How to chair a panel at a writing festival

Saturday 7th of May 2016 – I had the opportunity to chair my very first panel at the speculative fiction/fantasy festival held at SA Writers Centre with the lovely Gillian Rubinstein aka Lian Hearn and our very own South Australian writer, Tony Shillitoe.

Getting to meet two incredible writers with very different experiences and opinions, and to engage them in a discussion about the growing number of crossover readers that comprise the current YA market – a percentage believed to be as high as 55% – was enlightening and one which I can’t wait to repeat should the opportunity present itself again.

While I was extremely nervous about hosting a panel, I quickly learnt that writers are not only generous with their knowledge of the industry and their craft, but with their understanding and helpfulness. Most have been on both sides of the table and are more than willing to help steer the conversation. Here are some of the most important things I learnt from the experience:

  • Research the authors. Make sure you have a good knowledge of their work, their views, their expertise. Watch previous interviews (podcasts are great) to see how they address questions. Ie: Are they softly spoken? Are they animated? Do they like to joke around? Do they give short answer questions or do they elaborate on topics?
  • Research the topic. Example: When thinking about YA crossovers, I made sure to have a thorough knowledge of the main conversations concerning YA literature such as censorship, marketing, themes and changing technologies. I looked at past and current trends as well as future outlooks for the market.
  • Know your audience. What’s the demographic? Are they majority writers or majority readers? What specific areas would they be interested in? Craft-related advice? Industry knowledge? Or do they just want to hear from their favourite authors and learn more about their books and lives?
  • For a 40-60 minute panel, write around 4-5 open-ended questions that could lead to smaller investigative follow-up questions. Try to vary question depth and involvement required by the panelists. Start with some easier, ‘warm-up’ questions and build to the high concept questions. Try to vary mode of questioning (How do you feel about … ? Why do you think … ? Do you agree with … ? What are your thoughts/opinions …? Can you explain … ? Have you done …. ? Is there an example of … ?)
  • If possible, try to introduce yourself to the panelists at least twenty minutes prior to the session to get to know them, to discuss few key topics that both parties would like to cover and, most importantly, to get a feel the group dynamics.
  • When introducing the panelists, keep their introductions brief and relevant to the topic being discussed. Example: if you’re talking about YA crossovers, reference their YA works. The audience wants to know that the author they’re listening to actually has experience in the field they are discussing.
  • During the session, allow the conversation to flow naturally and for the authors to explore larger concepts and ideas. However, try not to let the conversation go too off topic or else the audience isn’t getting what they came to hear.
  • Listen to what the panelists are saying but feel confident to offer alternative views or opinions in a way that encourages interesting and positive discussion.
  • Try to avoid talking about yourself or monopolising the conversation. This isn’t about you.
  • Keep track of the time. If you’re using a watch, place it on the table so you can see it without being obvious. You don’t want to be bringing your wrist to your face every time you need to check the time. It’s distracting and can make people think they need to wrap up.
  • Bring a pen to jot down key words or ideas should the conversation spark a new question or concept.
  • Allow 10-15 minutes for audience questions at the end.
  • Be prepared to clarify/repeat audience questions.
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17 Questions a Publisher Might Ask of your Novel at a Pitching Session!

From the 24th to the 26th of July 2015, I was lucky enough to attend SA Writers Centre’s ‘Pitch Conference’ – an intensive three days of pitch workshops and 5 minute pitch sessions with publishers. It was the first time the conference was held in Adelaide and was made possible by the tireless work of SA Writers Centre staff including Director, Sarah Tooth and program director, Bethany Clark and funding bodies such as Arts SA.

pitch conference logo

Attendance was stellar and included the likes of Tim Tomlinson, President of New York Writers Workshop where the conference first began, and Australian publishers such as Kate Blake (Penguin), Sophie Hamley (Hachette), Meredith Curnow (Random House), Roberta Ivers (Simon and Schuster), Angus Fontaine (Pan Macmillan).

It was an extremely successful event with 27 out of 42 participants receiving requests from publishers and a total of 44 manuscripts being requested (some by multiple publishers). It was an invaluable opportunity for Adelaide writers to pitch their manuscripts directly to interstate publishers.

Here are some of the questions the publishers asked:

  1. Does your book have a central question / theme?
  2. What are some comparison titles?
  3. What are some comparison titles from Australian writers?
  4. Where did you set the book? Where would you imagine it being set? Why?
  5. Can you speak to broader concerns relating to the current political landscape of your novel?
  6. Main attraction of your book? Why would a reader gravitate to it?
  7. Is there a love interest? What’s the pacing of the romance?
  8. What’s the pacing of the story like? Backstory – journey – main conflict – resolution? How long does it take to get to the journey?
  9. Where did you get your inspiration from?
  10. What was your writing process in coming up with this story?
  11. Plot-driven or character driven? Why?
  12. Is there more than one main character? If so, how did you separate the voices?
  13. In what POV / tense is your novel written?
  14. What is the turning point of the novel?
  15. What are you willing to do to assist with selling your book?
  16. Why would our book be interesting to women? (Women make up 70% of market in terms of readers).
  17. Have you been published before? If not, what have you done to improve your writing?

Extra tips (nuggets of gold)

  • Answer the publisher’s questions as succinctly as possible. Don’t give convoluted answers or a scene-by-scene run-down of what happens in the novel.
  • Use buzzwords and punchy adjectives. Write your pitch in an active voice.
  • Use language that connects with the mood/tone of book’s world but make sure it’s not in the book’s prose.