By Lonnie Cruse
Appearing on a panel is no longer as scary for me as it was in the beginning, when my first book was published. With five books in print, now I simply show up with my latest book to display, some water to drink, set them far enough apart so as not to spill one on the other, settle into my seat, and prepare to answer the questions the moderator has prepared. And I bite my lower lip from time to time to prevent myself from hogging the panel.
Moderating a panel, on the other hand is still VERY scary for me. The moderator is in charge of keeping the panel running smoothly, asking the appropriate questions from time to time to keep the conversation flowing, making sure none of the panelists hog the panel (preventing the others from having their equal time) and making sure there is water for everyone but that they don't spill it on the other panelists. (The mention of water is mostly to tickle my Poe sister, Julia's fancy. She spilled water on me at Love Is Murder last year. But, in all fairness, she managed not to let that happen this year when we sat side by side.)
My first experience at moderating a panel came about at the Cape Fear Crime Festival in 2004. All three of us panelists showed up, the moderator did not. I believe she canceled shortly before the conference and somehow the ball was dropped about letting the panelists know. We sat and twiddled our thumbs as the clock ticked away our valuable minutes. When it became obvious she wasn't going to make it, I volunteered and the others were happy to have me take on the job. NO preparation time, but no time for me to panic either, and I knew the other panelists well, so I was able to come up with some reasonably intelligent questions on the spot.
Next I was asked to moderate a panel on promotion at Love Is Murder last year. I knew J. A. Konrath and Luisa Buehler and was very familiar with the excellent promotional techniques of each. The other two, Deb Baker and Sandy Balzo I'd not met but was able to get a sense of their promotional tactics through email. When it came time for the panel, it was standing room only and I was in a panic, but having researched the panelists ahead of time made it fairly easy. I asked a couple of questions, and off the panelists went, each giving excellent promotional tips. The audience was delighted with the information they received, as was I. We can all use tips on how best to market our books!
My most recent moderating assignment was again at Love Is Murder, this February. I was assigned to moderate the panel on Movie Options featuring Barry Eisler, Kent Krueger, Tim Broderick, Paul Guyot, and David Montgomery. I know nothing about movie options but have always dreamed of being offered one since my first book came out, so yeah, I was a bit nervous about moderating this panel. Particularly since it was all guys, all far more famous than I'm likely to be in this lifetime. Did I mention they are all good looking? Sigh.
Nervousness exploded into panic when I sent out my first email asking what they wanted to discuss on the panel and a couple of them responded by saying they didn't have movie options and had no idea why they were assigned to this panel. EEEEK! BUT their answers were humorous (like Paul saying he'd be happy to show up and make fun of Barry's hair) so I figured we'd be probably be okay. I researched each of them, asked a couple more questions, and crossed my fingers.
The day of the panel arrived. I read their bios to the audience, asked the first question of Barry who DID have a movie option, and next thing I knew, we were off to the races. The guys began asking each other questions, which covered my worry about coming up with enough intelligent questions for them. And the answers were terrific. My question about the on-going writer's strike followed by their thoughtful answers filled up the remaining time. All in all, I'm very happy how the panel went, and I think the panelists were too, as each had ample time to talk about his work.
My point here is this: appearing on a panel at a conference or convention is MUCH easier than moderating same. The moderator has to ask enough questions to keep the panel going along smoothly AND keep it on track of the assigned subject. And probably the most important moderator job is to keep any one panelist from hogging the panel so that everyone gets equal time. Not always easy. But if you research your panelists carefully, chat via email with them about how they would like the panel to go, most of the time the panel will run smoothly, the audience will love it, and, with any luck, the moderator's main job will be to stand aside and look pretty while the panelists give the information the audience came to hear.
If you are asked to moderate a panel instead of appearing as a panelist, don't panic. Do your research, consult the panelists, and have fun. And remember, the biggest complaints about panels is usually about moderators who either hog the panel themselves or allow one of the panelists to hog it. Let the panelists know you are in control, but let them do the majority of the talking.