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Moderating Panels: Part of My Writer’s Journey

I’ll confess, I’m not sure when I said to myself “oh, as part of my journey as a writer, I’m going to moderate author panels and sessions!” But apparently that was a stretch goal that I set for myself and one that I’ve fulfilled for the past couple of years.

From March 2018’s presentation “In Celebration of the Amateur Sleuth” for Twin Cities Sisters in Crime. Thanks to Jessica Laine for the photo!

In an attempt to define my “why” as to this part of my writing journey and as a resource to help others moderate panels, I’ve assembled a bit of a “how-to” on moderating panels in case it’s of interest / help to other readers / writers.

Moderating Panels 10-erm

OK – this isn’t going to be a definitive guide to moderating panels.  There are people who have done this type of thing for YEARS and are a few decades ahead of me when it comes to not sounding like a demented fan girl when it comes to talking to their favorite authors.  But here are some tricks and tips I’ve picked up over the past few years:

1) I would like to think that this first point is a no-brainer, but I’ve listened to enough panels to know when the interviewer hasn’t … erm … done their homework. Read / familiarize yourself with the authors’ work.  You don’t have to read William Kent Krueger’s entire series featuring Cork O’Connor (although you should), but read at least 50 pages of your subject’s work so you get a sense of the world their characters operate in, who their main character is, and a sense of the author’s overall tone.

I try to read at least one book that’s been written by my panel participants and I either get them via Kindle or my local library.  The biggest reason I make this recommendation is that by knowing your writers, you can personalize your questions.  Instead of “tell me a little bit about your main character’s biggest flaw”, the question could be “So, Kent – you’ve written 17 books featuring Cork O’Connor. Beyond the life events that have happened to him over the arc of your books, what’s the biggest challenge in aging a character like Cork?”  Targeted questions may pique audience members’ interest in an author’s book and prompt them to buy it. (No pressure.)  But seriously – authors can tell when you’re faking it. They deserve better than that.

2) Have more questions than you’ll ever humanly have time to ask. The current president of the Twin Cities Sisters in Crime group (her name is Timya and she’s incredible) actually has a “panel bible” that she uses when moderating author panels and it’s a wealth of questions – questions that she’s dreamed up, questions that she’s gotten from the audience at panels, questions that authors themselves have provided.  I remember flipping through the binder once thinking “wow, I would NEVER get through all of these questions.”  And then, at one event I moderated – I ended up asking questions for an unGODLY amount of time.  I think it was only an hour, but it felt longer than that and I was so grateful for the panel bible.  You can never guarantee that the audience will bail you out and ask questions, likewise, you can’t count on chatty authors.  Err on the side of too many questions, that strategy will never let you down.

3) Try to assemble your questions in an order that feels logical, but be ready to shuffle the questions according to how the conversation is flowing.  I type and print out my order of questions (Calibri – 14 point font or larger depending on how blind or nervous I feel that day), but I’ve found over the course of panel conversations that sometimes authors manage to answer a question that I’ve jotted down for later.  Or that instead of following up a question about character motivations, someone has given me a good segue to ask about “what makes a good villain.”  Knowing your questions and knowing your authors’ works helps to keep the conversation flowing and dynamic.

4) Have your pen handy. Don’t be afraid to jot down notes while you’re moderating and listening to author answers. Obviously, I’m not writing things down verbatim when authors are talking, but I like to keep notes.  There are times when an author says something that dovetails nicely into a question on my list.  Or another author has said something that you’d like them to expand upon, but you have three other authors who are still talking through the current question you’ve posed.  (And if you’re like me, it’s easy to lose your train of thought …)  Or more commonly in my type of panels, one of my authors has made a book suggestion that I need to put on my TBR (To Be Read) list and I don’t want to forget what they recommended. 🙂

5) This isn’t Jeopardy and folks like to be prepared. I like to send out an email to my authors about a week prior to the event.  This serves as a reminder of where / what / when and shares any other pertinent information with them. I also sketch out the “type” of questions I’ll be asking during the panel.  I throw three or four questions out there that shows them the mindset of conversation I hope to facilitate.  This also gives them time to formulate what message they’d like to impart about their books or characters (and hopefully saves on the conversational “umms and hmmms” that sometimes happen).  If I’m going to have an element of surprise or a “gotcha” question for my authors, it’s going to be something light like “which of your characters would you like to have a beer with” or “if you could choose any author to have dinner with, living or dead, who would that be?”  This isn’t Jeopardy, we’re not assigning points based on an element of surprise and how quickly a person can craft an answer out of the ether.  I want authors to feel at ease and to give them a chance to polish their presentations.

6) Rehearse!  Again with the no-brainers!  But seriously – I typically read through whatever intro spiel I need to present a couple times prior to the presentation itself.  Same thing with author biographies.  I live in a fairly Scandinavian part of the country where most of our folks’ surnames end in “-son.” BUT … as my dear mama always said “never assume …” So I check name pronunciations.  Because that’s the right thing to do.

7) Have fun.  Modulate your voice.  Don’t sound like a robot.  Don’t get so wrapped up in the 45 minutes of your presentation that you forget to smile, make eye contact, etc.  Mistakes are human, don’t be afraid to make one.

My “Why”

So … why do I do this?  Other than the fact that I like to talk … a lot?  Here’s the benefits I’ve realized through this part of my writer’s journey:

  • Gets me used to being in front of an audience.  It’s been a looooonnnnngg time since high school / college and those “public speaking” courses that I usually snoozed through.  I also work from home, so it’s not like I’m out in front of people very often stringing sentences together.  This is good practice for the day that I’m on the other end of a panel and the one answering questions.
  • Which … speaking of that … I did have the opportunity to participate on two panels during the 2017 Killer Nashville conference.  Which, I’ll admit a certain amount of chutzpah on my part – what the hell is an unpublished author doing on a panel talking with any amount of “expertise” about ANYTHING?  Well … in my case, I made it work since I presented myself as someone that the audience could relate to … a writer who was finding my footing in the publishing world, someone who was doing the legwork for my future writing career.  And by golly – I snowed them.
  • Name recognition.  OK, I’m not talking about being Oprah here, but I live south of the Twin Cities while the majority of my fellow writers are in the metro area.  They don’t really have any reason to know me, but at this point, they can say “oh, her … she’s the one who moderates those panels!”  Yup.  That’s me.
  • It’s “forced” me to read more.  Heh – forced.  I’m freaking lucky to get to read the books that have been written by my peers.  But to be honest, without the impetus of moderating – there are books that I would have missed.  It’s great to read authors that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered and that’s a great way to promote and support indie authors.

Thoughts or questions?  Shout ’em out below!

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