Michelle Sagara Essay

Panelists: You are not there to make every possible discussion about you and your book

Reprinted here by permission, 2011 - visit Michelle's LiveJournal

I have just returned from a weekend at Confluence, in Pittsburgh. It's a small convention, but I really like it, and I always have a good time when I'm there. This year was a little sad, because it was the first year at which there was no Ann Cecil, but the memorial service was a strong reminder of her presence, and what it's meant to so many people.

I usually do a reading, a signing, a kaffeeklatch and a number of panels over the course of the weekend. This weekend was not an exception. One panel, however, made me return to a topic that's been at the back of my mind for a few years now. This is not a commentary on Confluence because Confluence, by and large, doesn't have this problem, and the lack is one of the reasons I do love the convention and I do continue to attend it.

Publishing and its environs have changed in the last decade. They're changing pretty much as I type now. What was once unthinkable for most of us, in part because of the sheer cost, has become both possible and even, in some cases, smart: self-publishing.

Because this is the case, I predict a convention future in which the authors convention goers are reading are self-published, and as conventions cater in part to their attendees, self-published authors will as a matter of course be part of the attending pro contingent, and will be on panels that are relevant to their written genres.

Let me say up front that I have no problem with this. Daniel J. Sawyer is self-published, and the panels I've been on with him were fun; he was engaging, and had that type of self-deprecating humour I truly enjoy. His presence on a panel was a plus. I don't actually care if you are self-published, non-published, or human, really, if you are entertaining. I say this as someone who attends panels as both audience and participant.

However - you knew that was coming - I have been on panels with several people in the past few years, and they were not Daniel Sawyer. Instead, they were of the variety which starts pretty much every comment with "Well, in my novel, I blah blah blah", which goes on for far too long, and which - I'm sorry to say - is 99% of the time about as interesting as it sounds.

I have seen new pros do this as well; it's not a failing of how your book has been presented to a reading audience, but rather of what you see your role on a panel as being. My husband points out -- with a wince -- that NYC published first-time authors are as guilty of the "my book" approach to first conventions, because they're under so much pressure to get the word out there, to promote themselves. They aren't comfortable with this, because they interpret self-promotion as the things they actually hate.

So, although people sometimes privately complain about the behaviour of self-published authors, this is a behaviour that is present in many, but by no means all, neopros of any stripe.

Here's the big clue: You are not there to make every possible discussion about you and your book. Period. Full stop. If there is anyone in an audience who has not read a book by Tanya Huff, for instance, you can bet after the panel those people will remember her and will head toward the dealer's room to check out her books. Why? She's funny as hell. She's incredibly entertaining. She's not pretentious. And she is not attempting to divert all attention to herself; she gets attention as a by-product because she's entertaining.

The same is true of someone like John Scalzi.

But, you say, you know you are not as funny as Tanya Huff or John Scalzi? Well, welcome to my ship. I'm not, either. But I do my best not to suck the entertainment out of the room by turning everything into a well in my book drone. Look, I understand the desire to talk about your own work. It's natural because I am incredibly interested in my own work. But if I don't want to listen to anyone else talk about their own books for hours on end, it's pretty clear that the only person who is quite as interested in the topic is...me.

So if you need to have that long droning talk - do it in your room before you join the other panelists.

But, you say, you're at the panel to promote yourself. Yes, you are. And do you want to promote yourself as a boring, solipsistic, and slightly desperate drone? No? Well, then. See the above comment re: Tanya Huff. You promote yourself at conventions in a slow and subtle way - by simply being an interesting panelist. Trust me; I've been doing this for years, and I've seen - from the audience - what works and what doesn't.

This rant has a few parts. So, grab some popcorn.

I know many published authors who are more reluctant to attend certain conventions because they've been stuck on panels with Mr. or Ms. "Well in my book" for several weekends; they're now feeling a bit gunshy. Why? Because they are much nicer and much politer than I am, and they sit and endure, as much a captive--or more of one--as the rest of the audience.

No one has that much fun on these panels and no truly entertaining discussion is allowed to go on for longer than it takes someone to start talking about their own novel for twenty minutes. The goal of entertaining an audience--and having fun while doing it--fails to be met. And this serves no one.

I am going to suggest that anyone who is new to panels consider the Connie Willis rule of being a panelist. Connie is kind of like Tanya, but less earthy; she is incredibly funny and incredibly engaged when she's on panels. The Connie Willis rule of thumb while being a panelist is: Never talk about your own books. If you need to make a point in a discussion, or if you want to point out written examples as an illustration of a point, refer to someone else's novels. You wouldn't want to be a writer if you didn't read, right? Show that you've read enough to have a cogent discussion without falling back to the "In my novel" approach. Refer to your novel if someone from the audience specifically asks a question about your specific novel. When this becomes second nature - and at the start it might be hard if you've been told that you have to push-push-push and you've misinterpreted what this means - people will then think about what you've said, and will hopefully go to check out your works, the way they do Connie's or Tanya's or John's.

But actually, the incredible boredom factor is only one aspect of the difficulty.

I am now about to launch into the second one.

When someone like John Scalzi or Connie Willis is on a panel with four other people, it's a good bet that if you don't recognize any of the four, many, many of the audience members are present because they want to hear Scalzi or Willis. Does this mean that you should shut up and be silent? No. Both Scalzi and Willis are not microphone hogs; they're not there to stand on their own soapboxes. (I kind of like a Scalzi soapbox; I find it entertaining. But mostly, he does that on his blog, not in person). This is not a criticism of you; it's a fact of life. They've both developed an audience by being entertaining and by writing works that have a broad appeal.

This doesn't mean that your work is inferior; it means that your audience is of necessity much smaller. Mine is, too. I understand if you feel intimidated or overshadowed - I've been there as well. If a panel is composed of four people, and the other three are Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers and Pat Cadigan, you can bet that I'm not the person people are there to listen to. It happens to most of us.

But if that panel is about the business of writing, about the business of making a living as a writer, the audience is still there to hear John or Connie, not you. This doesn't mean you have nothing to contribute. It does mean that your rant about how no one gets published in New York unless they've sold their souls--or worse--is entirely inappropriate. I understand that you failed to find an agent or a publisher who recognized your genius. Several very well known novelists had the same difficulty when they started out; it is not fun. But the point is: the audience doesn't care if New York personally slighted you. They want to hear what John or Connie have to say.

When you start a long, bitter, chip-the-size-of-California-on-your-shoulder rant about how New York shits on the little guys and doesn't care about talent, you are, among other things, obliquely insulting your fellow panelists; you are implying that it was not their craft, their talent or the fact that they demonstrably drew a sizeable readership that lead to their success. You are, in fact, implying that their work, their talent, and their own struggles - which they are not trotting out all over the place in aggrieved and endless babble - was and is entirely beside the point.

Unless the panel topic is The trials and tribulations of writers who never made it in NYC because gatekeepers are evil sons of bitches, devote no more than two minutes to the topic of the difficulties you've faced--and make sure that you make it clear that it is you who faced these difficulties. Try not to sound like a crazed conspiracy theorist, and try not to make your own resentment and envy at the success of the other panelists so obvious, because it is, frankly, ugly and revolting. I'm sorry.

Because here's the thing: the audience who is there for Connie or John isn't interested in twenty minutes of your spleen. They just aren't. What they hope to learn is how John, Connie, or any other big name pro got their start.

If you cannot judge the desires of the audience - at all - this says something about your ability to tell any other story to an audience. It implies, by action, a type of self-indulgence in narrative that doesn't lead to entertainment.

And it insults everyone in the room; it insults the people who have been working very hard in this business for decades. And it can drive them away from the conventions at which they used to have fun, because no one wants to enter a battlefield of insults--no matter how unintentional--when they go to a convention to meet their readers. Nor do they want to be watchdogs; they don't want to correct the information that you are delivering with such passionate vehemence, even if their own experiences are quite the opposite.

But you know what? You are not excluded. You are perfectly capable of joining any conversation about writing, about highs, lows, and craft-theory, about research, Amazon ranks and reviewers (although tread with care there), and a host of other things that you have in common with your fellow panelists. Writing is writing. Being read is being read.