Thursday, March 29, 2018

So you want to moderate an author panel

By Steve Weddle

This past weekend was the Virginia Festival of the Book, an annual event held each spring in Charlottesville.

I met Alex Segura and Rob W. Hart for dinner Friday night. Along with 39 other authors, we took the back room at a new Korean BBQ place on the downtown mall. About two dozen walked out when the waiter told us that they had yet to receive their liquor license. (For the record, the water was fine.)

The next day I moderated a suspense panel with authors Alison Gaylin, Kate Moretti, Kaira Rouda, and Erika Raskin, pictured below, in order.

We had a lovely time. I had 197 questions prepared and we got to about six of them.

My name is not Katrina Holm, which means I'm not the world's greatest moderator. But I've done many of these panels, as author and moderator, and I figured I'd pass along some thoughts in case you are ever on that side of the table.

When you make gumbo, first you make a roux. When you do anything in crime fiction (or books, in general, really) you ask Jon Jordan for advice. Well, Jon and Ruth Jordan and others put together this handy guide for Bouchercon moderators -- YOUR MODERATOR BIBLE.

Read that. Live it.

I'll just bounce off a few of those ideas, in no particular order.

Read the books or don't read the books or read some of the books or what?

Yeah. I know, right? So you're a month out and you've got four books to read for the panel and you'll never make it. So go back in time and start sooner, dummy.

No, for reals. Read all of every book?

Ugh. Look, I have talked with other folks who come across as wonderful moderators and they said the trick is to read the first 50 pages and no more. That way you can sell the book to the potential reader without giving away any spoilers. I'm not that worried about spoilers. I figured out early on in Dave White's first novel that Jackson Donne, the main character, was really the one who had murdered all those orphaned kittens. Knowing that didn't make the book any less enjoyable.

But, if you're a bit of a gossipy doofus, maybe stop reading 50 pages in. I don't know. I barely know you. I enjoyed all four of these books and wouldn't have been able to stop 50 pages in. Why did the birds fall? Who was driving? Is Paul really that bad? Will she and her boss end up together? Like the gentleman with the number of bullets questions for Dirty Harry, I had to know. So, I say read all of every book. If you don't like reading, maybe there's a TV show you can watch to fill your life.

I'm a middle-aged man who is balding. Can I wear a baseball cap and moderate?
If it's crime fiction, a mesh trucker cap is allowed. Otherwise, no. Jackass.

As a moderator, should I sit in the middle or at the end.

The wonderful Bouchercon PDF I linked to up there that you read and memorized has some thoughts on this. My thought is this: It's not your show, buttercup. Stay out of the way.

How many questions should I prepare?

You've got three or four panelists and an hour? You're going to have some housekeeping at each end of the program. If you have a half-dozen for each, you'll have more than enough. I always over-prepare because I get nervous and if I don't have more material than I need, I'll spend the three hours before the panel with a runny bottom. Maybe you're tougher than I am. Figure out how many questions you think you need, and then do the trick where you convert celsius temperature to American temperature: Double the number and add 20.

I like to have a free-flowing panel, so  I'm thinking maybe I just go in without preparing to give it a more natural feel. Does that seem like a good idea?

Go shit in your hat, moron.

Should I start with author and book intro and then ask each person a question or ask everyone a question at once and what if they don't all answer and everything bombs?

I was in the audience last year at a book festival when the moderator asked each author, in order, the following: "Thanks for coming. Can you give us all a quick bio and tell us about your book?" Then the questions were about how they came up with their ideas, what their writing process was like, and so forth. Let's be clear. If you're not going to read the books or learn about the authors, don't moderate a panel. It is only through the restraint I learned during my seven years as a monk in southeast Asia that prevented me from walking up and splitting that moderator stem to stern. Don't be that guy. These authors have worked their tails off. For many of them, this is their only panel this festival. For some, it's their first ever. To quote from one of my favorite movies, "Show Dick some respect."

OK. So do my research. Got it. But how do I structure the hour? Intro the people and the books and then questions?

Look, you do you. Here's what I did this weekend. We went through and did quick bios of each author, which helped the authors and the audience kinda settle in. If you're the leadoff hitter, you're going to want to take a few pitches. I started with one of the books, gave the jacket copy info, and then read a one-star review of the book. Then I asked a question of that author about her book -- but a question that I knew from having read the books and every online author interview and review I could find that would open up themes and ideas to all the authors and their books.

You read all the author interviews and book reviews before the panel?


Are you just making that up, like the Dave White stuff and the monk stuff?

No. I have probably 80 to 100 pages on each author. Some of them were asked and answered amazing questions with a book from 10 years back, and I wouldn't have gotten to know that had I not delved in. It's pretty easy. Use the Google. That's how I work. You might not work that way. Like I said, you do you. But for me, I read the books and then devote a week of prep to each author. The last week of February was Kate Moretti Week for me, for example. Once you learn about your authors, you can see what ties them together. What do they think about secrets in their supsense novels? If all of them used an unreliable narrator in a book somewhere along their career paths, you can talk about that. How do they all deal with setting? What type of character are they drawn to in their writing? What have they said about pacing? About tea vs. coffee? What day jobs have they worked? Honestly, you dig around and you'll find connections. And when you see what connects all the authors on your panel, you end up with a threaded conversation in which they all come off as old friends. And if you're blessed as I was this weekend with four fabulous authors, it's pretty simple to get things rolling and keep yourself out of the way.

A good moderator is like other people's children -- they should stay the hell out of the way.

As a moderator, you have two jobs: 1) make your authors look good; and 2) end on time.


Dana King said...

Only thing I can add would be to pay attention when you are in the audience at a panel. See what works and doesn't. It might also be a good idea to have been a panelist a time or three. See what works, or doesn't, first hand. It's just like learning to write by reading.

Steve Weddle said...

excellent point.