Friday, August 3, 2018

How to Ask an Author a Question: Q&A's and Panels

You’re at an author event or a conference panel, listening to an author speak. They’re funny, smart, compassionate, interesting. You feel a connection. You’ve read their book, or you plan to. The panel opens up for audience questions. You’d like to ask one, because there’s so much you’d like to know, and more, because you’d like to have a human interaction with this person with whom you’ve had, or will have, a literary interaction.

What should you ask them?

The mind goes blank.

It does for me, and I’m an author, for Pete’s sake. In that moment, I want to give the author the small gift of my genuine interest in what they think, and I hope they’ll return to me the gift of a genuine answer. But what to ask?

photo by Tom Rivers,
It’s a little bit of a love thing. And Love, as we know, is not always close companion to Brain. Not when it’s put on the spot, and others are watching.

What should you ask an author? What kinds of questions do authors want to be asked?

I can only speak for myself, of course, but that won’t stop me from sharing my firehose of opinions on the subject. But along the way, let’s also look at major league author questioning: moderating panels.

Moderating an Author Panel: What Authors Wish All Moderators Knew

Panel moderators, those intrepid souls, MUST ask authors questions. Several in succession, before a public audience, in real time, without embarrassing themselves.

Dear moderators—We love you. Truly. Panel authors are grateful for the opportunity to present their books to new audiences. We’re indebted to moderators for giving us that chance. Always.

Why Panels, Anyway? Authors accept invitations to speak, often gratis, leave their kids, hire sitters and dogwalkers, travel—often at their own expense, chew through precious vacation time, and do otherwise difficult things to present their latest book to new readers. The publicity behind the conference, and the speaking opportunities, are what accomplish that objective. Thus an ideal panel gives authors the best chance to present their new books to new readers in an interesting, engaging way. Anything else that comes of it (meeting new people, having fun conversations, yummy food, scenery) is welcome but secondary. Without the promotional bang for the buck, most of us would rather stay home and work on our books.
The general public comes to panels because they like books, they like reading, they want to learn about new books, and they think that authors are interesting people. They’re curious and hope to get inside the mind of an author to understand how and why they write. They’re fans of one of the authors on the panel. There’s a bit of a mystique, maybe, surrounding the author’s work, and some audience members hope to learn how to become authors themselves. So, a panel will be successful for its audience if it gives them the chance to learn interesting things about new books and about the people who create them.

Too often, panels fall short on both counts.

photo by Bill Greene, Boston Globe
Moderators reading books: It may be a lot to ask of a moderator, to read all the books the panel will discuss, though they usually are fairly bookish types – teachers, librarians, writers, booksellers. Let’s consider this, then, a plea. Please read our books. At least read a few chapters. We’re taking days out of our lives to be there. We’re missing the winter concert or Junior’s eighth grade graduation. (True story.) We hope it will be worth it. Moderators who’ve read the books will organically ask interesting questions that lead to better discussion. When moderators don’t know our books, questions can only be generic.

Sometimes moderators step in at the eleventh hour because someone cancelled or dropped a ball. In that case, reading three or four books just isn’t possible. But reading even a portion of them, even a first chapter, or a first few pages, still helps convey a feel for character, setting, situation, and tone.

Then what? The moderator has read the book. (Or hasn’t.) What should they ask?

Generic Questions: The questions we hear most often go something like this:
  1. Where do you get your ideas?
  2. Tell us your writing schedule.  
  3. Do you write on a computer or by hand?
  4.  Do you have quirky writing habits? Routines?
  5. What time of day do you write?
  6. How do you balance writing with family/work/etc?
  7. Who designs the cover; do you get to choose?
  8. How did you find your agent / sell your book / find a publisher?
  9. Do you use outlines? Or do you plan your stories in advance, or see what comes to you?

These questions turn the discussion into either a How-to-Publish conversation, or a When-to-Write session, or some sort of therapy session about work/life balance. That’s definitely not what we came to talk about (and not what we paid a sitter for). As for the quirks, we’re not exhibits in a zoo with fascinating daily feeding/sleeping/mating schedules; we’re people who make books, so let’s talk about the books. We only get 45 minutes; let’s devote every one of them to books.

The Same Panel As Every Other Panel: Generic questions turn Any Author into Every Author, and every panel into The Same Panel As Every Other Panel. What a missed opportunity! Authors, in theory, think interesting creative thoughts, or do interesting research, and then write books about it. That’s the glittering gem each author brought with them: all that they – and only they – learned or discovered in the process of making this one specific book. It stinks to leave a panel or signing not having had a chance to share it.

The Perils of Process: Panels quickly devolve into the Same Panel as Every Other Panel because these are chiefly process questions (when do you write, what do you write on, how long do you write each day, etc), they elicit a sort of unintended (or superabundant!) narcissism. Why, yes, I am a fascinating subject! Let me tell you how often I sharpen my pencils, because naturally, you’re dying to know! And there goes the hour, and all the audience has gotten is self-importance from the panelists. If the questions are unflinchingly about the books, everyone will be better fed.

My Dream Question Wishlist: Here are the kinds of questions I wish people would ask me, aside from the kinds of questions that arise naturally from a reading of the book:
  1. Tell us about the journey that led to you writing this book.  
  2. Tell us about one of the people at the center of this book, and what makes them interesting. 
  3. Why does this book (or this subject) matter to you? Why was it worth spending a year (or five, etc.) of your life on it? 
  4. What do you love about this book? What makes this book special to you? Is there a part that makes you cry? Makes you laugh? Is there a part you’re secretly most proud of? What is it? 
  5. Tell us about any literary influences that went into this work, OR, tell us what other books this book joins in conversation. 
  6. Who else should love this book? Describe the reader who ought to know about this title. 
  7. What do you hope this book can impart to its readers?   
  8. How did your work on this book change you?

Paradoxically, these questions about my books will help you get to know me better, too. We learn more about people when they talk about work they love than when they talk about themselves. (Snoozer!) Besides, when we talk about ourselves we’re untrustworthy witnesses, but when we talk about our expertise, something of value comes through.

Developing questions that elicit the most interesting, meaty discussions is by no means an obvious or intuitive process. It takes skill and agility for a moderator to keep turning the conversation back to the books. Even authors can need redirection in that way. But that’s what does the most for everyone involved.

Now, again, just to be clear, I’m always glad to be on any panel, anywhere (well, preferably if there’s an audience), and I don’t fault anyone for asking any question. A sincere question is always welcome. Audience members don’t know how many times I’ve already been asked about jacket art. Each time is the first time for them. Any question asked by a young audience member becomes Priority A1, and I’ll answer with my utmost seriousness and respect. I hope I give all questions that same courtesy.

With practice, moderators and book lovers can learn to ask questions that elicit an author’s meaningful expertise and heartfelt opinions. This is the Brain + Heart input that you’ll remember long after the panel ends. We’ll remember it, too, along with the warmth of your kindness when you greet us in the signing line. Knock on wood, we’ll also remember a happy bookseller loving what the panel did for today’s, and tomorrow’s, sales.

Appendix: Other Pleas for Panel Moderators

I couldn’t help listing a few other items in my Dream Moderator How-To Guide.

Introducing the author: When searching for bio details, please don’t just go with Wikipedia. I see that all the time. Don’t just google a bio and go with the one you find online from a conference from four years ago. A stale bio omits the most important information about recent titles and recent accolades. Ask the author in advance to provide their most current bio, and start with that. In a perfect world, bolster that with how you feel about the author’s work. (If it’s positive! J)

Accolades: The author can’t toot their own horn and list their own achievements. It’s nauseating and unbecoming. But we do still need those details shared. So please, do make sure to mention awards and accolades in the introduction. For better and for worse, people sit up and pay attention when they hear “bestseller” or “award-winning” or “debut” or “shortlisted for…” So in order to make the audience more interested in hearing what we have to say, we need the moderator to toot our horns for us. I often see panels where the introductions are omitted altogether, or done in a cursory way (“John Doe is the author of Cool Title, Jane Smith is the author of Another Cool Title”), or done carelessly, as though it’s just an embarrassing obligation that the moderator is anxious to put behind them. We need those introducing us to prime the pump and let the audience know, Here is someone worth hearing. It makes us look good and it makes you look good (look at the luminaries you managed to attract!).

Balance: Oftentimes one author on a panel is much better known than the others. Be careful not to lob most of the questions at that person. Audience questions, when one author is a big name, are likely to go solely to the big name. A moderator ought to run interference to prevent lopsidedness. Otherwise it’s a Q&A with Bigshot, as though he/she were doing a lone signing, with three embarrassed sidekicks wishing they could slink away and disappear. Or feeling the need to barge in so as to be heard. Having the audience submit questions in writing, for the moderator to select, rather than passing around the microphone, may help, though admittedly that can be logistically complicated.

Join the Conversation

Authors: What would you add to the Dream Question Wishlist? What other Panel Pitfalls do you wish could be avoided? Moderators: What questions do you find most effective? What’s the hardest part about steering a panel conversation? How could authors make the job easier for you?

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