The Pleasure of Panels

By David Corbett

One the great pleasures of publicity tours—yes, Virginia, there are pleasures to publicity tours—is teaming up with other authors for a panel.

Panels provide one of the great exceptions to the Less is More principle. Two minds are indeed better than one, as are—depending on the minds at issue—three and four or even five, though I think that’s the limit for a decent panel. After that, it’s a chorus line. Or a scrum.

There’s always a balance that needs to be struck between the joy of spontaneity and giving the panelists enough of an idea what the topic is that they can prepare a few interesting ideas and lines—and a couple good jokes.

This is particularly on my mind as I prepare for two panels I’ll be doing in the span of one week:

First, a panel with A.M. Homes, Megan Abbott, and Duane Swierczynski at the Barnes & Noble at 86th and Lexington on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, 7 PM on Monday, February 11th; and

Second, a panel with Ellen Sussman at the San Francisco Writers Conference on Sunday, February 17th.

Frankly, with fellow panelists like that, I could sit there and drool and come off semi-smart. (Well, okay, maybe not drool.)

Ellen is a San Francisco writer I met through Murderati alum Cornelia Read at a reading for Dirty Words: An Encyclopedia of Sex, which Ellen edited. (Ellen’s entry on Happy Endings appears immediately before Cornelia’s on Hard-ons.)

In The Art of Character I use a scene from Ellen’s novel French Lessons to illustrate how to use clothing—in this case, a pregnant, jilted, miserable teacher’s fascination with a pair of turquoise pumps in a Paris boutique—as an objective correlative for the character’s inner life.

Ellen and I are doing a panel titled MY CHARACTER ATE MY PLOT! Creating characters that drive your story. It seems to be a bit of a mash-up of a workshop I proposed on how to balance story and character demands and an impromptu panel. Whatever. Ellen and I will have a gas.

The New York panel really has me intrigued. I’ve been reading A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven and I’m mesmerized. Later this month I’ll be posting for the Books by the Bed column on the website for We Wanted to be Writers (the group memoir about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop). One of the books I mention is May We Be Forgiven, and this is what I say:

As deft a balancing act between heartbreaking realism and wicked black humor as I’ve read outside the works of Pete Dexter. An opening scene with a gutted Thanksgiving turkey, fingers dripping with meat juices, lips coated in same, and then an illicit kiss between the protagonist and his taller, smarter, more successful brother’s wife—and it just takes off from there. Uncanny pacing for a so-called literary novel—violent and smart and did I mention funny?

Many of you probably already know Duane Swierczynski, though you probably can’t pronounce his name. (It’s okay, no one can. Or spell it for that matter.) I also included his The Blonde in my Books by the Bed posting:

The reading equivalent of listening to Eddy Angel channel Link Wray. Gutsy and quick on its feet, with so many deft strokes and oddball observations and switchback plot turns, not to mention (lest we forget) the eponymous blonde who, of course, is not who she seems—a patch of red in a private spot gives her away. More to the point, she’ll die if someone isn’t within ten feet of her. Literally. Beat that, Salman Rushdie!

And Megan Abbott, after writing and winning an Edgar for creative re-interpretations of fifties noir (with an emphasis on the women characters so often trivialized in that genre) has broken out with two novels set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, her childhood hometown: The End of Everything and Dare Me.

I mean, I’ll have to concentrate very, very hard if I want to screw up this panel.

Like my panel with Ellen, this one also will gravitate toward character, and Megan and Duane both want to talk about the difficulties of characterization in the compressed formats of graphic novels and film, and A.M. wants to talk about the challenges of writing about someone fundamentally different than oneself.

I also want to ask Megan about what characterization challenges she’s faced in switching from noir pastiches to more realistic novels, and generally just invite everybody to jump in and say whatever comes to mind. (Like I’ll be able to stop them…)

If you live in New York and feel inclined, join us at 7 PM at the B&N UES at 86th & Lex.

Or if you’re ready for the whole smorgasbord of writing panels and editor consultations and agent pitches, check out the San Francisco Writers Conference—and join Ellen and me on Sunday morning (at the ungodly hour of 9 AM).

How we suffer for our art.

BTW: One final nod to Blatant Sell-Promotion (that’s a deliberate typo): If you or someone you know is interested in the craft of characterization, and would like an inspiring, in-depth and yet practical guide, please check out The Art of Character. Follow the link to find out more, including where you can buy a copy. Or read a brand new excerpt here.

* * * * *

So, Murderateros, what’s the best panel you’ve ever been on or seen?

What was the worst?

What made the one great and the other not so great?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Valentine’s Day will have come and gone by the time my next post goes up, so in premature celebration (ahem), I offer this Brubeck chestnut used to brilliant effect in the film Silver Linings Playbook. It beautifully sets the mood for a crucial scene, when Pat goes to Tiffany’s house Halloween night for their first (this-is-not-a) date. It’s spare and haunting but playful, with its 7/4 time creating an off-balance tension. Perfect.


9 thoughts on “The Pleasure of Panels

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David. Great post, as always, and I can understand why you're looking forward to those panels. Drat being on the other side of the Atlantic!

    The worst panels I've seen come down to poor moderation:

    One where the moderator asked all the panellists questions in the same order every time, so the poor person sitting at the far end had nothing to say by the time it was her turn.

    One where the moderator used the panel as an opportunity to indulge in egocentric stand-up, to the point where one panellist was only asked complicated maths questions, another had her book jacket copy read back to her in a silly voice, and another never actually got to speak at all.

    One where the moderator began by announcing that she hadn't read any of the panellists' books, so she was going to talk about her own instead …

    I could go on, but I don't want to be a panel-hog, so I'll stop now.

    Except to say I couldn't get the link to a new section of the book to connect. Can you double-check it? TAOC deserves to be read and read widely :))

  2. Sarah W

    Far worse than poor moderation,I think, is NO moderation.

    I attended a terribly awkward true crime panel once where the moderator and the person I'd come to see had backed out–possibly because one of the other panelists was completely overbearing. To be honest, I think even Hank Phillippi Ryan would have had a tough time reining this person in–and I once saw her manage Jeff Abbott, Harlan Coben, Joseph Finder, Steve Hamilton, AND Ridley Pearson. But someone should have tried.

    I would say, though, without flattery, that all the Murderatos I've seen on panels have held their own and been generally (and specifically) terrific, despite the occasional moderator . . . oddity. I haven't seen anyone moderate a panel, though.

    There should DEFINITELY be a Murderati panel in the future somewhere–please? Near Chicago, maybe?

    If we're sharing favorite Valentine videos, here's my contribution:

  3. Kristopher

    I agree that the moderator can make or break a panel. Most of the worst that I have seen come down poorly prepared moderation.

    That said, in rare cases, no moderation can work (though I wouldn't necessarily advise trying). One of the bsst panels I have seen (at Bouchercon Baltimore and encored at Bouchercon St. Louis, I think) was a conversation style between Louise Penny, Rhys Bowen and Deborah Crombie. Three friends, letting the audience join them for 45 minutes. Perfection.

  4. David Corbett

    Funny, I thought I was doing a shout out for Brubeck and SLP and instead I started a group share of great VD songs. (Valentine's Day, not… ).

    Gordon: Of COURSE you'd choose Joy Division — Our Love Will Tear Us Apart (Again) — for the best Valentine's Day song ever. How could you not? Now I've got an ear worm.

    Or I did until I listened to Sarah's offering (which I just shared with my sweetie). That was wonderful, Sarah, thanks so much. I'd never heard that tune and now want to just keep hitting replay.

    Ahem. Okay. Back to panels.

    Zoë: I was cringing as you ran down that list. I've had to shanghai a panel or two from a moderator who was either droning along helplessly or who'd launched off on a topic that it was clear (had he bothered to check the expressions on the audience's faces) no one gave a fig about. But nothing like what you described. Ick. Boo. Ooga booga.

    I think the moderator should always keep in mind what Hippocrates in fact never said: First, do no harm. The panelists are theire to shine, let them. If one begins to grandstand, gently turn the focus to someone else. Or hit them. (I've seen both done well.)

    Oh, and the link to the excerpt didn't go live till 5 AM here on the west coast, so it was probably too early at your end of the world. Sorry.

    Sarah: A Murderati panel, hmmm. I actually moderated a panel with Gar once, and he's of course a gem, except he's far too modest.

    Kristopher: I think invisible moderation is the ideal, or the moderator as LISTENER. Listen to the panelists and steer them toward each other, let them respond to each other's remarks — that's when a panel ignites.

    I'm co-keynote speaker with Deborah Crombie at the DFW Writers Conference in Dallas in May, and we've bumped all notion of a moderator from our two-person panel, because we know we'll have no problem keeping it lively.

    The panel you describe resembles one in Chicago with Ken Bruen, Don Winslow and Reed Farrel Coleman, called "Three Guys Talking." People still talk about that panel. It was brilliant.

  5. Allison Davis

    One of my favorite panels, and forgive me for not having the names (Michael Black from Chicago was one) handy but I'm at the office, was an entire panel of ex police officers at Bouchercon in Indianapolis. I was in heaven because of my obsession with police procedural genre. We ended up talking about the Wire a lot (when asked what was the most realistic show on cops, everyone on the panel simultaneously said "The Wire"). It was lively, interesting, with lots of good information.

    I like panels because the writers riff off of one another and the discussion is better. When Cara and I organized the continuous conversation at the SF Bouchercon, we tried to keep a catalyst in the group to keep it lively but sometimes it got bogged down and we had to stir them up a bit. That was an interesting experiment because it was improv all the way.

  6. David Corbett

    Allison: Improv is always scary, because when it fails it tends to fail big. But even scripted panels strive for the feel of improvisation.

    Cops are great talkers, and I can only imagine what that panel must have been like.

  7. PD Martin

    Hi David. Sounds like you've got some fun panels coming up. I love panels – although Zoe's stories truly are horrific! And I agree re the numbers – I think four is even better than five.

    Sisters in Crime has some great moderators – including the hilarious Vikki Petraitis who manages to throw in a couple of LMAO (laugh my ass off) one-liners while always keeping panelists on topic and sharing the love!

    By the way, when was The Blonde released? Looked it up on Amazon but no joy…maybe not available in Australia?


  8. David Corbett

    The Blonde came out in 2007, Phillipa. Here's the data from Amazon:

    Paperback: 288 pages
    Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition (October 30, 2007)
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 0312374593
    ISBN-13: 978-0312374594

    It's a real rip of a book.

Comments are closed.