I had the good fortune to serve as a moderator in both conferences I attended this year, Bouchercon and Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity. I’ve been going to writer’s conferences since 2004, and pretty much annually since 2008. I’ve been on panels at either Bouchercon or C3 or both every year but one since 2012. In that time I’ve been lucky to work with moderators who were uniformly excellent and also had differing styles. It was only natural I’d want to try my hand one day after seeing how effortlessly Sandra Parshall, Peter Rozovsky, Jim Born, et al pulled it off for me.
It ain’t as easy as they make it look.
I have no doubt there are moderators who don’t think twice about getting up in front of a couple of hundred people and asking a handful of writers questions off the tops of their heads. We’ve all seen them and can probably identify them. By and large they’re the shitty moderators. The panels roam, the questions either don’t give the writers anything to talk about that’s informative and entertaining (a good panel is both), or is so vague no one knows what to do with it. I’m sure some people can pull it off. I’m sure I’ve seen a panel or two where that happened. I’m also sure there are moderators out there right now who do this and think they pulled it off. They’re probably wrong.
Preparation is important because there’s going to be a lot of stuff going on the moderator has to keep track of. “How much time is left” may be the most obvious, and it’s close to most important when considered in conjunction with other elements. Sure, there’s a volunteer there to tell you when you have 10 minutes, five, two, clear out there’s people waiting. What do you do if you’re 25 minutes into a 50-minute panel and you’re three-quarters of the way through your questions? Even worse, what if you’ve been coming up with questions more or less off the top of your head, realize you’re running out of ideas, look at your watch and realize you still have half an hour? I saw this happen at Bouchercon—I won’t say in which panel—and the moderator depended on the audience to fill the last 20 minutes. That’s not right, and it’s not fair to anyone.
In addition to tracking time you’re also gauging the audience. Anyone who’s done a reading, sat on a panel, or given any kind of public performance knows not all audiences are created equal. If a certain type of question is dying, change up. It’s probably a good idea to have at least half again as many questions as you think you’ll need, covering different aspects of your topic. That allows you to switch off if what you thought would be clever just lies there and rots.
It’s also important to know your panelists. Not necessarily personally—though that never hurts—but their writing. A good moderator should probably read at least one book by each panelist, but at the very least should be familiar with their work through reviews, synopses, and excerpts. Specific questions may present themselves, but you’ll also know what kinds of questions will work better for the group as a whole. Another benefit to this relates to the previous paragraph, except in reverse: a line of inquiry goes well and you run out of related questions. Then is a good time to go with the flow. The last thing you want to do is to get everyone in a good mood—your panel is revved up, the audience is revved up—and you decide to talk about something else. Buzzkill.
This year’s Bouchercon was my first moderator gig. Five writers (including one good friend, Terrence McCauley, yay me) including multi-bestseller Heather Graham, so I knew there would be a decent crowd. I polled a few moderators I’d seen before and thought did a good job—including the Master of Moderation, Peter Rozovsky—and started my research and working on questions several weeks in advance.
One panelist had to pull out due to an illness in the family. I felt bad for him, but the panel was not in danger. I had plenty of material. Stepping onto the dais I learned another panelist had taken ill and was missing.
Now I’m down to three. Fast math in my head. Fifty minute panel. Enough questions to allow five panelists to speak for half again that long. (So I hoped.) Only three panelists. Should still come out to about 45 minutes. Leave five to ten minutes for audience participation and I’ll be fine.
Then the real benefit of preparation made an appearance. Our other panelist—a fine writer and nice man based on our conversation in the Green Room—had never been on a panel before, got nervous and vapor locked. It happens. I’ll not name him as I don’t want to embarrass him, and after the event I felt badly for him. During the event I mostly felt bad for me, wondering what the fuck I was going to do to fill the time.
Some say luck is where preparation meets opportunity. In my case it was more like where preparation met Heather Graham and Terrence McCauley, both of whom stepped up to give more expansive answers as time went on. Shared a few anecdotes tangentially related to what was under discussion.
Therein lies the biggest lesson I learned: be generous with your panel and they’ll reciprocate. Take the time to make your best effort to understand their work and ask questions to help them put their best feet forward and they’ll carry you. The more attention the moderator can place on the panel, the better.
And should my third, nervous panelist read this: I’ll do a panel with you again anytime.