How To Be A Good Moderator

Having attended, at this point, easily over a hundred panels in the last 5 years, I definitely have opinions. And there is one role that can make or break a panel.

Whether you’re a writer guest-of-honor on a panel at a convention, or just hosting a dinner party, being a good moderator is highly underrated skill.

My favorite panels are where the big names are friendly and informative, and the smaller names are confident with their answers — without anyone talking over each other.

In the titular panel, Barbara Krasnoff, Grig Larson, DH Aire, Jennifer Povey, and Jazmine Cosplays, moderated by… Um. I think it was Barbara, but really? It was the most polite and self-moderated example of a panel I’ve ever watched.

How To Prepare To Moderate

When you sign up to be a panelist, or you’re asked to be one, pay attention when you get your schedule. If you’ve got that big ‘M’ in parenthesis, you’ve been selected as the panel moderator. Which means, you don’t have to know everything about the topic, you just have to make sure your panelists share everything they know.

  1. Read up on both your topic and your fellow panelists.
  2. Prepare open-ended topical questions
  3. Read the panel description — sometimes it gives you all you need for discussion questions!
  4. If you get fellow panelist emails, reach out and coordinate
    1. Ask them what questions they’d like to be asked
    2. If there are identity sensitive questions, give them a heads up
    3. Pay attention if there are tangents they ask to avoid
  5. Decide if you want to give introductions for the panelists, or make them introduce themselves.

How To Guide The Conversation

There are panels that basically run themselves. The panelists are solid on the topic, friendly and gracious at taking their turns, and make a lot of fascinating points. Other times? The conversation could use some… guidance.

  1. Know who the audience is here to see — if there is a big name, or subject matter expert, you might let them talk a little longer.
  2. Make sure everyone gets a turn. If someone is going on a bit, redirect.
  3. If you think you might have a chatty panelist or two, feel free to inform the panelists of a time limit on answers during the introduction phase.
  4. Ask leading questions
    1. You want to make the panelists look good!
    2. You can use leading questions to get back on topic, after a tangent
      • NOTE! If the audience is looking interested in the tangent, you can let it go a little.
  5. Watch the panelists, if they seem to perk up at something another panelist is saying, take note of that and come back to them, especially if they haven’t been dominating the conversation.
  6. A difference of opinions is more interesting than everyone in agreement — as long as it’s a case of personal preference and not a personal attack.
  7. If the panel conversation seems to run dry, or the topic was too obscure, let the conversation veer. Especially when it’s engaging the audience.
  8. Save 10 minutes at the end for a Question and Answer period. And don’t hesitate to open the floor for questions early if the conversation has ground to a halt.
    1. If the audience is huge, try to leave extra time for the Q&A, and be apologetic if you can’t hit them all.
  9. The last 2 minutes should be for the panelists to give closing thoughts… and do their book/social media plugs.
  10. If you run out of time, you can always offer for people to send their questions to you on social media — assuming the panelists are open to answering more questions.

How To Shut Up Panelists

Some panelists love to hear themselves talk, others talk a lot when nervous, and others are so excited about the topic they’re just overflowing with things to say. But. A panel isn’t a monologue, and sometimes you’ve just got to move the conversation along. Or, a panelist might be working their way toward embarrassing themselves, or getting a little too worked up.

Some things to say to redirect the conversation

  1. “Thank you, SPEAKER. QUIET-PANELIST, what did you think of what SPEAKER just said?”
  2. “Thank you. Let’s give OTHER-PANELIST a chance to answer the question.”
  3. “I’m gonna have to stop you there. Our time is getting short.”
  4. “Now, it’s time to move on to NEXT-PANELIST.”
  5. “That’s a great topic. I’m going to suggest it for a panel next year.”
  6. “Oh hey, I think someone in the audience had a question.”

How To Moderate The Audience

Sometimes, the ones you need to watch out for aren’t even on the panel themselves, (although, some think they should be, and some may have been excellent additions).

  1. Be firm. The rest of the audience is here to see the panelists, not listen to the audience. When you open the floor for questions, be sure to let them know, “Questions only, no statements.”
  2. If they’re rambling, cut in. “Do you have a question in there?”
  3. You can use that, “That’s a great topic for a panel. You should suggest it for next year.”
  4. If there’s not quite a question, and you need to take the floor away from them: “Does anyone want to address that?”
  5. If an audience member crosses a line — either by repeatedly ignoring your requests, or saying something beyond the pale, you can kick them out. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave.” And just wait, or ask someone near the door to call for security, if they leave willingly.

What NOT To Do!

Now, the panel didn’t go into this, too much. But, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in panels. I think we can find the rest of the answers from looking at, let’s call it, the negative space in the tips above.

The top 9 ways to be a horrible moderator

  1. Let it tangent off-topic, with an irritated audience, while there’s plenty of topic left to cover
  2. Don’t let the audience ask questions
  3. Treat the panel as your platform, with the other panelists as supporting characters
  4. Single out one panelist based on their identity, and make them speak for all people of their race/gender/ability/etc
  5. Share any fellow panelist contact info you have, publicly
  6. Let people talk over each other
  7. Tell people their opinions are wrong
  8. Let the audience or panelists bash each other
  9. Spew hateful rhetoric

A good panel is informative, entertaining, and friendly. If you stay in this industry, it’s likely that you’re going to see these people on future panels. If you moderate panels that people enjoy participating in and/or attending, it’s likely they’ll look forward to being on panels with you in the future.

Using Unsafe Places To Propel Your Characters Forward

Returning to share notes from yet another World Fantasy Con panel: Unsafe Places and Why Characters Go There (see Gender 401 and Writing as Sanctuary, for other panels). The panelists were Ysabeau Wike, Nina K. Hoffman, Rajan Khanma, Joe Haldeman, and Suzy Charnas.

I expected this panel to be about the journey troupe – stories following those who chose to stand up and go, not the ones who are reasonable and stay home. But, the panel itself ended up being more of a discussion on how to use unsafe places to propel the story forward.

What is an Unsafe Place?

Just because a place is safe for one person, doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Places can be unsafe due to the environment itself, or because of the people in the place.

Sometimes? Home is the unsafe place. And it can be unsafe because of external factors, or because of internal ones.

According to Charnas, when fate is against you, no place is safe. And old age is a very unsafe place.

Finding the Conflict That Initiates the Story

When you begin a story, you should make clear what is missing in the main character’s life — or at least, what they THINK is missing.

Often, the strongest stories are about the true thing that is hidden. In those cases, the missing thing identified at the beginning is simply a symptom, not the cause of the conflict.

It’s okay if you don’t know what the true cause is when you start writing the story. Writing can be a search process, a way of finding your way out of the dark. WARNING: If you go into the story with an agenda, stories often come out rather contrived. Strive to avoid that.

Sometimes, the unsafe thing didn’t exist prior to the story’s start. It can be that the world changed and became unsafe for your character.

When The Conflict Is Internal

The internal conflict can either be a mental health issue, or an uncontrolled ability (like magic). It can be an internal need — to control one’s temper, to belong, to be loved. These are the things that make characters relatable and human.

When The Character Doesn’t See It Coming

Betrayal — when the main character thinks they’re safe, but they’re not.

The Joy Of YA

The joy of YA is that kids or teens will defeat problems long after the adults have resigned themselves to a world where the problems are insurmountable.

What Happens Next?

If you need to enhance conflict you can always limit resources. Be it allies, money, magic, or time.

Once you’ve addressed that first conflict — to fix the thing that was making your character unsafe — the main character usually finds something else they need to do — some new issue that’s often the consequence of the first fix.

And that’s it. That’s all the panel had time to discuss. Defining, exploring, and exploiting unsafe places to drive a plot forward.


If you’ve written a story, what was the factor that made your character’s space ‘unsafe’?

If you’re not a writer, share the factor that made a space unsafe for one of your favorite books.

Gender 401 For The Writer

Next up at World Fantasy Con was “Gender 401”. Having attended 101 and 201 panels in the past, I was ready for the discussion.

NOTE: I recognize that as a cis-gendered female I can listen and do my best to promote understanding and inclusion, but I am by no means an expert. If I’ve misrepresented anything in this panel write-up, don’t hesitate to call me out on it.

Also, I recognize that my notes are aimed more for the cis-audience– in part because I know I’m the wrong person to explain gender identity to anyone who isn’t cis. But, hopefully, the book suggestions are at least helpful for everyone.

[For those who aren’t familiar with Gender 101:

  • A transgendered individual has determined that the gender that they were assigned at birth does NOT match their personal identity.
  • A cisgendered individual has determined that the gender they were assigned at birth DOES match their personal identity.
  • Non-binary (nb or enby) people can run the gamut: [EDITED: I originally stated what the expression was, rather than the identity.]
    • Identify as multiple genders at once
    • Identify as different genders based on how they’re feeling on a particular day (also said to be ‘gender fluid’)
    • Identify as non-gendered
  • An intersex individual is one who was not easily assigned a single gender at birth ]

So, now you’re familiar with the cornucopia of gender identities, let’s get back to writing and figuring out how to use this knowledge to enhance our worlds.

Ways That Genre Fiction Can Improve

  • Remembering that cisgendered people aren’t the only ones out there and including all kinds in our stories.
  • Making sure the existence of transmen isn’t completely ignored when revisiting the overdone “What if men could get pregnant?” trope.
  • Thinking through the world. There are plenty of stories about gendered magic or cities that ignore where transpeople or non-binary people live.
  • Avoiding Scooby-doo style reveals, where the bad guy is transgendered — or just dressed up as the opposite sex to avoid suspicion.

TIP: You can acknowledge, then add a few details about how those cases work. You don’t have to make your story about gender identity, you just have to let people outside the binary exist in your world.

TIP 2: For gendered magic, you have to decide how to handle it. It can be influenced by whether magic is assigned at birth or something that happens when you hit puberty (or some other sort of ritual). And if someone changes their gender identity, does their magic change with them?

So. How do you decide what’s best without playing into stereotypes? And if you’re trapped in the gender-binary, how can you make sure you’re properly portraying these characters?

The best way to figure out how to handle non-cisgendered characters is to read stories by non-cisgendered writers.

Genre Writers Who Have Handled Gender Well

  • Austin Chant
  • JY Yang
  • Akwaeke Emezi
  • Charlie Jane Anders
  • Ursula K LeGuin
  • Octavia Butler

And collections of stories:

  • Transcendent Anthology – Edited by KM Szpara

There was a shout out to LeGuin for first introducing genre fiction to gender exploration.

Another place to explore is the Tiptree Awards. Begun in 1991, it started off just giving credit for having a woman as a character in an sf/f novel. But each year, the bar raises.

According to Ellen Klages, a Motherboard member of the Tiptree Awards for over 20 years, if a bar fight doesn’t break out when the winner is announced, clearly, the novel selected wasn’t cutting edge enough and shouldn’t have won.

What Our Panelists Would Like To See

  • Middle-aged and older women that aren’t witches
  • More stories that start off ‘beyond the pale’, to start to normalize their existence
  • Diversity in representation – not all perfect or all villain. If you have one person outside of the gender binary in your story, how you represent them will be a huge focus. If you have many, in multitudes of roles, it goes a long way toward fighting stereotypes.
  • Writing outside the box

Writing Worlds Outside The Box

If gender is so enigmatic now, how diverse could the real future — or your fantasy worlds be? Why even stick to binary genders in fantasy?

One can find inspiration from the common garden slug for new ways of handling gender identity.

TIP 3: If everything is different, it’s hard for your readers to follow. They’ll need a handhold of familiarity. Just remember that different audiences will need different handholds — what alienates some readers, will allow you to reach others. Decide who your story is really for.

TIP 4: Well. I guess this is more of a warning. These worlds can be very difficult to get the balance right, to bring the reader into a strange new world, without losing them. It takes a lot of skill to do something experimental, successfully.


Hopefully, if you weren’t already exposed to these concepts, you’ve got a better grasp of ways to fill your world with more gender diversity. If you were already familiar with them, I hope you found something of value from this write-up.

Go out and remember to include transgendered and non-binary people when filling your worlds. Plus, join the fight against gendered stereotypes and cis-gendered assumptions.

Writing As Sanctuary

I know it’s been a while, but now that I made it through November, I’m back to sharing my panel notes. For World Fantasy Con, some of the panels turned more into suggested reading lists, but for now, I’m going to go through the other panels, in the order I experienced them.

I attended “Writing As Sanctuary” at World Fantasy Con. I went into this panel expecting to hear stories of authors using their writing as either escapism or as a tool to process stressors in their lives. Escapism either as a distraction from real-world issues, OR as a way to create a new world, with those issues fixed.

The actual discussion was a lot more nuanced, but less focused.

The panelists were Jacob Baugher, JD Blackrose, JL Gribble, and K. Ceres Knight, moderated by Anna La Voie.

The discussion started off exploring the motivations behind people’s writing and the reoccurring themes they explored, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Most wrote for themselves — but with the intent of publication — seeking that external validation. Only a few used their writing to explore alternative choices — either personally or historically.

Themes They Found In Their Writing

Some writers write themes explicitly into their work. Others only recognize it when they begin editing. And sometimes? You only recognize your themes when the same issues keep coming up, novel after novel. Here were some of the themes the panelists found in their writing – intentionally or not.

  • Non-dystopian post-apocalypse
  • The Holocaust
  • Mother-daughter relationships
  • Cyberpunk — in order to have control over their world

Which is better: To Be Writing or To Have Written?

It’s a reality for many of us writers — the process itself can be agony. I found it inspiring to hear how much of a struggle even published writers still find it. And how many also resort to procrasti-cleaning!

  • Some, like Baugher, were shocked to learn people could enjoy writing. He forces words out and is working on trying to change his own mindset.
  • Sometimes, real-world tragedies strike too close to home and you can’t write. Blackrose spoke of knowing when to push through, and when to step back. Then, when it’s time to return to the keyboard, she aims for just 500 words to regain her momentum.
  • Writing a novel is intimidating and that can make it hard to start. But 30,000 sounds a lot more doable. You can approach writing like Blackrose. She just wrote 30,000 words four times, and she had a novel.
  • Gribble uses gamification to get her words in. She wrote her 3rd novel, just using 5-minute sprints. Her best writing day was also the day she washed all of the windows.
  • Many of us, like Knight, love writing — when inspired. But most of her writing is deadline based.
Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.
Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

Do you find sanctuary in a private journal?

Some writers swear by them. I know many writers who collect journals by the trunkful. But, advice doesn’t always sync up with reality so I was curious how these writers would answer. How useful are they in practice?

  • Some, like Gribble, find them a waste of words. Why journal when you could be writing paying work?
  • Some use it for free writing when the words just won’t flow.
    Baugher uses this process about once a week as a sort of 10-minute warm-up for his novel writing — his is mostly profanity.
  • Blackrose doesn’t journal per se, but she blogs…
  • Major life events can make journaling helpful. Knight only found herself journaling when she going through her divorce.
  • Some use it to manage stress. La Voie only journals sporadically but she finds it helps with her anxiety.

Knight and I agree: no writing is ever a waste. You’re always learning, always practicing.

What works for someone else, won’t necessarily work for you. Journal only if you’re actually getting something out of it.

Do you have your own writing sanctuary?

Now, me? I have a desk in a library alcove off my family room. But ever since I got a laptop, I find myself on my couch for most of my writing, with the occasional restaurant-based write-in. Not that I haven’t snuck words in at work or on my smartphone. There’s a reason I use GoogleDocs — it can auto-sync, you can use it offline, and it’s available for free on all my devices. I might not be the Google fangirl I was before they dropped 8 of the products I’d adopted… but some habits die hard.

But, I always find it fascinating to learn where other writers work.

  • Some, like Knight, can write anywhere that’s relatively quiet.
  • Some, like Gribble have home offices. But?
    • She NEVER uses it to write in.
    • She spends most of her time in Starbucks, on her couch, or the counter in her kitchen.
    • Gribble WILL, however, edit her writing in that perfect home office.
  • Some, like Blackrose, will write anywhere — even at her day job when things are slow.
  • Some libraries, like Blackrose’s, have writing centers you can use
    • On Sundays, she has permission to use the Writer-In-Resident’s office — it makes her feel like a ‘real’ writer!
  • And some have home offices they actually write in!
    • Baugher came home from a convention and found his wife had turned their 2nd bedroom into an office for him.

Do you use writing as an escape from life?

This question could have gone in so many directions, but somehow we got back to procrasti-cleaning again. As a procrasti-cleaner myself, I was happy to be in such good company. 

  • You can use laundry to avoid writing like Blackrose
  • You can use writing sprints as breaks from chores like Gribble
  • Or!
  • You can leave the house to go write, so you can avoid laundry altogether, like Knight.

How much do you reread before you restart your writing?

Personally, I only skip back a paragraph or two and then push on from there. I keep waiting for there to be a right answer to this. But of course, with all things writing related, it’s a matter of preference.

  • Some read just the start of the current scene, like Gribble.
  • Some, like Baugher, like to leave notes or hints for what’s going to happen in the next scene.
  • Some reread it all.
  • Some, like Blackrose, use the first 7,000 to 15,000 words as a sort of giant outline, and then fill in.
  • Some write in layers. First getting the action out and the plot, then coming back and filling in the descriptive narrative, like Knight.

Critiques That Made You Regret Sharing Your Writing

Even if writing isn’t your sanctuary, it can be scary to share your words and thoughts with the world. And sometimes, critics can be harsher than they know.

For Baugher’s first writing workshop, for his first critique ever, another writer told him, “Stop writing now — this sucks!”

One writer’s mother doesn’t do fantasy, and after they opened up and shared their novel, the response was, “how do you think of these things?”… and not in an awed sort of tone.

Gribble once had a critic complain about the orgy. One problem? Her novel contains ZERO orgies…

Knight once watched a teacher lay into a fellow classmate for half-assing the assignment. Which, not only was discouraging for the student in question, but also, I’d imagine, inhibiting the other students from trying new things.

Blackrose once wrote a Seders in Space humor piece, pulling from her own experiences. A non-Jewish friend hated it and felt it mocked the Jewish stereotypes. Her Jewish friends and family loved it.


And the two final questions from the panel? The answers were in unison.

How does marketing interfere with the sanctuary of writing?

A Lot.

and

Do you write as a sanctuary for your readers?

YES.

So, a bit more of an exploration of their lives as writers, but altogether a panel I enjoyed.


Do you use writing as a sanctuary?

Do you use books as a sanctuary? What are some of your favorites?

Top 4 Questions From An Editors & Publishers AMA (Ask Me Anything)

Sunflowers in full bloom against a bright, clear blue sky.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 (Happy Summer Solstice!)

At Balticon52, I had the opportunity to attend an Ask Me Anything panel of Editors and Publishers. Usually in my panel notes, I skim over the panelists to get to the meat, but in this case, I feel their expertise was part of the draw.

The publishers and editors in question were:

  • Walt Boyes – an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor of the Industrial Automation INSIDER, the Grantville Gazette, (the magazine of the 1632 Universe), co-editor of Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press, and a member of the 1632 Editorial Board.
  • Scott H. Andrews – a writer, musician, and the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the online fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He’s a six-time Hugo Award finalist and with his podcast, a five-time Parsec Award finalist. [Fun fact: he always gives personalized rejections!]
    • For non-querying writers, I know that sounds kinda… pathetic. But if you’re in the querying trenches, you know what that’s worth.
  • Neil Clarke – the editor and publisher of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning magazine, Clarkesworld.
  • Ian Randal Strock– a writer, plus the owner and editor-in-chief of Gray Rabbit Publications/Fantastic Books (www.FantasticBooks.biz). Previously, he edited and published Artemis Magazine and SFScope. He also worked on the editorial staffs of Analog, Asimov’s, Science Fiction Chronicle, and many others.
  • (moderated by) Jeff Young – an award-winning author, bookseller, and editor of several anthologies.

So let’s get this rolling. Here are the questions.

1. What is Your Biggest Pet Peeve?

The top three answers were:

  1. Zombie Stories — they’ve been done to past death
  2. Writers who don’t READ THE GUIDELINES
  3. Writers who argue with critiques
    Even if you disagree with the critique or the suggestion, don’t argue with someone who spent their time and energy to give you feedback.
         Give that section of your prose a closer look

    • Is it moving the story along?
    • What is it adding?
    • Could you do it better–not necessarily the way they suggested.

Person holding a blue ballpoint pen writing.

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

2. Should A Writer Use Different Names For Different Genres?

As with all writing advice, it depends on the situation:

  • If you’re doing your own marketing, starting over with a new name doubles the amount of work you have to do to get traction.
  • If you’re with a large publisher, it can be helpful for the marketing.

That said, there are of course caveats:

  • You can end up getting shelved in the library/bookstores alongside whatever genre you first published in.
  • If you’re doing both Children’s books and explicit erotica — it can be helpful to make sure kids don’t end up with a book they probably didn’t mean to get.

Regarding publishing names in general:

When choosing which name to be published under (birth name or pen name), searchability reigns supreme.

You want to be high in the search result, but also easy to spell.

Simplified spelling, middle initials, mining family names, or deciding who you want to be shelved next to are good places to start.


Shelves full of books, in a decently lit library.

3. How Has The Market Changed In The Last Ten Years?

The top 3 ways the market’s changed:

  1. More exploring of the human condition in fantasy, a lot of the exploration is reactionary — which has a shorter shelf life.  Morgan’s side note: It might be more overt, but I’d argue that fantasy has ALWAYS explored the human condition.
  2. The rise in the respectability of online magazines.
  3. Massive growth in international markets.

Wood signpost, with worn red arrow pointing right. Greyed out mountains faintly behind it.

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels.com

4. Where Do Querying Writers Lose You?

There was a lot of discussion on this question, so I’ll break it into high-level and specifics.

The top three high-level answers were:

  1. When I quit caring.
  2. If you make it work to follow the narrative.
  3. If they don’t remember it the next day.
    • Note: This editor also said that the bad stories blur together, they don’t typically remember them.

Top 4 things that break their buy-in:

  1. ‘Red line of death’ – Boredom, implausibility, names that don’t fit the setting
  2. Implausibility – where all emotions are explicit rather than undercurrents. Most people don’t spell everything out for each other in real life.
  3. External commentary (even by the narrator) – “If I’d only known then…”
  4. A character doing something stupid or out-of-character (OOC)

A thought bubble drawn in chalk, with a lightbulb resting in the bubble

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I always find getting an insider perspective on the industry enlightening. Hopefully, these answers help you as much as they helped me.