Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why I Love Conventions

By C.J. West

Last weekend I visited the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Dallas as a volunteer for Mystery Day, several panel presentations by current mystery writers. This morning I was thinking about how energized I am when I come away from these meetings and wondered why.

For those of you who’ve never been to an ALA meeting, the exhibit floor displays everything from books, to furniture, to technology, hundreds of booths with hi tech displays offer anything you’d need to open a library save the bricks, mortar and plumbing. Major publishers display thousands of books, but very few authors have a presence. If you’re an author and you rent a booth at one of these shows, be prepared to give away lots of books. Publishers come with cases of them and offer them free by the hundreds.

My focus for the day was a room in the back corner, arranged with a stage and about 50 chairs for panel discussions.

You’d think I’d be tired of listening to panels by now. A few years ago I started going to conventions to meet people in the business. I was always that kid in school who followed the rules, so when I started attending conventions, I sat in the audience for panels, lots of panels. That's what's on the schedule during the day, so that's what I did. I’ve listened in on some great conversations and I’ve seen more than a few fall flat.

The success of a panel in my eyes comes down to two factors. A panel needs either a rock star or a fantastic moderator. A rock star needs no explanation. Certain writers like Tim Hallinan, Dennis Lehane, or Charlaine Harris can carry a panel no matter who is asking the questions. The only thing that can spoil a panel with a rock star is a newbie who hogs the conversation.

Absent a rock star, a moderator makes or breaks the panel. The irony is that the moderator does the most work by far and receives almost no credit whatsoever. Anyone can ask:

“What’s your writing process? Or schedule? Or office space?”

“Why is (insert main character name here) fun to write?”

“How much research do you do?”

Blah. Blah. Blah. Heard it all before.

I admit if you’ve never heard an author panel before, the answers would be interesting. After 50 times, not so much. 

I was really impressed at last year’s Bouchercon by the job Ruth Jordan and Judy Bobalik did coming up with unique ideas for panels. They helped the moderators and authors put on a brilliant show. A great panelist can also make a panel fun. JoAnna Slan told a story about a dead armadillo that she turned into a table lamp. I’d heard the story. I knew she was going to tell it. I still couldn’t help laughing.

But not every panel can have an armadillo-turned-table-lamp story. Even if it could, it’s important to have someone driving the ship on an interesting course the rest of the time.

A great moderator takes a topic and gives the writers fodder for thought. The discussion gets the writers to share great ideas about their latest book, the writing life, and society in general. It’s these ideas that inspire me when I get back to my desk.

So tell me, do you notice moderators ? Who’s your favorite?


  1. You're right about panels. They can be terrific or deadly dull, depending on so many things. You, of course, did a terrific job of moderating your panel on ebooks at B-con 2010. I also think Hilary Davidson is a great moderator: very gracious and well prepared.

    This makes me eager to attend Left Coast Crime this year. I too become very energized after meeting with readers and writers!

  2. I have to say that L.J. did a fabulous job moderating her panel discussions at Left Coast Crime last year. The prep time she put in for each of those panels was clear. She had great questions because not only did she know the topic, she'd done her research on each of the panelists.

    Moderators should be pretty much invisible. When they become visible, it's either because they save the day by stepping in to wrench control back from a verbose participant, or they sit there and let everyone's time be wasted.

  3. Thanks LJ. It's hard not to come away inspired with so many great ideas floating around. The enthusiasm is contagious.

    I agree Peg. It's obvious when a moderator has done their homework. It's a shame that moderators are relegated to invisibility when they are so often the ones doing the heavy lifting.

    I had one panelist say to me this year, "I don't do any preparation. I just show up." This author has been on dozens of panels and simply walks in, sits down, and answers off the cuff. Contrast that to a great moderator I know who reads a book by each panelist she hosts when preparing for a conference. That's 60 hours+ of work if you read at my pace!

    I wish the audience understood the investment of time and did something to reward those great moderators who really put the time in.


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