Showing posts with label panelists. Show all posts
Showing posts with label panelists. Show all posts

19 September 2023

Bouchercon takeaways: being a successful panelist

Like some of you reading this, I recently attended this year's Bouchercon, which is touted as the world's largest mystery convention. It's held in a different city each year. This year, approximately 1,700 crime/mystery readers and writers converged in San Diego, where--among other things--we participated in and attended panels devoted to crime fiction. 

I like panels. I like learning new things and finding new-to-me authors whose books I'm excited to read. I probably attend more panels on average than many other people do at conventions like this. Some people actually leave the convention hotel to tour the city! Me, wherever we go, I attend the panels. This is partly a byproduct of having been the program chair of Malice Domestic from 2008 - 2014. If you live and breathe panels for as long as I did, you get attached and you like going to ones that sound good. Of course, I became program chair because I loved going to panels and thought I could do a good job at creating and scheduling them, so I guess this is a chicken-or-the-egg situation. But I digress.

Bouchercon started on Wednesday afternoon this year instead of the usual Thursday morning. The extra half day of panels really made a difference. It made the convention seemed less rushed. It enabled more authors to be on panels. It gave attendees more chance to see panels on topics they were especially interested in because there often was more than one panel on a similar topic. For instance, this year they had several panels devoted to short stories, to which I say: two thumbs up.

This is all a lead-up to say that I attended a lot of panels at Bouchercon, and I noted some problems occurring in panel after panel after panel. The biggest one: too many panelists far too often do not speak into the microphone. That makes it difficult for people in the audience to hear you or hear you clearly. So, for future reference, here are my handy dandy tips for being a successful panelist:

  • Speak into the microphone. Either move the microphone so it is CLOSE to your lips or EVERY TIME you speak lean forward so it's close to your lips. If the mic is sitting in the middle of the table and you're sitting with good posture, chances are your mic is a foot away. That's too far. It will not pick up what you're saying well. Pretend the mic is your high school crush. Get up close and personal. A couple of inches between mouth and mic is about right.

  • Speak to the audience. Look to the front. When you do that, you have a much better chance of speaking into the microphone. I can't tell you how many times panelists turned their head, talking to their panel moderator or fellow panelists when answering a question. When they did that, their lips were not near their mic. I understand the inclination to want to look at the person you're responding to, but this is not a conversation between two friends. Think of the moderator as a stand-in for the audience. Look at the moderator if you like when the question is posed, but then look to the audience when you answer. They're the ones who chose this panel to hear what you have to say. Make it easy for them.
  • Image by
  • If you're considering standing your book up on the table during the panel so audience members can see it, make sure it is not a hindrance to the audience seeing your face. If a book is a short mass market paperback, it probably won't block you. If it's a hardback, it very well might. And if you set your book on a little holder, the chances are even greater you'll be blocked by your book. So, before the panel starts, set your book up and have a friend sit in various spots in the audience and let you know if you're visible. If your book is blocking you from any spots in the audience, then I would hold it up while you are being introduced and then set it down. You might think you don't care if the audience can see you, that you want your book to be seen. But as an audience member, I beg to differ. It can be hard to connect with an author if I'm annoyed that I can't see them, no matter what they say or how charming they are. Think of the audience as your annoying relative who brushed your hair from your eyes when you were a kid. Bubby, we want to see your face.
  • When an audience member asks a question, repeat it before answering it. This is a moderator responsibility, but sometimes questions are posed directly to a particular panelist, and the panelist will jump in to answer. If you do, try to remember to restate the question first (speaking into the mic) so everyone in the audience can hear it. I know it can be easy to forget to do this. I'm guilty of it myself. All we can do is try our best to remember.
  • The best panels I attend often have conversations between the panelists. Rather than having a question posed and each panelist answer it down the line, saying their piece and waiting quietly until the next question is posed, see if you have something to add to what other panelists say. Engage in conversation.You'll probably end up with more interesting and less canned answers. (But don't talk too much. If you are talking twice as long or twice as often as anyone else, it will be noticed by the audience members and not in a good way.)
    Thanks to photographer
    John Thomas Bychowski.

I hope to see (and hear) you at Bouchercon next fall in Nashville (and Malice Domestic next spring in North Bethesda, Maryland, as usual). 

And before I go, a little BSP: I was delighted to win the Anthony Award for Best Short Story of 2022 at Bouchercon for "Beauty and the Beyotch," originally published in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. Thanks to the magazine's editor, Carla Coupe, who helped make the story better.

12 June 2018


Paneling at ArmadilloCon 2012
I have participated in panels at several science fiction/fantasy conventions and a few mystery conventions, and I’ve noticed a distinct difference in approach. I have only once participated in a panel at an sf/f convention in which the moderator contacted me in advance, yet I’ve had pre-convention contact with the moderators of every mystery convention panel in which I’ve participated.

On several occasions, the moderators of the sf/f panels didn’t realize they were the moderator, and on more than one occasion the moderator didn’t bother to show up, leaving panelists to draw straws for the task. While a panel in which none of the participants is prepared can be, and sometimes is, wildly entertaining, more often it consists of five writers saying variations of, “I don’t know why I was selected for this panel. I don’t know anything about Transsexual Taiwanese Tyrannosauruses” and one blowhard spouting variations of “Look at me! Buy my book! Look at me again! Buy my other book!”

Gathering the masses before starting the “Make it Snappy
panel at Malice Domestic 2018. L-R: Me, Gretchen Archer,
Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian,
and Art Taylor.
(Photo by Eleanor Cawood Jones)
When offered the opportunity to moderate “Make it Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees” at Malice Domestic 2018, I followed the best-practices example set by all the mystery convention moderators and one sf/f convention moderator with whom I have paneled: I contacted all the panelists in advance, introduced myself, and sought information that would help me formulate questions. Once I had the information I needed, I developed questions specific to each panelist (though I did not have time to ask them all), shared with them my plan for the panel and, once at the convention, had the opportunity to meet all of the panelists prior to gathering onstage.

I think the panel went well, but I’m not here to tout my skills as a moderator. I’m here to share some tips for successful paneling from the perspective of someone who has attended many panels, participated in several, and moderated a few.


1.  While you may be there to promote yourself and your work, the audience is there to be entertained and informed. So, entertain and inform.

2. If you have never been told by a parent, teacher, or significant other to use your “inside voice,” practice projecting. Use any provided microphones, especially if the panel is being recorded.

3. If you’re a moderator, know your panelists. At the very least, read their bios in the program.

4. If you’re a panelist, know your moderator. At the very least, read her bio in the program.

5. Asking generic questions and having each panelist answer in turn is a lazy moderator’s approach. So, prepare questions specific to each panelist and try to foster a dialog among the panelists.

6. Share the limelight. For moderators, this means ensuring every panelist has the opportunity to speak. As a panelist, this means speaking up if you’re shy, and it means curtailing your tendency to bloviate if you’re not shy.

7. Allow time for questions. If the audience is engaged, they will ask great questions. For the benefit of the rest of the audience, repeat or paraphrase questions before answering.

8. Start on time, end on time, and clear the stage for the next panel. If you are lucky enough to have fans swarming the stage afterward to ask questions and seek autographs, encourage them to follow you into the hall.

I have also participated in panels at writing conferences. The audience—primarily writers and would-be writers rather than genre fans—expect more information and less entertainment, but otherwise all the tips apply.


One writer whose paneling skills deserve emulation is Bill Crider. Every time we paneled together, he was the most knowledgeable, most experienced, and best-known writer on stage, and many of us would have sat at his feet in rapt attention while he talked for the entire 50 minutes. Yet, he never took advantage of his stature. He shared the limelight and regularly used his time to tell the audience something they might not know about one of the other panelists, or to direct a comment toward or ask a question of one of us.

That’s in direct contrast to several authors so enamored of their own voices that other panelists might as well not exist, and when moderators—either unable to unwilling to interrupt—let the blowhards take over, everyone suffers.

I’m not much good with small talk, but put me on a stage and ask me about writing, and I can bend an ear with the best of them. So, if you’re ever paneling with me and I start to bloviate, please kick me under the table and remind me to channel Bill Crider.

We’ll all be better off.

My romance “Too Close to School” appears in the anthology A Wink and a Smile (Smoking Pen Press), released in May.

17 November 2017

Moderating a Short Story Panel

James, Alan, Janet, Travis, Angel, and Barb
At the Bouchercon in Toronto a few weeks ago, one of the highlights was a panel on the short story moderated by my friend James Lincoln Warren. He wrote a long piece on FaceBook about it and graciously gave me permission to edit it and put it up here.

James says he feels like the Godfather of SleuthSayers, and he's right about that. He founded a website called Criminal Brief in which seven writers took turns talking (mostly) about short mystery fiction. When he decided to shut it down several of us grizzled survivors started SleuthSayers.

James is the author of many short stories that have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines. Perhaps his best known works are ahe tales of 18th century insurance investigator Alan Treviscoe but he won the Black Orchid Novella Award with a contemporary private eye story. His "Shikari" is, in my opinion, the best Sherlock Holmes story ever written that does not include Sherlock Holmes.

Without further ado, here we go. Any mistakes below can be blamed on me.

— Robert Lopresti

Moderating a Short Story Panel

by James Lincoln Warren

The panelists and I have received comments from the audience that this was their favorite panel at the convention. People have also mentioned how well attended it was—it was SRO, which is very unusual for a short story panel at a crime fiction fan convention.So I decided I'd explain how I structured it and my theories for its unusual success.

First, I think its success was largely due to the wonderful panelists: Alan S. Orloff, Janet Hutchings of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Travis Richardson, Angel Colón, and Barb Goffman, all of whom are greatly respected in the crime short fiction community. Kudos is also well-deserved by Janet Costello, the Bouchercon Programming Chair, for scheduling such a panel.

But let me begin by explaining why I at first dreaded having it assigned to me.

My working rule as a moderator (and I always prefer to moderate rather than contribute as a panelist) at a fan convention is first and foremost, "Connect the author with the reader." In other words, I want to get at least one person in the audience to read the work of each of the panelists.

The themes for panels at fan conventions usually key on elements relative to a particular subgenre, or things that particular works, in a variety of subgenres, have in common, e.g., a panel about private eyes, a panel about hard-boiled female detectives, a panel on detectives with pets, and so on. Usually on such panels, one of the panelists will be a prominent star writer with a big fan base---those are the folk who are going to come to the panel. In so doing, they will discover lesser known writers whose work is previously unknown to them, but whose stuff they are guaranteed to enjoy. Everybody wins!

Short stories are not a subgenre, like hard-boiled, cozy, police procedural, fair play, romantic suspense, etc. The short story is a form, not a thematic genre, and the subgenres represented by it cover the whole spectrum of crime fiction. This means that other than length, short story writers' works may have very little in common with each other. On top of that, writers like me, who work almost exclusively in the form, are not likely to be stars, because crime fiction has been dominated by the novel since the 1930s. Likewise for the panelists---no matter how wonderful their work, it is bound to have less exposure than the works of novelists. The upshot is that it's unlikely that an audience will be drawn to the panel on account of the names assigned to it.

As I said, my goal is usually to connect every writer on the panel to someone in the audience. But I noticed that on every short story panel I've moderated, when we get to the Q&A, the questions are never about the authors whose work I've tried so hard to expose. Instead, the questions are always about "How do I get published? What are your secrets?"

So I proposed to Janet Costello that for this short story panel, we'd go all the way and make it about writing short stories. I proposed that we'd come up with a list of simple concepts the panel could agree upon, or if they disagreed on the concept, at least recognize its importance, and illustrate how that concept worked by reading examples of it from the short fiction written by the panelists, along with other observations and suggestions from short fiction editors.

But then I ran into some trouble, because I couldn't figure out how to structure the panel, or whom to assign to which nugget of advice. And then it hit me.

Aspiring writers have entire libraries of sound advice available to them on how to write: Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Steven King, and divers others, have all written very good books on it. For access to markets, there's the venerable Writer's Market---every writer I know has bought one at sometime or another. So what's different about asking published writers these questions face to face? We're not going to dispense more wisdom in an hour-long panel than you can get from any of those books.

The answer is, of course, that there is personal interaction. The rookie wants to pick the brains of the veterans. And that's when I realized that the way to run the panel was to make it consist of questions from the audience, and not the questions that I thought should be asked. I had the audience members write down their questions on a leaf from a small tear-out notebook, restricted the questions to one or two, and had them collected and given to me. I would then read the questions, pick the most interesting or generally applicable ones, and get the best of both worlds: the audience would get answers to their personal questions, and I would remain in control of the panel.

To open the panel, I listed five pieces of advice everybody agreed on, and read from the works of the panelists to illustrate each one. This also gave the audience time to phrase their questions and turn them in while we were still able to dispense some basic advice, while also establishing the bona fides of the panelists.

That took about fifteen minutes. The rest of the panel consisted of questions from the audience.

Robert states that I dispensed with several questions on my own with the mantra, "There are no magic bullets." This is true. I did this because, well, there are no magic bullets, no perfect formulas, no foolproof techniques, and aspiring writers must understand this. But there were lots of very interesting questions that were directed individually to the panelists, and some directed at more than one panelist. And as I had encouraged the panelists to speak up when they had something to say about a question pitched to someone else, there was a lot of stuff that got covered from more than one angle.

The personal touch is why everybody loved the panel so much. Now, you can't teach someone to write a commercial crime fic short story in an hour, but a frequent comment was, "I learned so much!" The important point here is that they learned not what any of us wanted to teach, BUT WHAT THEY WANTED TO KNOW. Respect your audience!

All right, that explains why the panel was a success, but it doesn't explain why the house was packed.

I think there are two essential reasons: (1) Janet Hutchings, the editor of the world's leading crime fiction magazine, was being honored at Bouchercon, and people from the audience thought that maybe they'd learn how she picked stories for the magazine; and (2) the subject of the panel, "how to construct the short story", was something they had always wanted, but never before had offered to them. Bouchercon is not a writers conference. It's a fan convention. But we sometimes forget that writers usually start as fans of other writers.

(Now, I don't think that Janet told them exactly how she picks a story, although she gave them some very good advice---be in control of your narrative, do not fixate on the opening but on the whole narrative, and that she could use a lot more fair play detective stories featuring a crime and its solution. I should also mention that I gave a shout out to Janet's colleague Linda Landrigan at EQMM's sister mag, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, who once told me she likes stories that seem to be about one thing, but are really about something else.)

I was extremely fortunate to have so much expertise on the panel, and for Janet Costello allowing me to have my own way with it. It was a helluva lot of fun.