Our Annual Programming Series, Part Five: Roundtable Discussions

Proposals are due May 15, 2015! Jump on over to the programming section of the Sirens website if you’re ready to submit your proposal now.

Next up in our ongoing series on preparing a programming proposal: roundtable discussions!

Roundtable discussions are group chats led by a single moderator. These discussions are scheduled in rooms that accommodate no more than 25 attendees so that everyone can take an active part in the discussion, and so that it’s possible for the moderator to keep the discussion on track.

Roundtables depend on audience interaction for success. If you’re trying to figure out whether a topic is best suited to a roundtable or a panel, consider the degree of interactivity and the scale of participation, as well as whether you have a topic broad enough for the audience to dig into as individuals. For a roundtable, the interest is in the discussion the audience brings to the presentation, and the moderator proposes questions for everyone to answer; for a panel, the interest is in the viewpoints, discussion, and knowledge of the panelists, and the panelists do the majority of the talking.

A roundtable is:

  • a small and highly interactive discussion,
  • led by one person who keeps order and keeps the conversation moving
  • about a topic that is familiar or accessible to most of the audience
  • designed to engage all of the members of the audience

Roundtable discussions are scheduled as 50-minute blocks. Plan for at least 40 minutes of lively discussion, and you’ll probably find that audience questions and contributions easily fill 50 minutes!

Getting Started
First, you’ll need to choose a topic and focus for your roundtable. Consider the potential directions that the discussion about your topic might take and make notes of works that might be relevant. You’ll need to propose at least ten thoughtful questions for a 50 minute roundtable discussion. Once you’ve focused your idea, you’ll need some information to make your proposal.

Personal Information to Gather
1. Your contact information (which is not shared with the vetting board). All correspondence about your proposal will be sent via email, so make sure to use an address that you’ll have through the end of 2015 and that you check regularly. Please add (programming at to your safe sender list so that correspondence is delivered to your inbox.

2. Name to be published for presenter on website, schedule, and program. While we ask for some personal information to allow our registrar to confirm your status as a registered attendee, we know you might want to use a different name for your presentation, whether that’s a pseudonym, an online handle, or a formal name that you use professionally. (Please note that we drop titles on our schedule and with presentation summaries, but you’re welcome to note titles and professional credentials in your biography.) The “name to be published” will be the name we show to the vetting board, programming volunteers, and other attendees.

3. Professional affiliation. This is for those presenters who wish to note their current association with a university, and occasionally, a business or professional organization if their presentation is related in some way and they’re speaking with the endorsement of their job. Some people use this field; most don’t unless they’re currently teaching at a university.

4. Your biography. Tell us, in under 100 words, a little about you. A couple of sentences work fine! You can explain any experience, studies, or long-term interest in your topic; tell us where you’re going to school; or what you do as a job or as a hobby. Shorter is better, because space is limited.

Proposal Information to Gather
There are three items that you’ll need for a complete roundtable proposal.

1. Title. Remember that this title will be shown to the vetting board, so neither “Untitled” nor “TBA” is a good title idea! On the other hand, you don’t have to come up with something witty—just explain what the roundtable discussion is about.

2. A summary of no more than 100 words. This is the very short version of your presentation that will be published in the program book and on the Sirens website. This is where you have the chance to attract an audience who will be interested in attending your roundtable discussion. It should be concise, written for a general audience (in other words, avoid slang and jargon, if you can), and give people a sense of your perspective(s) on the topic.

Here are a couple of examples from past roundtable discussions that we think are excellent:

In recent years, there has been a growing acceptance and inclusion of gay and lesbian characters in fantasy literature. But these still fall into binary patterns: men and women, heterosexual and homosexual. What about people who fall outside of this binary? Asexuals, demisexuals, transgender people, and people without gender? How are they represented? This roundtable encourages discussion on these topics as well as reading recommendations for those interested in books that fall outside the binary.

Female political leaders in fantasy include hereditary rulers and elected leaders, women warriors, and civil servants. This roundtable will consider the different types of political leadership demonstrated by women in fantasy literature. How is their leadership shaped by their gender, their age, and the political system in which they work? How do these characters gain and exercise their political power? Have depictions of female political leaders in fantasy changed over time?

Whether she’s the hand that rocks the cradle, offers the poison apple, or laces up the corset, a mother’s influence is a powerful thing. This roundtable will discuss popular images of motherhood in fantasy and examine young heroines both as daughters and as potential mothers themselves. We’ll pay special attention to the dark, violent, or monstrous mother figure who lurks behind the caregiver—and might want to eat you.

Having once read about the “invisible hands” of the off-page servants and staff in Austen’s work and other historic literature, I wonder about how much history-inspired S/F either relegates off the page or forgets entirely the community required to run a great house, fortress, or even ranch. Who is raising the corn? Who is hauling the bathwater? Do they have stories to tell?

This roundtable discussion will examine and dissect everyday sexism found within fantasy literature. We will focus both on the sexism women writers encounter within the publishing industry in regard to their characters and stories as well as in regard to themselves as writers, and how they’re subsequently represented to the public at large. Participants will be prompted to discuss commonly known facets of sexism, such as the encouragement of J. K. Rowling’s publisher that she use only her initials because they feared boys would be less interested in reading a book written by a woman, as well as lesser known incidents or personal experiences of sexism. This can include anything from writing under a pseudonym, to being asked to change a character’s sex simply for audience appeal, or the always popular “Your female character isn’t likeable or approachable, change her.” In addition to looking at female authors and the sexism they’ve faced, we’ll explore the fact that under certain circumstances, a male writer having written the same thing might not have been asked to alter their characters or the name under which their work is being marketed.

Death and rebirth is a common step along the hero’s or heroine’s journey, so it is not uncommon for sci-fi and fantasy characters to have near-death experiences or ghostly visitations while on death’s threshold. This roundtable will explore the purpose and commonalities of fictional near-death experiences and associated tropes. We will also discuss how the fictional depictions compare to real life accounts and various cultural myths.

Why can only a virgin girl tame a unicorn? And what is the origin of the succubus—always a beautiful, seductive woman, who is not only hyper-sexual, but often intent on killing her male lovers? How have these portrayals of women in mythology and folklore affected fantasy writing to this day? And how much of women’s sexuality in current fantasy novels is reflective of our own modern social mores?

Can Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games be understood as folklore? Katniss’s journey is that of the archetypal hero in many aspects. If viewed from a folklore perspective, the narrative role of storytelling and the storyteller is complicated, especially in regards to Katniss’s story versus the Mockingjay’s, and in the ownership and creation of that storytelling process. After outlining folklore conventions evident in The Hunger Games, we will discuss how this perspective alters and illuminates the role of stories retold, again and again. Perhaps we can even answer the question behind it all: just whose story was Collins telling?

For more inspiration, you might visit the Sirens archive to read summaries that have been accepted in the last few years.

3. An abstract of no more than 500 words. An abstract is a complete—but short—version of your presentation.

For roundtable discussions, you have the option of submitting sample discussion questions instead of an abstract, and this option is highly recommended. You’ll need at least ten thoughtful questions. An example of how you might approach your abstract as a series of questions is included below.

  1. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Luna refuses to be bullied, in part because she does not respond to that sort of attention. How does this illuminate her decision to become part of Dumbledore’s Army?
  2. Do you think she’s inclined toward resistance due to her beliefs about what is right, or because she’s already inclined to be unconventional? Or some other reason?
  3. How has Harry’s understanding of and relationship with Luna changed over the last few books? What about Luna’s relationship with other members of The Six?
  4. J. K. Rowling uses Luna as the commentator for the last Quidditch match we see in the books. Why Luna? What particular meta commentary can only Luna make here? What other characters might have worked in the same role, if not Luna?
  5. What role do you think Luna played in Dumbledore’s Army at Hogwarts during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?
  6. How do you think Luna responded to punishment she received while at Hogwarts during Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?
  7. We finally meet someone from Luna’s family: Xenophilius Lovegood. Is this the home life you’d imagined for Luna?
  8. During the Battle of Hogwarts, Luna is briefly matched against Bellatrix with Hermione and Ginny. Is there something more here—is this partly because Bellatrix and Luna are both guided by faith, or perhaps to show Luna as having “grrl power”?
  9. Many of the women in the Harry Potter series could be said to represent ideas for Harry—love, family, etc. If that’s so, what might Luna represent?
  10. J. K. Rowling has mentioned in an interview that she imagines Luna going on to become a naturalist and marry a grandson of Newt Scamander. Is this what you imagined for her? What other alternatives would seem likely, given what we learned about Luna in the series?

If you’d prefer to write a formal abstract, some of the previous posts in this series included more in-depth information. View them using the programming tag on our blog.

More tips:
Most abstracts range from 100 to 300 words, though they can be up to 500 words, and are 1–3 paragraphs long. Aim for about 300–350 words, and at least a good, solid paragraph, unless you need more space to explain a theory or cite sources. If you’re taking the discussion questions route, you’ll need at least ten solid sample questions. (And one extra tip: avoid yes/no questions for these!)

Your abstract should not be the same as your proposal summary. An abstract is the part of your proposal where you get a little more room to convince the vetting board that your presentation should be chosen. It is the short version of your eventual roundtable discussion, and should be able to stand alone. A good abstract will include your thesis or approach, supporting details or arguments, and most importantly, your results, recommendations, or conclusion. The vetting board wants you to spoil the ending! (In a summary, you probably want to write something more like book jacket copy, but for the abstract, summarize the plot.)

“See my other proposal for X [biography, summary, alternate abstract]” usually results in a declined presentation, because the board members may not have access to your other proposal for a variety of reasons: it could be on hold while collaborators check in, the board members may not yet be reviewing your other proposal, or they may simply decide they are unwilling to search through the proposals to do this comparison for you. Take a moment to copy and paste in your information again.

Make sure that your proposal is complete. The vetting board wants to know that you have a clear plan. No “maybe we’ll do this, or maybe someone in the audience will suggest something, or if you want, I could do this or that.” There’s a difference between allowing room for audience participation and not having a plan!

Have a volunteer who is willing to provide you with honest feedback look over your proposal, both to proofread it and to offer suggestions for organization, focus, and purpose. Remember, the vetting board will decide whether to accept or decline your presentation based on your summary and abstract.

Remember that the roundtable discussion option allows for only one moderator/presenter. Please don’t plan a co-moderated roundtable discussion; if you’re looking for an option that allows for collaborators, try another presentation style. Not sure what to do? Email us! We’re happy to help.

Audio-Visual Requests
Roundtables are meant to be interactive and conversational, and so they are scheduled for smaller spaces. No microphone will be needed or provided, and projection is not available. Need a visual aid? Consider printing out one or two copies to pass around the room. An easel and a small dry erase board will be available.

FAQ about Proposals for Roundtable Discussions
What are the requirements for presenting? Do I have to be a teacher or scholar?
Our only requirement is that you be eligible to attend Sirens, which means that you must be at least 18 years old by October 8, 2015. We have no academic or professional requirements, and in the past we’ve received excellent presentations from high school students, grandmothers, professors, musicians, fans, and teachers, among others. Remember—your voice is important.

When is the proposal deadline?
May 15, 2015.

Do you accept all roundtable discussions?
No; we forward all proposals to the vetting board, which selects which roundtables will be accepted for Sirens.

If my roundtable discussion is declined, can you tell me why?
Unfortunately, we can’t. We simply have too many proposals, and we don’t ask the vetting board members to write up formal feedback. We can say, however, that proposals are never declined because they include unpopular opinions or controversial takes, or on the basis of personal relationships; the board is designed so that no single person accepts or declines a submission. In the past, we’ve found ourselves in the lucky position of having more excellent ideas than we could include, and that will likely be true in the future as well.

Should I contact the vetting board about my roundtable discussion?
Please do not contact the vetting board members about your proposal. They make their decisions confidentially, and can’t answer questions about the status of your presentation. Instead, please write to (programming at if you have questions. We’re happy to help!

How many proposals can I make?
As many as you like. However, we want to emphasize that one or two presentations is a good maximum number that enables you to be part of the presenting side and part of the listening side, so we recommend that you focus on just one or two proposals that you’re most excited about.

What if I make a proposal and it’s accepted, but I can’t come?
If you find out that you won’t be able to attend before May 15, 2015, you can ask around to see if someone can take your place or withdraw the proposal. Alternatively, perhaps another attendee would be willing to take your place at the conference if you can provide them with your sample questions. We appreciate it when you make an effort to ensure that your roundtable can remain on the schedule. If you’re unsure what to do, write to (programming at and we’ll talk about options.

Can I change the title of my roundtable later? Can I change the format or focus of my presentation?
If you provide us with the information before the roundtable discussion is passed on to the vetting board, then yes, you may make changes to the title or summary. We will ask you for a final confirmation upon acceptance, and you will have a short time to make updates before the information is published and final.

You may not make major changes to your presentation’s direction or format once it has been accepted; the proposal that you entered is the one that the board approved. If you wish to make substantial changes to the content of your presentation, and it is earlier than May 15, 2015, please write us to withdraw your existing presentation and then create a new one through the submissions system.

Can I request a specific day and time for my presentation?
Unfortunately, no. While we will take certain immovable factors into account, like presenting at another conference during the same weekend, we have so many presenters and constraints that we’re unable to take scheduling requests (everyone wants to present at the same time, but without being at the same time as any other presentation). The schedule depends on our ability to create thematic tracks of presentations, our need to accommodate presenters with multiple presentations, any restrictions on space and available hours, and availability of audio-visual equipment. You should expect your presentation to occur on October 9 or 10, 2015.

Do you “track” presentations?
We make an attempt to schedule presentations into morning and afternoon tracks by theme and by type of presentation, and sometimes by format and audio-visual needs. The advantage here is that an attendee could spend half a day absorbed in a topic or theme without needing to move from room to room. That’s not always possible, of course, because of the different styles of presentation, but we do try not to schedule two presentations on closely related topics at the same time, whenever possible.

How can I connect with other presenters or collaborators?
Please feel free to tag @sirens_con on Twitter, to post on Facebook, and to check out our message boards to suggest ideas that you’d like to see someone propose, to search for collaborators, and to brainstorm topics.

Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at and questions about programming to (programming at

Quick links:
Programming Overview
Call for Proposals/Guidelines/Additional Preparation Information
Submit a Proposal
Past Conferences Archive
Specific Questions for the Programming Team: Email (programming at

If you’re looking for co-presenters, why not place an ad on Facebook or the Sirens message boards?

Join Us for a Chat!
We’re hosting a chat on the Sirens website for talking about programming ideas. Join us on Sunday, April 19, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Eastern. The linked page will turn into a chat during that time; no software or downloads are required, but you may need to refresh the page.

We’ll also be holding a chat on Twitter: Sirens will hold a Twitter brainstorming session for programming topics. It will be held on on April 8 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Our Twitter account is @sirens_con and our hashtag is #Sirens15.

Also, #SirensBrainstormMonday on Twitter has topics free for the taking (and if you have too many ideas, please feel free to contribute your extras).

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