Everything You Need To Know About Convention Panels

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you probably know that I share a lot of notes from “panels”.

If you’ve never been to a convention, you may be unfamiliar with panels. If you’ve only been to corporate/work conventions, you might look at them as torturous boredom. Or, at the very least, strictly educational.

At their most basic: panels are simply several people, sitting at table, facing an audience, sharing their thoughts on a subject.

Typically, these individuals are what’s referred to in the DC metro area at least as “SMEs” – subject-matter experts.

And, quite often, these panels have one of the panelists acting as a moderator. A good moderator asks the panel questions, makes sure everyone on the panel is heard, tries to keep any debate lively without getting too personal, accepts the questions from the audience, and does their best to help with crowd control.

A typical con panel is 50 minutes, with the first 30-40 minutes being for the panelists to talk amongst themselves about the subject, and the last 10-20 minutes being for Q&A. With a brief introduction at the beginning, and a minute or so for closing thoughts and self-promotion at the end.

Now, panels aren’t the only things to attend at a convention, there are workshops, dances, book-readings, concerts, parties, and more. In fact, before I got so involved in my writing journey, I had attended a bunch of conventions and maybe 2 panels. These days? It’s a weird weekend if I attend fewer than 20.

Never fear, you can be a writer or a fan without ever attending a convention. Although, that’s partially why I like to share my notes, so that those who can’t, or don’t attend panels still have access to the nuggets of information I try to glean from the experts.

But, should you ever attend a convention, I want to set you up for success — so you’re seen as an excellent audience member and not someone to avoid.

4 Things Not To Do During The Q&A Period

  1. “This is more of a statement than a question…”

    If you attend panels, if you’re on panels, you will hear this phrase. A LOT.

    I know that there are plenty of bright, intelligent people in the audience, I know many of them would have made excellent panelists themselves, and many ARE actually on other panels. BUT. Unless you are on this panel, this is neither the time, nor the place to insert your own opinion on the subject.

    Save it for twitter. Or facebook. Or your friends — after the panel. You will not impress the panelists, you will not impress the audience. You will, however, trigger a massive eye roll, and a lot of tuning out.
  2. Providing tons of background for your question

    Especially in writing panels and gaming panels, audience members will want to provide background for precisely why they’re asking this question, in the hopes that they will get a tailormade answer. And because they’re just plain excited about their world and their story and… everything.

    It’s fine to give a little context, but no more than 20 seconds. I’ve listened to audience members who took up to 5 minutes to get to the question portion of their statement. Most moderators aren’t going to let you get that far.

    When you take that long, you’re taking time away from the panelists answers, and keeping other people from asking their questions. (And sometimes? It comes across like you’re stealing the time to market your own stuff, which is exceedingly rude.) If you know you have trouble getting to your question within 30 seconds, work with a friend in advance to rephrase until you can. Or, take it off-line, talk to them after the panel or at their table.

    Caveat: People at merchandise tables are NOT your audience, they are trying to sell their own merchandise and it is incredibly rude to scare away potential sales by dominating their attention.
  3. Off-topic Questions

    The panelists are prepared to speak on the subject described in the program. The other audience members are there to hear the panelists talk about the subject described in the program.

    If you have a specific question, that is unrelated to the panel, ask it after the panel.
  4. Asking tons of questions

    If no one else is asking, feel free, but don’t monopolize the Q&A period. Ask one, then give other people a chance to ask theirs — they’re paying as much to attend as you are and deserve the chance just as much. Only, if no one else has questions, should you go for a second question.

All that said, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask for recommendations, or a panelist to speak more on something they hinted at.

For some shameless name dropping here, I once attended a panel with the ever-famous George RR Martin on it, and, once the panel opened to questions, I asked a question addressing what I *thought* the panel had said it was going to be on in the first place. (Martin complimented my question, but the moderator actually answered my question the best…)

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, if the Corona-virus permits, I’m actually signed up to be a panelist at three cons this spring and summer. Hopefully, I’ll be as good behind the table and I try to be in the audience.


Have you attended con panels? Are there any tips or tricks I missed?

How One Writer Uses Trello To Track Her Creative Progress

At some point in any creative’s life, they realize they can’t keep track of it all in their heads.

There are a lot of tools out there; from handwritten bullet journals to Scrivener to post-it notes, there is a plethora of choice. Because every person works differently, so different tools are going to be helpful to different people. Plus, even if a tool was useful at an earlier stage, doesn’t mean it’ll be the right tool for you right now.

If you’ve been following me, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve got a ton of balls in the air, so to speak.

  1. Revising a YA fantasy
  2. Sent my MG contemp-fantasy out for feedback
  3. Reworking some short stories
  4. Querying my short stories
  5. Revising other people’s queries – and posting some for my Query Corners
  6. Interviewing authors and posting Author Spotlights
  7. My weekly blogpost
  8. My weekly vlogpost
  9. Other #authortube activities – write-ins, short updates, etc.
  10. Volunteering for conventions – working on Balticon’s programming staff
  11. Assistant editor for Oddville – an online quarterly fiction magazine
  12. Applying to be a panelist at conventions
  13. Attending conventions (either as an attendee or presenter)
  14. Beta-reading for friends and family

I could probably think of a few more things I’m trying to do this month alone, but my list is getting a bit long. At some point, probably after some betas nudged me 3 months late, I realized I couldn’t keep tracking this in my head.

As I’ve discussed before, I love being able to check things off, I love keeping up productivity streak, I love feeling like I’m making progress.

To Do lists are always a good thing for me. But? I needed an online one. I needed to be able to check my list no matter where I was. I didn’t want a journal — I don’t carry a purse, just a phone-wallet.

There were a lot of post-it note or list style to-do lists, but my day job had introduced me to some project management tools. I’m a coder by day, and I’d worked with GitLabs, which has project milestones, and epic tasks broken down into 1-2 day chunks. So, I looked around to see if there was anything similar that I could use at home. Preferably free. And didn’t look like it came out of the 90s.

I saw ads for a few others – Monday.com kept being shown while I was trying to binge Brooklyn 99 on the cheap Hulu. But? It seemed aimed at teams and collaboration — not something that was a major concern for me. I thought it might be far too heavy-weight for what I was looking for. The first thing I saw and tried was a tool called Trello. And I liked it.

I fell off the bandwagon back in November or so, but with my New Year’s resolutions, I set it back up, and I’m really liking it. It helps me visualize, prioritize, and make sure I don’t forget things with less immediate deadlines.

Anyway, enough preamble. Pictures are worth 1,000 words. (Or more. Because I’m pretty sure I could get super wordy if I tried to describe an image in excruciating detail.)

Trello Boards

In Trello, you can have one or more “boards”. As this is intended for project managing a team, you can have multiple boards for multiple projects. This year, I’ve split mine boards by 3-month-chunks, rather than splitting it up by writing-project. This way? All of my active stuff in one place, but I’m keeping the board itself from getting too cluttered.

When I first tried it out last year, I just had one for what I was writing and one for what I was reading (books, beta-reading, etc). But, it kept getting busier and more cluttered and I felt overwhelmed.

Trello offers lots of templates, so when I created a new board for this year, I looked through them and set one up. But, after careful consideration, decided it wasn’t quite what I wanted, so created ANOTHER new a board for this quarter.

My Actual Trello Board

My Trello Board for 1st Quarter 2020

In the upper right corner, you’ll see a menu drop-down. That’s where you can change the background color, search for cards, add stickers, and more. I like a nice mellow blue, but if I was managing multiple boards, I’d likely use a different color per board. (Spring might be green…)

Lists

As you can see on the right, there’s a button to ‘Add another list’. The lists are the large columns. I’ve labeled mine:

  • Backlog
  • To Do
  • Awaiting Feedback/Queried
  • Doing
  • Done

And each list contains a number of ‘cards’ that I’ve added to it. As a card moves through my process, I can click and drag it from one column to the next — forward, backwards, or skipping around.

Cards

These are my task items. I try to break them down into small chunks. Bite-sized tasks that could be completed in just a few days, nothing huge and epic.

Clearly, you can split your items anyway you want, but half of my reason for using this tool is the sense of progress I get as I check things off. I’d rather check off 7 sub-tasks a week, than wait 2 months to check the parent-task off. I’ll STILL be thrilled when I move that card into the ‘Done’ list, but this way, I get to celebrate the little achievements that help me on my way.

Cards hold a LOT of information and a bevy of attributes.

  • Titles
  • Labels (for different types of tasks)
  • Members (if other people are collaborating, you can assign them)
  • Due dates (you can schedule reminders!)
  • Check-lists (where it tracks percentage done!)
  • Attachments! (if you need access to outside files)
  • Descriptions
  • And more!

When you add a new card, whatever you enter into the box becomes your title. Once created, you can click on the title to edit the full card, or you select the pencil icon to quick-edit a single attribute.

Labels

I have a bunch of labels I use, to keep track of the different types of tasking I do. You can just leave them as color options, or you can edit them and add a word to the label.

  • Conventions
  • Beta-Reading
  • Housekeeping
  • Revising
  • Author spotlight\Query Corners (requires outside input)
  • Blog\Vlog (just me)
  • Meetups
  • Oddville (I’m an editor/slush reader)

The color-blind option adds the symbols to the left edge of the label. I know in a glance, when I look at my board, which things are get me closer to publication, which are supporting the community, and which are for my social media platform.

Check-Lists

When I first saw that the items had check-lists inside them, I thought I was using Trello wrong. Then, I realized the truth. I could use those to break down the sub-tasks and watch my progress on a given task.

And the best part? I can use a pre-existing list as a template -> Just copy it on over to my new card.

Then again, it’s also one of the few annoyances I’ve found. It shows each and every instance of every checklist, rather than selecting from 1 instance of each checklist.

But still, watching the “Percent Complete” go up? TOTALLY WORTH IT.

Under housekeeping (my yellow label), I even made a task to make sure that I reviewed my board and updated all the tasks. The promise of watching that percent bar goes up almost guarantees I won’t miss a week.

Due Dates and Attachments

You’re familiar with the concept. I’m just taking a moment to show the screenshots for you. The Due Date lets you set reminders. The attachments lets you find stuff on many common hosting sites.

Deleting Boards

When you finish a project, you can always archive its board. But sometimes, you just don’t want the board to exist any longer. In those cases, you can delete it permanently.

Deleting a board

  1. Select settings
  2. Select more…
  3. Select Close board (this means no one can make updates to it)
  4. Confirm at the pop up
  5. Select ‘Delete’

Now, Trello has plenty of other features, from the automated Butler and more. But? For a solo creator, just trying to manage her workload? This is all I need.


Do you use any project management tools for your personal projects?

Which ones and why?

Let me know if you use Trello, too.

They Want What? The Difference Between Blurbs, Queries, and Synopses!

All industries have their own specialized terms, and even inside an industry, different people can want things done different ways. In the publishing world, you hear a lot about blurbs, queries, synopses, and more.

Now, I can’t tell you what ALL agents, publishers, and readers are looking for, but I can point you in the right direction.

High Level Distinctions

Before we delve into the nitty-gritty, let’s talk about the big picture.

For the most part, blurbs are what you find on the back cover of a novel. (Or want to, what’s with this trend of bigger-name-author quote on enjoying the book, without saying ANYTHING about the book, not even the genre??) What you see in the Facebook ad as you scroll past.

Queries, if you’ve been to my blog before, you should know, are what you send a literary agent (someone who helps you find and negotiate with your publisher).

And synopses? Those are for agents or publishers, to find out how the plot progresses.

Three different tools, for three different tasks, all describing the same story. But, they all go about it in very different ways.

The Blurb

Blurbs are your seasoning, without much substance. Blurbs push the secretive, trying to give away only enough to entice the reader to pick up the novel.

This is where you’re going to see all the cliches pop out, “a man on the run”, “a woman with a deadly secret”, “will it come back to bite them?”

Rhetorical questions are perfectly fine, here. In moderation. All things in moderation.

Blurbs spark interest, but shouldn’t give anything away.

The Query

Queries are nicely seasoned but have definite substance to them.

As I may have mentioned here once or twice, queries should be told in 3rd person, present tense. They should be about two paragraphs, maybe as many as four if you have multiple protagonists.

And? They should take the agent to the first major plot point, setting up the rest of the story.

They do NOT give away the ending.

How is this different from the blurb? In a query, the agent wants specifics. Readers are looking for ways your book is like things they’ve already read, agents are looking for ways your book differs from others in the same genre.

How is this different from the synopsis? A query is focused on the main character(s) – who they are, what they want, and what stands in the way. The stakes are the entire point of the query.

Some agents like a query that starts off with a logline/pitch. A single sentence (try to keep it to 2 lines or less), that almost summarize the story. These overlap a lot with so-called elevator pitches and work best with “high concept” novels. “Alice in Wonderland meets The Jungle Book” (good luck!). These are what you can tweet during twitter pitch parties or say when someone asks you “what you write?” during a party.

Other agents prefer you skip the logline, get right to the story, and then give a brief stats paragraph (genre, wordcount rounded to the nearest 1,000, any novels/writers you’d compare your work to), plus, your brief bio.

Your bio should be shorter than the story part of the query. If you have no publishing credits, do what I do: brief and simple. “I write from my lair in the DC metro area.” Occasionally, I add a hobby or so, if my reading of the agent shows they have similar interests, or if the hobby is something displayed in the novel.

Just remember who the query is for and what it’s supposed to do, and you’ll be in good shape.

The Synopsis

Synopses have substance, but are light on the seasoning.

The synopsis is all business. WHO does what, WHERE. You can give motivations, you can add a little description. But you need to detail the major plot points and completely give away the ending.

Different agents/publishers ask for different length synopsis. Anything over 1-page is single-spaced. (Hence my insistence that 2-page synopsis don’t exist. They’re just double-spaced 1-page synopsis)

I’ve seen agents ask for 1-page synopses, 3-page synopses, or a full-synopses. So? I have 3 versions. My long one is 5 pages.

To write my synopses, I often just build my query up — adding the ending/etc, for the 1 page synopsis (plus, caplocking the first mention of any proper noun — person or place). For my full synopsis, I write a 1-3 sentence description of what happens in each chapter, then edit it for clarity and flow. My 3-page synopsis is my 1-page combined with my 5-page edited down, until they meet in the middle. This is usually the synopsis I like the best and what I’ll send unless otherwise specified.

The synopsis shows your plot and pacing, often delving into character development as well. It needs to be coherent and clear, more than it needs a strong narrative voice and descriptive imagery. If you can do both, more power to you.

If your query is strong enough, the agent or publisher is going to want to look at your synopsis to learn more.


By keeping in mind exactly what each is for, you’ll soon find that you too, can keep blurbs, queries, and synopses straight in your head.


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Creative Couples – Working Together

Some people work with partners. And some people like to work with their romantic partner. But whether you’re romantically involved or not, there’s techniques that could work for you.

At WorldCon2019, Heidi Goody led the working couples of Peter Morwood and Diane Duane, plus Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner in discussing how to maintain working and romantic relationships — with the same person.

Maintain Separate Offices

In rural Ireland, Duane’s office is the living room and Morwood’s is the second bedroom.

When they’re working on a project together, they stay in their room and don’t talk. When it’s time to fraternize or collaborate, they meet in the kitchen.

In New York City, Sherman and Kushner mostly write separately — by hand — in their studies on opposite sides of the apartment. (They left Boston because they were “tired of being the most colorful couple in the room.”) They like to take long walks and discuss character building, writing theory, or whatever they’re working on.

Both couples find it hard to stop talking shop, but Sherman and Kushner find it helps to have other passions.

Duane and Morwood’s biggest interruptions are the neighbor’s loud sheep. Known to the neighbors as “The Trekkie’s”, they’re considered boring because they don’t raise sheep or horses.

How Their Writing Partnerships Began

On Morwood and Duane’s honeymoon, her book was late, so they wrote it together. It helps that Duane is a big outliner, especially for screen. As she says, screen writing is very formulaic.

For Sherman and Kushner, a year or so after they moved in together, they learned to negotiate through writing. But for them, it is the ‘Spirit of Fun!’ Like playing Barbies together.

Sharing Drafts and Blending Portions

Some people consider their drafts sacred, others see theirs as horrible piles of —

Duane never shows her rough draft to another human soul. The next draft though is fine.

Morwood doesn’t count how many drafts he goes through. As he says, “I’m a professional.”

Sherman and Kushner typically have interweaving plotlines, with Kushner woking on the more social scenes, while Sherman works on the academic ones (when they started collaborating, she had just graduated and had scores to settle.)

When writing each other’s characters, the other keeps the veto power. They do their best to keep personal ego out of the story — only really argueing over semicolons.

When it comes time to edit, Sherman reads aloud to Kushner, her bits and the printouts. Although, Sherman is stronger on description, while Kushner does dialogue, when they revise drafts, they overwrite each other. By 5 drafts in it’s fully blended.

Morwood and Duane work together similarly. Plus, they’re pretty good literary mimics. One usually has veto power. Duane is best at plotting and screen writing. Morwood has veto power on fight scenes and tactics.

Just remember when collaborating, there are competing needs for validation, love, and “listen to MY story.”

Music to Collaborate to?

Duane stopped listening to music — it interfered with her dialogue. But movies work fine for her as background.

Kushner used to listen to music, although it couldn’t be in English or had to be something she knew inside and out. Now, she writes at home in silence.

Morwood listens to tons of things, but turns off his Audible when writing dialogue. He likes to have Dragon Naturally Speaking play back his dialogue to him.

Sherman and Duane both like to write in cafes, with that background chatter, gathering faces for characters. If Sherman can’t have that, she needs complete silence.

When deadlines are piling up, Duane will go to a friend’s flat in the middle of no-where-Switzerland for weeks, while Kushner will head off to a friend’s house. The change of location helps with productivity. No chores — or partner — around to distract.


Collaboration can be a tricky beast. Have you worked on a collaborative work? What techniques worked best for you?

Have you worked with a romantic partner? Did it strain your relationship?

3 Things NaNoWriMo Gives You — “Win” OR “Lose”

This week, I thought I’d take a break from sharing convention notes to talk about my writing.* Specifically, what I’ve learned from National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) — both this year, and in previous years.

For those who are unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo is the pledge to write 50,000 words (or 200 pages) during the 30 days of November. This averages out to 1,666 words per day, or about 6 double-spaced pages.

Now, NaNoWriMo is clearly not for everyone. As with all things writer related, you should do what works best for you. But for a lot of people, it’s a great starting place.

If you’re new to my blog, I feel I should inform you that this was indeed, not my first rodeo. I’ve talked about my previous NaNoWriMos before. The first NaNo I won was in 2013, and I didn’t finish the novel itself until I hit 131,000 words that following August. I took that year off to revise. The following year, I was moving that month, and then I was back. Since 2016, I’ve attempted and won 4 more NaNoWriMos.

CONFESSION: NaNoWriMo is NOT my natural pace. For me, it involves a daily grind, prioritizing my writing over chores and social events, and fighting burn out. I know this. It’s always like this for me.

But? All 4 of my rough drafts, plus this year’s near TWENTY short stories were written as NaNoWriMo projects. It’s not sustainable… but it gets the job done — for me.

So. I’d like to talk about what has NaNoWriMo given me.

3 – Understanding Your Own Pace — And Limits

Some people are sprinters, some are slow-but-steady marathoners (me!), and others vary depending on the day.

By taking on the challenge, you learn:

  1. How fast you write
    Can you fit those 1666 words in before the clock strikes midnight?
  2. When you write best
    Are you an early morning writer? Sneaking it in on your lunch? Maybe on your commute — hopefully you’re not the driver. Do you pull late nights? Or perhaps, long weekend sessions where you make up the whole week’s word count goals?
  3. What you’re willing to give up for your writing
    For me, it’s chores and social time. For you? It’s all in what you say no to, and what you make sure to leave time for — besides your writing.
  4. What a reasonable pace looks like for you
    Maybe 250 words were the most you could write per day. Maybe you were averaging 3,000 words per day. You might even be one of those 10k on the weekends people.

By pushing yourself, you learn your limits — or you learned that you can do more than you ever dreamed.

2 – There’s A Writing Community For Everyone

NaNoWriMo has a website and very active forum. When you join, you’re encouraged to also join a ‘region’ based on actual geographic locations. Regions are run by “municipal liaisons”. Who run events.

Some regions are more active than others. Mine is very active. There were OFFICIAL, in-person write-ins at libraries, coffee shops, and diners 3-7 days a week. Not counting the unofficial ones, or the solo-writers.

On a chat program called Discord, we also could hang out virtually. Which is what I mostly did. Including writing sprints — challenges to see who can write the most words in the next 15 (or however many) minutes.

I’m also part of the #AuthorTube community. They had their own Discord chat, as well as Live-streaming write-ins. In which multiple Authortubers would video stream themselves writing, and others could ‘hang out’ on the stream’s chat with the streamers, conversing back and forth.

It let you know you weren’t in this alone. If you wanted company, it was out there for the taking. You could find other writers in your genre, style, what have you. It’s a priceless opportunity to both make friends and find potential beta readers/critique partners.

1 – Pride in my accomplishments

I’m not going to say “everyone’s a winner”, but if NaNoWriMo inspired you to write more words than you otherwise would have, you ended up ahead of where you would have been without it.

So many people achieve more during NaNoWriMo than they ever have before.

Besides. What do you win in a contest where claiming the winning certificate is entirely on the honor system?

All you win are bragging rights and some discounts on writing software. (And I seriously prefer gDocs over Scrivener anyway, so… shrugs).

Okay. Maybe there’s one kinda big thing.

There’s the satisfaction and pride at having set a goal, worked at it, and learned you can achieve it.

Not counting, of course, the community, the knowledge of your own pace, and an understanding of what you need to write.


Now What?

Now that November is over, what should you do next? Well, everyone has advice and here’s mine.

Do you participate in NaNoWriMo? If so, what has NaNoWriMo given you?


* Okay, let’s be honest here, my dayjob sent me on travel and I forgot my notebook, but hey. This is more timely anyway!