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This blog is by request. Imagine. I had a request! Anyhow, a very good writer friend of mine (who can out themselves if they want to, or not) has been invited onto their first panel next year, and wondered what it was like to be on a panel.

Now, hands in the air in admission time. I'm not a hugely experienced sff panellist. I've been on a panel at 4 conventions (around 10 panels in total, I reckon.) But when I'm working to eat I've moderated panels, sat on panels and had my fair share of experiences.

So, what to expect and what to do:

1. Conventions are busy, run mostly by volunteers, and rely on a certain degree of self-sufficiency. You will get looked after - normally there are people allocated to the guests and to answer any questions - but you will not be in the position of asking for blue smarties in the dressing room. If you can, get to the convention early enough to work out where things are, what the room is like, and whether you need to set anything up.

2. Research 1. Panels are mixed and some will have people on them you may not have heard of. Common sense says to at least google them and save yourself some blushes or gaffes. You really don't want to find out that the lady at the end with the orange hair and weird eyes whose knowledge of medieval combat you just challenged is the writer of the leading sword-play for writers book.

3. Research 2. Conventions, particularly smaller ones, might have to stretch a large number of panels over a small pool of panellists. You might well write YA fantasy, but find yourself on a broader panel about YA genre in general. If you get a panel you're not that familiar with, do a bit of research. I end up on a goodly number of dystopia panels because of Inish Carraig, and yet it's not a genre I'm overly familiar with (although I've been picking up recommends, so I'm getting more knowledgeable all the time.)

4. Speak up. You're there to add another opinion, not to nod sagely with your dry mouth and never speak. A good moderator will ensure you get the chance to talk and direct questions to all the panel, but there are some where individual voices can dominate and make it harder to speak up. You're there for a reason, someone in that audience will want to know about you - let them.

But also - shut up... and for the same reason, know when you've said enough. Let others put their bit in. No one likes a bore.

It can be hard, finding that balance, especially as a newby writer. Let's be frank, if you have a big-name writer on the panel, more people want to listen to them than you. Say your piece and then let others say theirs.

5. Meet the moderator, at the very least, beforehand if you can. Turn up early enough to shake hands and say who you are, and let them tell you anything they need for the panel. If you can also meet the other guests, that's great, too. (And if you're anything like here, you'll meet them again, and again, and again - of my 10 panels, at least half to date have also had Peadar O'Guilin on them. We're from the island of Ireland, we write dark little spooky tales, some based on the island of Ireland, we've both written books that can be filed under YA.... Which is great because Peadar is funny and entertaining and makes being on a panel seem very easy).

6. Don't be starstruck. One of my first panels at my first convention was about Worldbuilding. It was moderated by Joe Abercrombie and had Pat Cadigan and Sarah Pinborough amongst the pannelists. (I think Peadar was at that one, too, but I was too busy shaking to say for sure.) Of course, anyone's first thought is - what can I say that these guys can't? The second thought is - even if I had something to say, who wants to hear it? But, honestly - people like fresh voices, too. And, always, always, always - every big name I've been on panels with (or met, or shared reading events with, or anything...) has been more than gracious, and encouraging and happy to have a new face on the panel with them.

7. Answer the questions asked. Usually most panels will have ten minutes or so for questions at the end. Take your time thinking about your answer (although not too much, if you're on the spot first!) and try to answer what's wanted. I think it's my favourite part, actually, when you get to interact with people in the room. And some of the questions are fantastic.

8.  Attend other panels. If you can get to a couple in advance of yours, it's a good idea. You'll get an idea of how busy the panels are (I've had some that have had 15 people listening, and others were getting to the door would not have been possible). You'll get an idea of the timing, the type of audience, the level of detail in replies.

9. Enjoy the experience! Have fun! I think I've been a shaking leaf for every single panel I've been on - but I've enjoyed them all, too. It's part of the lovely scene we have - that we can combine a fun weekend at a convention with a bit of enjoyable work. And thank the lovely organisers!

10.  Spread the word. Conventions don't have marketing budgets. They have a person behind the twitter and facebook account and that might be all. If you take photos, share it. If you get to the room early, give a quick call out you're there with the appropriate hashtag. If you attend a panel, pop out the odd tweet about what's going on in it. Create the energy that's needed and support your local con back.


Juliana Spink Mills said…
Great post as usual, Jo, and hugely useful since it was my request in the first place! (There, I'm 'outed'.) Looking forward to following your advice.
Nick Larter said…
Hi Jo,

re: 5 - A good moderator will contact all the panellists beforehand and even do some prep with them. A bad moderator will make the experience feel like a group of random people just dragged in off the street/out the pub. Where any particular con comes on that continuum depends on the policies followed by different organising committees. Some will insist their moderators prep panels, others will even refuse to circulate contact details.

re: 7 - staying on topic is the most important discipline of all - I'm reminded of the notorious 'fairytale collectors' panel at Shamrokon a few years back, when the only time the panel touched on that topic was during the question I asked at the end.

general: never be afraid to decline to be on a panel if something about it; the topic, the known views of other panellists, whatever is giving you a bad vibe
Joanne Zebedee said…
Ju, you're very welcome. You'll totally nail it!

Nick, all good points, especially the last one. Remember, you can always decline....