With the Malice Domestic conference starting this coming Friday (and please, say hi if you see me there!), perhaps this is the time to discuss the importance of panels. No, not the panels that are hugging the walls of your den, or the ones that apparently wear blue ribbons and tell the government how it can screw up less often, but are never taken seriously. No, I mean the panels that a convention attendee might… attend… to hear a discussion on some aspect of the mystery publishing biz.
These generally have a topic that’s relatively open-ended, like “If Your Sleuth Owns a Cat,” “If Your Sleuth Is A Cat” or “Hard Boiled Vs. Cozy: What’s With the Cats?” A group of (usually) authors (sometimes) editors and (very occasionally) agents discusses the topic at length—for 50 minutes—and then takes questions, assuming there are any.
Panels can be a great deal of fun, can sometimes be informative, and are a swell way to rest your feet after traipsing around the convention all day. They’re great for authors, because we get to hawk our work ruthlessly (without any ruth at all) and hopefully introduce ourselves to readers who might not have heard of us before.
Authors love being on panels, and try very hard to get a good spot at the convention. There is much talk among authors about what time of day, which day and in what room each one’s panel might be held. The one thing you can count on is that no matter which day, time or room the author has been assigned, they will believe it to be a lousy one.
(I hasten to add here that the panel I’ll be on at Malice, with my blogmate Denise Deitz acting as moderator, is exactly the one I’ve always hoped I’d be on, the time is swell and I have no idea what the room looks like, aside from the fact that it’ll have four walls and some chairs. It’s called The Role of Humor in Mysteries, it will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday with my fellow panelists Parnell Hall, Karl Fieldhouse, Jeffrey Marks, Sheri Cobb South and Barbara Workinger, and I sincerely hope that if you’re in the area, you’ll drop by. Every word in this paragraph is sincere.)
If you’ve never participated in a mystery convention panel, let me give you a quick look at the process going on inside the author’s head while the panel is going on. It’s less a stream of consciousness than a tidal wave of self-consciousness, but it’s reasonably accurate, give or take some exaggeration:
I wonder why they seated me on the end. It’s because nobody’s ever heard of me; I know. There are at least 50 readers out there, right now, asking themselves who that curly haired guy with the beard on the end is. “Cohen? Jeffrey Cohen? Isn’t that my dentist’s name? Or was that the guy I went to grammar school with, the one who’s an accountant now?” That’s what they’re thinking. It’s because I’m on the end.
Damn. I shouldn’t have worn this jacket. The sleeves are weird—too long, or too short, or something. Stop playing with your cuffs! People are watching you! And now they’re wondering who the curly haired guy with the beard is, and why he won’t stop playing with his cuffs.
The other authors on this panel look a lot more relaxed than I am. Look at them. That guy actually brought six of his books—six! And all his books stand up so well on the dais. People can see the titles and everything. How come my book won’t stand up? Does his publisher use better cover stock than mine?
Smile! People are looking! You don’t want them to think you’re not happy to be here, do you? But don’t smile too much! They’ll think of you as the grinning jack o’ lantern, and the next thing you know, you’re the curly haired bearded guy with the itchy cuffs who looks like a jack o’ lantern.
The moderator’s introducing me. Nod to the audience with a friendly smile. Friendly, not psychopathic! Pretend to be modest about your meager accomplishments. Aw, pshaw. That’s it.
Damn! That other author stole the line I had prepared! Now what am I going to say when they ask me a question? What made me think I could come up here and just wing it?
What? Oh, a question. Speak, but don’t hog the microphone. This isn’t the Jeff Cohen Show, you know (not that it would be such a bad idea… ). Easy, there. You don’t want to come across as egotistical. Hey, this is actually enjoyable. Ask me another question.
Who’s that in the front row? She seems to be smiling in my direction. Is it someone I’m supposed to remember? I’m terrible at faces. I hope she’s wearing a name tag if she comes up after the panel. But then, if I stare at it, she’ll wonder 1) if I’m a pervert and 2) how come I’m looking at her name tag when I should remember who she is. Either way, I’m…
What? Oh, sorry. Another question. They’re asking everyone on the panel for an answer, and I wasn’t listening to the first two! Suppose I say the same thing!
Stop playing with your cuffs!
Oh man: I’ve answered two questions and I haven’t mentioned the name of my book! Nice marketing there, pal. Now, how am I going to work it into a question about the role of cats in mysteries? There are no cats in my book! Wait, though: there is a dog. Two dogs. Maybe I can work it in that way.
Damn! That guy is being funnier than me! I hate that! I’m supposed to be the funny one, right? Who asked him to step in? Okay, so the people who run the convention did, but that’s beside the point! If I’m not the funny one, which one am I?
Oh, yeah: “the curly haired bearded one with the cuffs who grins like a jack o’ lantern and isn’t that funny. And what was the name of his book, again? I don’t think he’s mentioned it. I’d write it down off the cover, but the thing won’t stand up for more than two seconds at a time.”
I’m trying to listen, really! This is actually a very interesting topic, but I’m so caught up in projecting an image that I’m forgetting to be part of the group. It’s time for the audience questions. I hope someone asks one I can answer.
Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. Yes, I can understand why you’d ask that author a question first. She’s sold tons more books than I have. What am I even doing on a panel with her, anyway? And him, and her, down in the last chair! I’m way outclassed! I should be on a panel about “Authors Who Deservedly Toil in Obscurity.”
What? A question for me? Answer spontaneously—don’t think about it. Hey! I got a laugh! They liked it! This is getting to be fun, now!
What do you mean, it’s over? We were just getting started! Oh, all right. Stand up, shake hands with the other panelists, head toward the signing area, where you can examine the complex workings of a ballpoint pen while the others sign books for the hordes of devoted fans who will show up at their tables. It’s been fun. Say thank you to the moderator, who really did a swell job. Talk to a few audience members.
And stop playing with your cuffs!