hear what the next person has to say now."

You know, panelists who hog the stage probably don't realize it, but they're making a bad impression on the audience. They know who's being polite and who isn't, and they won't buy books from snobs.

Here's hoping your panel goes swimmingly!

Deborah Sharp said...

Alan: Omg, suppose I'M on the fish???
Darrell: Lucky you (Cricket, too) for having good panels so far.
Kathleen: I've gotten a couple of those thank-yous ... Feels good.
Keith: I agree that conversation is great. How do you do that, though, if the moderator is a cut-and-dried questioner?
Beth: I lean more toward your tactic. I also tell the audience what we're going to do, and I think most people like the head's up.
Cheers, y'all, and thanks for the comments.

G.M. Malliet said...

I've been lucky with panels. I'm realizing how lucky!

Msmstry said...

I've moderated a lot of panels in my day and I always send out the rules of the game, stressing that I will time answers so that everyone gets equal opportunity to talk. Not everyone believes me, but I've learned that everybody, even a panel hog, has to breathe sometime. I brace myself to watch for it and swoop in with a, "That's interesting. We'll hear more about that later." Most times, I don't have to do that more than once in a panel.

I also open the questions from the audience with rules: No opening statements. Ask your question immediately.

Talkers may not like me, but listeners seem to appreciate my style.

Deborah Sharp said...

Hiya, Ms. Molly ... how I wish I had YOU as a moderator. Sounds like you don't let anyone get away with hogging the show! Thanks for the comments, y'all!