Not long ago (from the date of posting) I was at Satellite 7, a litcon in Glasgow and, as is my want, I had volunteered for the program. I’ve come away with some wonderful experiences and interesting discussions about the nature of panels at conventions and I feel inclined to share those thoughts and experiences with you.
So, way back when (the heady days of 2019) I had my first experience of paneling at a convention, and it was Dublin Worldcon. I mean, I’d sat in and watched a few but this was my first experience as a panelist. The first item I was passed by the program team?
‘How do Creators and Fans Respond in Times of Political Upheaval’…
I mean, ‘daunting’ was not the word, here I was, a middle-aged British National paneling about political upheaval beside two authors of colour and a non-resident living in the States at a time when ’45’ had ICE hauling people off to gods alone knew where. Luckily I was asked to sit in on a second item (taking place earlier in the con) to warm up, “Celtic” Mythology. Since then I’ve never looked back, I volunteer to sit on and moderate panels at almost every event I attend but, after Satellite, I want to do more, and I’ll explain why.
The process of appearing on panels is simple. Most often you fill out your attending membership form and there’s a tickbox to check if you’re willing to appear on the program. After that the team will contact you with a link to an online form. When I *have* struggled with program participation, this is where. I have an almost clinical aversion to forms, I struggle with them all the time and that has carried down from more complex, formal documents to even the simplest examples. The worst thing for me is having open ‘give your opinion’ boxes. Show me a list of program subject options and I’ll muddle through but ask me what I want to talk about? I freeze, like a rabbit in the headlights. But this is something I need to work on.
The standard format for panel items is three to four panelists and a moderator to guide the flow of topic and prevent any one person dominating the allotted time. I’ve had one situation where two panelists pulled from an item, citing no real experience so myself, as moderator, and the one remaining panelist just had an open discussion about the topic, Cartoons of the 80’s and 90’s, it was fun, it worked. Usually the moderator will contact the panelists beforehand, this can be a brief round of introductions or (for myself) a bit of pre-discussion of the topic and forewarning of the questions to give participants time to prepare their thoughts.
Once you get onsite it’s a simple case of turning up on time but, if there’s a Greenroom, do get there, there’s usually a participant registration where you can notify the organiser’s that you *are* there.
Now, this may all sound pretty dry so far, a roomful of people listening to your panel discussing a subject, but it’s very much dependent upon topic. Some items are, indeed, heavyweight, political, charged, even contentious but, others are whimsical, lighthearted, even fun, however the format remains the same and here is where Satellite comes in. Looking at the program before the event I saw a number of single panelist items and I thought ‘that’s strange’ but, as it turns out, while some of them were a panelist expressing their enthusiasm for a given subject, other were much more fun and varied. Quizzes and games, all sci-fi and fantasy themed, and it opened my eyes. I’ve seen these kind of items before, but only in limited numbers, at Satellite they where many! The workshops included knitting and painting rather than discussions of editing and publishing. I’m not saying it’s for every con, some are inherently more serious than others, some are aimed more toward people within the industry (but who couldn’t use a little whimsy after hours discussing publishing?) and some cater more toward those attendee’s interested in the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ of the industry, but that’s not to say there’s ‘no room’ at most con’s for a little fun.
So, moving on, I’m planning to cultivate a couple of ideas for panel items, items aimed at encouragement and engagement for the audience. Taking the old staple of ‘last 15 minutes, do we have any questions?’ and winding it throughout the whole item. This may involve practical, as it happens examples of the creative process or some other mix of the workshop/panel format.
I love doing panels, I do. Sometimes I’m daunted by the other panelists and think ‘why am I here’ but then, having people at different levels of (dare I say it?) ‘fame’ or experience of the writing world broadens the basis of experience for the audience (since not everyone’s experience of publishing is the same, especially these days) and also increases the relevance of the panels discourse to the individual members of the audience. I do think that the scene could use a little shakeup, a little more variety if it’s to help draw new faces and help increase the draw of the modern literary con, but that’s not so much down to the event organisers as it is down to us, the program participants. So, I’ll be trying to get a handle on my anxiety in the face of the pro-forma and exercise my creativity in trying to put forward fun, informative and engaging program items in the future. I hope you’ll join me.