Writing Excuses 9.42: The Convention-Author Relationship, with Deirdre Saoirse Moen
Key Points: Convention needs interesting discussions. Authors want to sell more books. Programming needs to know how the author is interesting and unique. Don’t think of it as fans vs. pros — cons are a community, a conversation, and you need to be part of that conversation. Learn to listen. Jot down an idea or two ahead of time, take notes during the panel. Panels need a good moderator, and topics that lead to a conversation, not hobbyhorses. The moderator and panel members need to make sure everyone talks. Keep on topic and keep the discussion going. Volunteer for early and late panels, and to moderate.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 42.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, the convention-author relationship.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Deirdre Saoirse Moen.
[Deirdre] Thank you.
[Brandon] Thank you for coming on. You run conventions.
[Deirdre] I do. I’ve run programming for several conventions. My first volunteering was in a convention for 19… In 1977, before Star Wars came out. I was Mark Hamill’s personal guide.
[Dan] Very nice.
[Brandon] Excellent. We’re going to talk about… Mary actually pitched this concept to us, so why don’t you talk about what we’re going to be doing here?
[Mary] One of the big… The questions that a lot of people have come especially new authors is, “How do I get on panels?” And “What do I do once I get on a panel?” I think that a lot of people don’t understand quite what the relationship is between an author and the convention. Since the convention is for fans, but the author is there as a professional. So I was… One of the things that I thought that I would start about… Talking with is what are some of the programming considerations that you have to think about? Because I think if people understand the balance that goes on behind the scenes, they might have a better idea of where they fit into it.
[Howard] If we know what you’re trying to build, then…
[Deirdre] Exactly. So one of the things that’s a chronic source of tension between the author… Author’s needs and the convention’s needs. The convention wants to offer an interesting set of discussions, conversations arranged around a topic. The author wants to sell more books.
[Deirdre] These are not necessarily compatible goals. So I was just told this morning that the only reason authors come to conventions is to sell more books. I thought, “Wow.” Entirely mystified. I didn’t start writing until I’d been going to conventions for 10 years.
[Brandon] I would say that that definitely is not the only reason to attend conventions at all. But that reminds me of the old Isaac Asimov story that Dave told us. Remember this? That there was a brand-new author that had just gotten published and he went to the convention and he was all kind of high and mighty and they asked him if he could help them out with the fanzine. He said, “No, I’m a published author now.” At that moment, Isaac Asimov’s head poked out of the room and said, “Do we have any more page 54?” Because he was doing the stapling.
[Mary] That’s great.
[Deirdre] That’s it, really. So the thing is, what programming would actually like to know is how are you interesting? I’ll give you an example. We have at this convention… We have a Japanese-American young adult author, we have a guy who speaks fluent Japanese, we have somebody who studied sword making in Japan, and we have a woman who’s a costumer who is passionate about kimonos. You can make a panel out of that.
[Howard] Put them all in the same room and give them microphones.
[Deirdre] Just kind of aim them at Japan. But the point is that the more we know about you, and the more interesting little bits you have… And it doesn’t matter if they are related to science fiction or not. I’ve done panels on antique motorbikes, because if you can get three or four people interested in talking about antique motorbikes, and you can get a few people in the room, that’s still a great conversation.
[Howard] I was on a panel with Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games and Eric Raymond who’s a luminary in the Linux community where the three of us were sitting in the middle of the room talking about chili sauce.
[Howard] That was the… I mean, we talked about other things, too, but that was a fun discussion. We had a great time. It was entertaining for the crowd. That was one of the moments where I realized that if I as an author, and especially as a self pub small press author, if I want to sell small… er, sell small? If I want to sell books, one of the best ways I can do that is by being interesting and entertaining so that people will remember my name as part of my brand and maybe someday they’ll see my name and make a purchase.
[Deirdre] So what we’re looking for is how can we combine things and offer something that’s unique and interesting. Which isn’t necessarily the standard topics that you might think to speak on or to think to volunteer.
[Brandon] I think I should make a point here of mentioning that there are different types of conventions out there. When we talk about cons, we are talking usually about the literary cons which are in the traditional science fiction fantasy tradition. Fan run, community involvement, it’s a community of fan run conventions. Now there’s another type of convention that is very big, the Comic Con style. We call them media cons. Those are a very different type beast. We’re not talking about those here. We are talking about the fan run, fan organized literary conventions. We just make that distinction because the Comic Cons are generally or often for profit. Even if they aren’t, they are run in a very different way. Walking in and saying, “I want to be on your panels,” doesn’t really work at one of those because usually it’s publicists pitching for those, and those are only about sales, usually. These are not, these are about a community that is helping each other, and a lot of us, as we talked about with Chris Garcia, came up through the ranks of this, were part of this long before we became professionals in our field.
[Dan] For me, and I actually had to learn this as I started doing conventions as an author rather than as a fan. I kind of had at the beginning this sense of now I’ve crossed sides to be a professional. That’s the wrong way of looking at it. You think of this, like you said, as a community. It’s a conversation, and if you see a bunch of people in the hall having a conversation and you walk up to them and say, “Would you like to buy my book? I have many shirts in the dealer room?” That kind of stuff… No one wants to talk to that guy. Whereas if they’re having a conversation and you join it and you say, “I love Battle Star Galactica, too. Colonel Tigh is my favorite character. Let’s talk about him for a while.” Then you’re part of the community rather than above it or to the side of it. That’s what the con is for, is to be a part of the conversation, instead of the jerk trying to get people to buy shirts.
[Deirdre] To that end, when you’re on a panel, putting all your books in front of you like you’re building fortifications against the audience? Don’t. Don’t go to that extreme. There are different people who feel differently. If you ever go to speaking in the UK, they consider it very tacky for you to put a book up. You can show it at the beginning, but just be discreet and try not to insulate yourself against your audience. That much.
[Brandon] Let’s talk about what to do if we are on a panel. Let’s say you’ve done this, you’ve contacted the programming and they have put you on the panel. How do you… What do you do?
[Deirdre] Well… If… Hopefully, it’s something that you know something about. If it’s not, don’t ever say, “I don’t know why I’m on this panel.” Because that will get back to programming and they’ll say, “Well, you failed at entertainment 101.”
[Mary] I’m going to say… I’m going to pull out one thing that you just said… That will get back to programming. One of the things to remember is that this is a very small community, and that they will talk to each other and that someone who is running programming on one convention is likely to be involved with it on another. So if you go on and you’re really good, they will remember and start to use you for other things. If you are an awful person, they will also remember that.
[Deirdre] As an example, somebody bailed on a convention at the last minute due to just having a tiff… This was not a writer, by the way. Due to having a tiff with programming. Then the next convention I was running programming on, somebody wanted to use this person for more panels and I said, “No, they bailed on the last one.” Guess what. I didn’t want to leave any more holes. So I didn’t want to over schedule them. I said, “Give them one thing.” They bailed on that convention, too.
[Howard] One of the things that I’ve found super helpful when I’m on a panel is that… And it’s a conversation skill. When you’re having a conversation, and I remember having conversations like this when I was younger and far less intelligent… The whole goal of the conversation was for me to say something, something clever. So while everybody else is talking, all I’m doing is trying to think of the next thing I’m going to say. I’m not participating at that point. I’m not really listening. I’m just kind of hearing.
[Brandon] I’m sorry, did you say something?
[Howard] It sounded like… Yeah. So the conversational skill of listening is critical. What I’ve found, in part by doing so much Writing Excuses. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours trying to be… Trying to be pithy and on-topic is that when you listen and you hear something that engages with something you have expertise on, the thing that you should say next will probably come to you. You can be a part of the discussion in that way. I find that when that happens, it’s an organic discussion, we can enjoy it.
[Deirdre] Right. If you’re prone to stage fright, you might want to jot down two or three things ahead of time to kind of remind you. It’s never a bad idea, just in case you have those moments up on stage, and everybody does at some point.
[Mary] Even if you’re not prone to stage fright, and those of you who are not watching the video feed can’t see that… I take notes during every podcast. So that I remember the next thing. I have a small pad of paper when I’m on panels that I just jot down notes. Although sometimes I look at them and have no idea… Oh, diversify your income stream. I know what that was about.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Deirdre, you were going to pitch a book to us.
[Deirdre] A book I just read was Tiffany Reisz’s The Saint. It’s a new book. It’s the fifth book in her… It’s the first book of a prequel series to the four books she previously had out. All five are on audible. Her last name’s R-E-I-S-Z. It’s an erotica series. But this being a prequel, it covers from her age 15 to 20 and grand theft auto is not usually what you expect to read in an erotica book.
[Brandon] Okay. Does it come with a content warning?
[Deirdre] It has all the content warnings.
[Howard] So, content warning, this one’s explicit. Tiffany Reisz… R-E-I-S
[Howard] Z. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a free trial membership and give the Saint a listen.
[Brandon] One of the things that I have noticed on panels, and when I’ve been a fan, I went to conventions for years with Dan and with Peter and some friends. We would go to this panel, we’d get really excited about the panel, we’d see it in the program and we’re like, “This is exactly what we wanted to hear about.” We would sit down and then the panel would spend about 10 seconds on that, and then would veer toward a completely different hobbyhorse topic of one of the panelists. Often there would be this one panelist dominating the whole conversation, spinning it off toward a weird hobbyhorse. We would leave those panels just mad and feeling like we’d wasted an hour of our time.
[Deirdre] There’s a few things that programming has to know. First of all, a lot of the people that we schedule, unless we’re doing the same convention year after year, we’re scheduling a lot of people we do not know very well. So we have to make guesses about who they are and what they will or won’t do. The second thing is that those panels do tend to veer off more if you ask yes/no questions in the subject line. Or if you ask easily answerable questions. So the subject and the description have to be written to lead to a conversation.
[Brandon] See, I wasn’t blaming programming. I’m talking to our listeners who are writers, saying don’t do that.
[Howard] I moderated a panel last night on comics. That was the title of the panel. Comics. We had some great artists up there, and I knew that we could just end up in the weeds, somewhere, so what I lead with was, “How do you, as a cartoonist, as a sequential artist, how do you use the point of view of the camera to change the mood of the scene you’re creating? What’s in your toolbox?” The guy at the end, Jess Smart Smiley, looked at me and was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s a great question. Oh, my gosh.” We spent the whole panel digging deep into the comics toolbox of what it means to create sequential art. I did that because I’ve been on some of the panels that Brandon talks about. I don’t want… I want to drill down. I want to learn things.
[Mary] The other thing that will happen on those, where you have someone with the hobbyhorse, is that you… Those are often cases where the moderator is failing to notice that someone is not talking. If you are on the panel, and not the moderator, and you notice that someone is not talking, often it’s helpful to turn to them and asked if they have anything to share. Like, “Dan, do you have any tricks for sharing?”
[Dan] No. But now that we’ve broached the topic of moderating in general, though, I think that that is another really good direction to take this conversation. It’s not just how do you be on a panel, but if you are the moderator of a panel, Deirdre, what… What is your job and how do you do it?
[Deirdre] Your job is to kind of contain the subject to what is expected but also to try to make sure that everybody gets to be able to speak. Because some people will need a strong moderator because they do tend to talk over other people. Hopefully, programming knows who to put as a moderator and who not. Again, somebody who is a good moderator last year may not be a good moderator this year, because people are human.
[Brandon] I would say keeping on topic and keeping a discussion going rather than dominated by one or two people is an important part of the moderator. One of the things I like to do when I’m moderating is ask a question of the panel and then start at one end and go down, but then when I ask the next question, start with a different person and go. So then also not every time is one person given the chance to go first, and someone else having to sit and wait. That can be really good, sitting and waiting what everyone says and having the last word can be good or it can be like, “Wow, they’ve already covered this topic completely. All I get to say is yeah, they said it.” So rotating who’s speaking, managing that, is very useful as a moderator, I think.
[Howard] I love throwing questions directly at some of the panelists. I mean, if I’ve got time to do my homework before a panel… One of my favorite things to do is sit down with the panelists beforehand for just a couple minutes and say, “Okay. This is our topic. What is your favorite thing to talk about here, and what’s your position?” I’ll make some notes. Then they introduce themselves and when somebody says a thing, I can respond to the thing by saying, “Oh, that’s very interesting, but, John, what do you think about this? Because of this thing you just said.” It starts driving the discussion into areas where people are interested and passionate.
[Deirdre] One of the other things, getting back to earlier getting onto panels at all, having a website, showing what you’re interested and passionate about… As I’ve said, the sum of what you care about is unique in the world. And how you care about that, and how you express what you care about. I use websites. I will go look you up. Do you have a website? Do you have your own domain? That’s actually a really big one. Do you have an about page? Even if you’re not published… You don’t have to be published to be on a writing panel. I was on WorldCon before I’d been published in science fiction. So just be aware that you don’t have to have everything. But you should be able to get a sense of who you are from your website. A lot of people control themselves too tightly.
[Mary] So one of the things… The pieces of advice that I got early on for getting on panels was to volunteer for the early and late night ones, because none of the pros want to do those. And also, volunteer to moderate, because no one wants to moderate, either.
[Brandon] Really? I love moderating.
[Mary] I do too.
[Brandon] Well, yes.
[Howard] I love moderating. One of my least favorite things to do is be on a panel where I’m not the moderator that I can tell that the moderator is kind of asleep at the wheel. Because I do not want to be the guy who hijacks the panel and takes over the moderation, but I’ll totally do that if you’re asleep at the wheel.
[Deirdre] Early morning, especially Sunday morning, is really good, if you’re willing to do that. The… I’m sorry, I forgot the other thing I was going to say.
[Mary] It was about moderating.
[Howard] That’s okay. Dan forgets things all the time.
[Dan] All the time.
[Mary] Ways to get on panels…
[Deirdre] Don’t vol… Don’t ask to be on with the Guest of Honor. That’s a red flag.
[Brandon] Interesting. All right.
[Deirdre] Unless you know them personally.
[Brandon] Well, we are out of time. Mary, you’re going to give us a writing prompt.
[Mary] Yes. Your writing prompt is to write your bio or rewrite it. I want you to actually write it in four lengths. So what you’re going to do is you’re creating a press kit for your page. So you’ve got one at 25 words, 50 words, 100 words, and then long form, which is 400 to 500 words. These are the lengths that panels… Programmers will look for. Nice lengths to slot into program books, to go on your twitter website, whatever. Try to make sure that you include something about yourself that is not your writing to make yourself interesting. Include some of your interests.
[Howard] This is actually a thing that I still need to do.
[Mary] Yes, you do.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Howard’s out of excuses. Now go write.
[Brandon] But also go on a cruise with us. What follows is the exact same post that we put up last week talking about the cruise. We just want to make sure that you all had heard it. So, going into this, an advertisement for the Writing Excuses Retreat 2015, we’re on a boat.