Attending a Convention as an Author: Panels

This is the seventh of my essays about being an author, brought to you by my Patreon page.

I recently had the pleasure to attend the Gen Con Writer's Symposium. Gen Con, as some of you might know, is one of the bigger tabletop gaming conventions out there, consisting of four days of just about anything involving board games, card games, pen & paper roleplaying games, and more. The Writer's Symposium is the little corner of Gen Con that focuses on writing—a fitting match because so many authors both play and work in the gaming community. It has paneling, presentations, author signings, meet-and-greets, and all sorts of other fun things for the participants. This was my second year of attendance and I highly recommend going for both readers and authors.

I could go on and on for hours talking about the Writer's Symposium, Gen Con, or just conventions in general because there is a ton of ground to cover (I've talked about them before). But this essay is going to focus specifically on one aspect of the convention-going author experience that tends to be pretty similar where ever you go—panels.

Not sure what a panel is? Go to youtube and type in something like "Comic Con Marvel Movie Announcement." You'll get a video of a group of actors sitting on a stage in front of a thousand screaming fans while they give out tantalizing details about their next movie. Have that image firmly in your mind? Good. Now scale it down a lot. Excellent. Scale it down some more. A leeeeeettle more. And now you have a good idea of what an author panel looks like at the average convention.

Unless the panel involves GRRM, Brandon Sanderson, or Pat Rothfuss. Then you can scale that image back up.

Author panels are not likely to be limited to the panelists talking about their next projects (unless the panel is run by a publisher, or does involve one of the aforementioned rockstar authors). Instead, it's probably going to be geared toward amateur authors. The panelists will discuss a particular topic like "Writing Action Scenes" or "Plot Design." They'll play a game of round robin, directed by the moderator, each panelist taking stabs at the topic from different angles until they run out of things to say or the moderator calls for questions from the audience. Panelists slip in anecdotes, or relate the topic from the perspective of their own works (both of which are fine in moderation), and just generally try to sound intelligent and interesting in the hopes that the attendees will run out of the room and straight to the bookstore to buy their stuff.

That last sentence may have sounded sarcastic or bratty. I didn't mean it as either. Authors are real people with limited time and we sign up for panels for a purpose; to support the convention, meet other pros we might not have otherwise, get a free ticket into said convention and maybe access to the green room (if they have one), or even just because we like hearing ourselves talk. But most of all (in my opinion), we're here to reach an audience.

Panels are a way for new or midlist authors to reach a small but dedicated group of book-buyers. As mentioned, the panels are often directed as amateur authors, who are almost always voracious readers and fans themselves, making this sort of thing a symbiotic relationship. "I'll impart my wisdom to you and you, even subconsciously, consider buying my books." I rarely sell enough books at a convention to pay for the trip, but never underestimate the value of making a fan out of a convention-goer.

The actual size of the audience varies. I've been on panels where there are more people on the panel than in the audience. I've also sat in front of 400 convention-goers (but one of my fellow panelists was Brandon Sanderson). As an author, you never really know what your audience is going to be like and you do the small ones in the hopes that you'll wind up on the big ones.

This is a good place to talk about pitfalls of paneling. Panels are, at best, an interesting hour where everyone, including the panelists themselves, learns something new. Jokes are told, time is shared, the moderator is on top of things. Yay for those panels! But panels can also be a rough time, and here are a few ways they can go down hill:

First, you might wind up on a panel with a talker. The talker will spend all their speaking time, as well as most of yours, droning on about something only tangentially related to the panel. They might cut you off to make their own interjections, or ignore the moderator when they try to go to questions from the audience. They'll rant about politics or sex, or just start telling stories about famous people they know. Talkers come in all ages, shapes, and sizes, but old men seem to be the worst of them. Nobody likes a talker.

Another type of talker is the person who has absolutely no qualifications and no wit or charm to cover up the fact. They're basically an audience member who signed up for programming and got put on a panel because the convention didn't check credentials or desperately needed to fill out the roster. This is, to be frank, super annoying, but it usually only happens at small conventions.

Second, you could end up with a crumby audience member, like the guy who answered his phone right as the panel began and talked loudly on it for the next several minutes, or the lady with the enormous hat that insists on sitting in the front row and puts everyone behind her in a bad mood. You'll also get audience members who are the aforementioned "talkers." The moderator will ask for questions, and instead of posing a question this person will start in on their own musings because they think they should have been on the panel, or they'll proceed to tell you the plot of their unfinished novel. Both of those will earn the lifelong hatred of everyone on the panel and probably the audience.

Third, you could just have a boring topic. These are topics that deal with very shallow questions or generally-understood aspects of writing that only take five minutes to answer. I was once on a panel where we had to go to audience questions after fifteen minutes because there was just nothing else to say on the topic. Now, a good slew of panelists will come up with something else to say, or lead the discussion into a related, more interesting topic, but sometimes you get a boring panel at 9AM with four attendees and look let's all just go get a muffin or something.

Finally, there might be something wrong entirely out of your, or anyone else's, control. The AC in that room might be broken. There might be a wicked terrible smell. You might be next door to the convention's zombie maze, and constantly interrupted by real and electronic screams, shouting, music, etc. Best you can do in these situations is send someone to find the nearest con volunteer and hope something can be done.

Most of the worst panel pitfalls can be fixed or prevented by a good, strong moderator. The moderator is a third party assigned to the panel who, in theory, will do very little talking themselves and focus their attention on making the panel as smooth as possible. They'll introduce the panelists, pose questions, wrangle hecklers, shut down talkers, watch the clock, and give a closing statement. I'm a huge fan of the Myke Cole version of moderating, where he makes it clear to the audience and panelists ahead of time that he won't abide talkers and then follows through with that in a firm, polite way.

Because really, talkers are the worst.

My best panels have had the kind of ideal moderator I mentioned above. But in all honesty, a decent moderator just needs to foment discussion and watch the clock. So if you get an email from the con ahead of time asking you to moderate, or see an (M) next to your name in the programming, don't sweat it to much.

Let's say it's your first panel at your first convention. You're not a moderator and you feel good about the topic. What can you do to be a good panelist? Simple:

  • Don't drone.
  • Share the time.
  • Listen to the other panelists so you don't repeat what they said.
  • Ask to not be scheduled for a time when you'll be cranky (for me that's before 11AM).
  • Come prepared, either with a couple minutes of forethought on the topic or a notebook full of ideas, per your preference.
  • Be polite.
  • Pee and eat before a three-panel stretch.
  • Don't be afraid to let programming know you don't feel qualified for a certain panel.

Really, it's just a list of basic etiquette. My first panel was at a tiny but well-run convention in Detroit and my first book wasn't even out yet. I was terrified, my voice and hands shook, and I was sweating up a storm. There were eight people in the audience. It was, shall we say, anticlimactic, even to someone like me with a huge fear of public speaking. It was also great practice, and I'm happy to say I handle panels much better these days.

All-in-all, panels are a bit of a crap shoot but they can be enormously fun learning experiences that may even net you a group of new fans. They're a staple of the convention-going author's experience and if you go in prepared, you'll usually have a good time.