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?

Romantic Subplots

Some books are straight up romances, some have no romantic dealings at all, but for everything in between, they’ve probably got a romantic sub-plot (or two) simmering in the background.

At WorldCon2019, PRK, Kate Johnson, Darlene Marshall, and Elliot Kay shared their tips for creating a successful romantic subplot.

The Rules Of Romance

Romance might get a bad rap in some circles, but romance is what keeps publishing in business, and it’s the mother of all genres when you look at sales.

Romance novels come in all stripes and colors, but they have two things that unify them:

  1. The love story is central to the plot – i.e. the plot doesn’t work without the romance
  2. An optimistic ending – these days, it doesn’t have to be happily ever after, but it needs to be happy-for-now, or at least romantically satisfying

The typical plot of a Romance novel is predictable

  1. The romantic partners come together
  2. Something separates them
  3. They come together again
  4. There’s a black moment when we think all is lost
  5. Then, there’s the optimistic/happy ending!

We know the plot of a romance novel, what makes them enjoyable is the journey.

Common Tropes

There are certain tropes that some people love to see over and over again. While other tropes are things that have been done to death — or are only enjoyable when there’s a fresh twist.

Our panelists shared a few of their favorites

  1. Enemies to lovers/Friends to lovers – i.e. Shards of Honor by Lois Bujold
  2. Alpha male – but easy to over do
  3. Flipping gendered expectations
    • Note: This includes romances that aren’t heterosexual, or cis-gendered, or have more than two partners. – i.e. Starless by Jacqueline Carey, and KJ Charles’s work.
  4. Both main characters are out to get the same things,\ and keep bumping into each other.
  5. When the love interest redeems THEMSELVES, after seeing their flaws reflected back at them. i.e. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre

And least favorites:

  1. No communication. The romance just happens!
    • This leads to readers forming unhealthy expectations about their relationships!
    • Also! If the plot hinges on a misunderstanding that could be fixed with 3 minutes of conversation (that would be normal to do in this situation), it’s a bad plot.
  2. They’re only mean because they likes you
  3. Redeeming everyone
  4. She’s here to redeem HIM
  5. Killing her to provide motivation for the main character to grow

Writing Good Chemistry!

They didn’t give us too many tips. Just: if it’s fun for you (as a writer) and it works emotionally for you… it should be fine!

Chemistry can be sexual and/or romantic. In real life, asexual (Ace) people sometimes are interested in romance, even when they’re not interested in the X-rated stuff. So, characters can be written to reflect reality.

Communication and consent are key! When both characters are eager to take the next step, the relationship should blossom.

Suggested reading:

  1. Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson Chronicles
  2. JD Robb’s In Death series
  3. Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens
  4. Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart A Doorway

The Romantic Subplot Doesn’t Have To Work Out

Even in romance novels, there can be secondary romances that don’t work out.

  1. Short term relationships
  2. Breakups, where it just didn’t work

Chick-lit has tons of this. You’ll see the main character with tons of bad — or at least not right for her — partners.

Speaking of other genres, these days, it can be tricky to tell if you’re reading a romance or not — especially when you wade into the urban fantasy and paranormal romance corner. Kate Johnson shared her secret trick for determining, just by the cover, which is which. The paranormal romance has a topless guy on the cover, while the urban fantasy has a tattooed chick on the cover.

When she told us that, I closed my eyes and pictured the books on my shelves, and burst out laughing. She’s got it right.

Closing Thoughts

If you want to write more diverse characters, read #ownvoices works, research, talk to people who can share their lived experiences (don’t make assumptions), and pay sensitivity readers!

Write the book you want to write, your tropes will dictate the marketing.

“But I’m Not A YA Writer” – Gender Biases in the World of Books

I was raised thinking I was in a post-feminism world. We had the vote, we were out there earning our own money, with our own credit cards, standing equal to any man. But, the older I get, the more I realize that the biases are still out there. They’re just softer, well-intentioned, and far more insidious.

At Balticon 53, I attended “But I’m Not A YA Writer”, with panelists Sherri Cook Woosley, Gwendolyn Clare, and Julayne Hughes, moderated by Laura Nicole “Spence” and we discussed the modern trend of calling speculative fiction books written by women “young adult” (YA).

What’s the Difference?

I have a full set of panel notes on the difference, that I’ll be sharing later, but let me sum up.

Young adult novels typically center on teenage characters, often coming-of-age, and learning how to be independent. Thinking for themselves. YA is often told in first person, and sometimes in present tense. And YA has hope.

Adult novels can have teenage characters and can be coming-of-age stories, but the characters are typically a little older, or a decent portion of the book covers their adulthood as well. The solutions are usually more nuanced and complicated, the world building is often more fleshed out, the politics and economics are more complex, and the violence can be darker. Third person point-of-view is more common and it’s typically told in past-tense.

Now, these are all trends. YA is by no means a lesser skill and certainly can deal with dark themes and violence. When trying to categorize a book, think about a 9th grader, would you recommend it to them? Or not. The line often comes down to the voice.

Who Is Misclassifying Authors’ Books

When you hear about this misclassification, many of us think we know exactly where the problem is. But. It’s not what you might think.

Is it the lack of women in the upper echelon of publishing companies?

Nope. The publishers and editors are properly categorizing them.

Is it the marketing departments?

Not really. Their marketing teams are starting off targeting the right markets…

So where is the problem?

It’s when the book blurbs hit the internet that the real disconnect comes out. The book bloggers and good citizens of GoodReads are where a large percentage of the misclassifications are made.

How is this happening?

Clearly, there are tons of factors that go into this, and no amount of speculation can encapsulate each individual’s decisions.

And? Sometimes the line can be nebulous. But not that often.

Even if one starts off looking at the book blurb, with the proper classification, and comparing it to other books in the appropriate genre during a review, these books are often getting ‘shelved’ with YA.

And the only thing that might even suggest the novel is YA? Is the author’s name, reading as feminine. Or, the author becoming widely known as female.

The 2018 critically acclaimed novel, The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang was marketed as a drug filled, grimdark fantasy take on the war between China and Japan during World War II. The themes were dark, the voice was adult, and the book was marked down as being too violent or graphic for YA. It got tons of 1-star reviews, because the book wasn’t what the readers were expecting.

Which leads us into:

The Consequences of Being Misclassified

  1. You get marked down for not meeting expectations
    • 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon and GoodReads greatly affect your sales
  2. Your audience can’t find you.
    • If the real audience thinks the book is for their kids, they’re not as inclined to read it
    • When a story about a mother gets handed off to teen girls, the voice won’t resonate as strongly as it would with a mom

The LGBTQA community has gotten good at finding allies. At standing up for each other. There’s still push back, but they’re fighting hard to make sure their books are properly classified, not just shoved off into ‘special interest group’ or ‘adult’ sections simply because it contains characters that aren’t cis-gendered and/or heterosexual.

We can learn a lot from them.

So, how do we get around this?

The Call Of The Pseudonym

Publisher and audience biases have had women writing under pseudonyms or initials for centuries – from the Brontë Sisters, to George Eliot, to J.K. Rowling herself — women have used pen names to be more marketable. And? It seems to work.

Studies indicate, even Harry Potter might have had a harder time reaching the right audience if it came from Joanne Rowling.

Women these days, and others that don’t fit into the gender binary still succumb to these pressures. Because that’s how they make the sales to the right audience.

How Do We Fix This?

The sad news is, this isn’t something we can fix overnight. It’s not like we can print a correction in the paper and people will instantly stop. Instead, we have to help make the cultural shift. Here are some ways you can help.

  1. Pay more attention to how the books you read are classified by the publisher
  2. When you see a book improperly listed, think about reaching out to set the record straight
  3. Stop assuming boys won’t read female main characters. Or female authors. Teachers, parents, librarians: If you make it a non-issue? Often, they will too.
  4. Maybe you’re the target audience for books you’re not reading. Look at who you’re reading.
    • If you haven’t read a book recently by a female author, ask the internet (or me, in the comments below) for recommendations, based on your favorite male authors.
    • NOTE: This works for other markets – writers of color, writers of disability, LGBTQA writers, non-american writers. Branch out and see what you’re missing. Great writers can come from anywhere, but they only get the chance to shine if they can prove they have a market.

Any stories about gender bias happening to you? In any direction! Clearly, men writing in certain genres face similar issues. As, obviously, do people of other genders!

Any other suggestions on ways to help people move past their assumptions, and allow books to be enjoyed on their own merits.
With marketed expectation management NOT getting overridden by cultural assumptions?


As always, thanks for tuning in, and join me again next week as I share more writing tips and writerly musings from the over 24 hours of programming I attended at Balticon53.

I attend panels, so you don’t have to.

Strength Isn’t Just For The Strong

At WorldFantasyCon, I attended a panel by this same name. Going into the panel, I expected a discussion of different types of strengths being compared to the default of physical strength. Instead, the panel veered into magical strength and stayed there.

Defining Strength

Of course, we addressed the titular topic, but the conversation just kept swaying magical.

Strength can be just an overwhelming level of power. But, to use one’s strength to accomplish one’s goals of any type is a form of competence. Be it physical, mental, mystical, or magical, without competence you end up with more of a firestorm than a laser.

Things Magic Can Represent

Magic can just be the extraordinary, but often in fantasy, it’s a way of discussing real-world issues without bringing all the baggage that its real-world counterpart has accumulated.

  1. The hubris of the human spirit
  2. It’s often an allegory for privilege or power
    1. In worlds where magic is bad – the main character is often non-magical
    2. In worlds where magic is good – the main character is often magical

Ways Magic Can Influence A Society

When certain people have power that others don’t have access to, that’s going to disrupt the social order. Just like any other sort of wealth or power.

  1. Innate magic leads to a more stringent class hierarchy
  2. Gained or earned magic tends to be in worlds with greater social mobility
  3. Availability of magic determines if it’s rare or commonplace — expensive or cheap.
  4. If magic is inherent in a place or object, that gives power to those who possess that place/object (ley lines/hubs, Dune’s dust…)

Tropes For Different Strengths

There are a lot of tropes when it comes to giving characters strengths and powers. Some are more overdone than others.

  1. Magic users are seen as more intelligent
  2. Magic types as innately light or dark
  3. Magic as a tool
  4. Magic based societies not developing more mechanical technology alongside it
  5. Using an outsider or non-magical person to introduce us to the magical world
  6. Using magic to solve everything
  7. Giving poor characters fewer skills, rather than different ones
    1. Try having a farmboy where his farming skills come in handy
  8. ‘Leveling’ the main character up everytime there’s a new boss

Types of Strengths For Villains

Heroes aren’t the only ones with strengths. Any respectable foe needs to have some strengths of their own.

  1. Some villains share the main character’s strengths… but let their moral convictions prevent them from doing the right thing or rationalize their way into the wrong thing.
  2. Some villains have good — or at least understandable motives — but their methods and the lengths they go, using their strengths to achieve their objective cross the line into monstrous.
  3. Some villains are the protagonist of their own story. The strength of their moral convictions — like Magneto in the X-Men. He might be on the wrong side, but I can’t say he’s wrong.

What sort of strengths do you have? Your core competencies?
What about your main characters and your villains?
Do they balance each other?


The panelists were Fonda Lee, Carol Cummings, Marissa Lingen, and Rhiannon Held.