All posts by A. L. Phillips

Happy 2016!

Greetings, all!

I hope you had a fantastic holiday season and that your new year is off to a good start. Mine was quite eventful: I got engaged, and am now squarely in the middle of the twin hectic excitements that are wedding planning and writing a doctoral dissertation.

The New Year is a time of reflection and change, and as such, I have been reflecting a good deal about the events of 2015 and what this year will hold. After much internal debate, I have decided to take a hiatus from this blog until after my life settles down and I again have the time it takes to enjoy non-academic writing.

This is not goodbye – I am, at heart, a teller of stories and builder of worlds, and I look forward to again sharing my thoughts on the subject with you all. But until then, may your words ever flow, may your hearts ever soar on the winds of good narrative, and may you drink deeply of new worlds, cultures, and characters, and be satisfied.

Savvy Saturday: Using Prophecy

Happy week before Christmas! If you go to a Christmas service this week, you might find that there are several elements of storytelling that transfer well from the Christmas story to typical fantasy story arcs as accepted in western mythology. (This is, in part, because the Bible gives Western civilization its template for how stories “should” be told.) One of these elements is that of prophecy. We have all seen used prophecy used in fantasy stories – sometimes used well, sometimes used poorly. But what makes “good” prophecy use in a fantasy story? Here are two elements:

  1. Good prophecy gives a mix of specific and general predictions.

If a prophecy only consists of general predictions, it is too easily fulfilled by different people at different points in time. “The Child of Light will confront the Child of Darkness at the place of the end” is a great ominous line – but only if you know who the child of light is, who the child of darkness is, and what is at stake. It doesn’t take any work to create a prophecy that consists of vague generalities, and it doesn’t engage reader interest. If a reader shrugs their shoulders and says, “That prophecy isn’t even saying anything,” then at best, they will not understand why your main characters are so worried about the prophecy, and at worst, they simply won’t care.

On the other hand, if a prophecy consists of entirely specific predictions, once you establish that the prophecy is coming true then knowing the prophecy ahead of time makes the outcome of the book entirely boring for a reader. There is no reason to read a book all the way to the end if it has already been predicted in chapter three that, “The farmer’s son will smite down the lord of darkness when he stumbles over a fallen root, knocking his helmet from his head and smashing in his skull with the sword of his forbearers, which will have been blessed by the old protector of the forest.”

  1. Good prophecy can be legitimately fulfilled in different ways.

The best prophecy is one that sounds like it says one thing, but leaves room for the author to play with audience expectations. Two ways of doing this include having competing prophecies, and having prophecies that have two meanings (a primary and a secondary). Perhaps two different prophecies seem to contradict each other but don’t actually (but how?), or perhaps one prophet was actually mistaken or lying about something (but which is which?) Either way, introducing uncertainty into the supposed certainty of prophecy is a way to keep audience interest in and satisfaction with your story high.

 For instance, the Belgariad by David Eddings revolves around the existence of two prophecies – one written by the light and the other by the dark side of the universe. Both of them predict what will happen in the future, and each has been right in the past, but only one can ultimately prevail. The prophecies in the story are actually characters competing with each other. In contrast, a single prophecy could also have different possible fulfillments if it has a surface-level meaning and a deeper meaning, multiple fulfillments across time (e.g. “soon” and also “at the end of history on a bigger scale”), or if key words in the prophecy have multiple legitimate definitions.

Prophecy can be an integral and fascinating part of a fantasy story. It can drive protagonists to complete their quests, to question or doubt their abilities or future, to wrestle with questions of fate and free will, and to either embrace prophecy or to fight it. But if used poorly – if a prophecy is too specific, too vague, too straightforward, or too convoluted – prophecy can hamstring the effectiveness of your novel.

Savvy Saturday: Christmas List Suggestions

Still looking for Christmas gifts? A good book is always in style! For this week’s blog post, here’s a list of some of the really excellent fantasy and science fiction books I’ve enjoyed this past year. Some are new and some are old, but all were ones I would recommend to fellow lovers of good world-building and adventure.


Books by Brandon Sanderson


After discovering this author late last year, I have been eagerly devouring his works and continually amazed at his skill. Brandon Sanderson is a master of creating internally consistent, complex worlds with well thought out systems of magic and realistic characters, as well as gripping plots and well foreshadowed but surprising and satisfying endings. Here are some of the ones I particularly enjoyed:

Steelheart and Firefight, books one and two of the Reckoners series. Basic plot: superpowers exist, but turn everyone who gains their powers bad. We follow our human protagonists as they attempt to take down the maniacal supervillains who have wreaked havoc on planet Earth, while exploring the nature of power and its ability to corrupt.


The Rithmatist, book one of a new series set in an alternate steampunk/magic universe where American universities teach their students to battle monsters using magical drawings made of chalk, and where the “wilds of Nebrask” hold unknown dangers that threaten to wipe out civilization.


Other Books


Dauntless by Jack Campbell, first book of the Lost Fleet series. This military science fiction series has the unique twist of following a main character who awakens from a century of sleep to find that he is renowned by his society as a mythological military genius. The series is heavy on the strategy of warfare in three dimensions, which may be considered either a plus or a minus, but has enough intriguing world-building and culture-clash issues (think George Washington being brought back to fight in the Civil War) that it kept me intrigued.


The Belgariad by David Eddings, a five-book fantasy epic. This is a favorite series of mine from childhood that I recently reread. It is a single story told over the course of five volumes, following the classic quest pattern of clueless protagonist who turns out to be the Chosen One, with plenty of magic, humor, intrigue, world-building, monsters, and prophecy to keep you turning pages until the end.


Are there any particularly good fantasy or sci-fi books that you read this year? Share them below!

Personal Branding for Authors: Part X

As we’ve seen in the past few months, the question of how to go about personal branding is more complex than it appears. People create person-based and product-based personal brands, have different motivations for sharing information, and share different types of information with their customers. But in the end, what actually works? While this is a complex question, here are some intriguing findings from the pretest I conducted with over 50 individual entrepreneurs in the arts and crafts areas to finish off this ten-part series on personal branding for authors.

What personal branding actions are associated with financial outcomes?

Interestingly, most personal branding actions were not bivariately associated with entrepreneurs’ financial performance. In other words, there’s no magic formula for “do this and you’ll make more money.” However, sharing about one’s personality with one’s customers was positively correlated with both overall financial performance compared to one’s competitors (self-reported) as well as the entrepreneur’s perceived non-financial performance (all the benefits the entrepreneur got from his/her job apart from money). Having your customers know a bit about what you’re like, then, may encourage them to buy more from you, be more loyal, tell their friends about you, and generally drive profits up. However, the particular type of information you share about yourself beyond your personality appears to not have a consistent impact on financial performance – in other words, some things might work for one person and not for another, likely due to differences in specific types of products being sold, different personality and relationship styles, and so forth.

What personal branding actions are associated with non-financial outcomes?

 As most artists and authors will tell you, they aren’t in the creation business to make money. Sure, profits are great, but it’s the creativity, the relationships, and the sheer fun of creation that keeps them in the industry. It’s worthwhile, then, to identify how personal branding actions are related to creators’ non-financial outcomes. Here, too, we find intriguing results. For a refresher on the types of personal information creators were generally found to share with customers, check out this post.

Sharing basic profile information about the entrepreneur and who they’re trying to target is positively associated with the entrepreneur’s emotional satisfaction and their satisfaction with personal relationships. This is likely because expressing similarity with customers and sharing information about the self probably increases an entrepreneur’s level of feeling known and accepted by others, and also establishes the foundation upon which a relationship with customers can be built.

Sharing information about one’s craftsmanship is associated with an entrepreneur’s levels of overall non-financial performance, emotional satisfaction, sense of personal fulfillment with their business, and their sense of accomplishment. Similarly, sharing about the unique value that an entrepreneur adds to their products is positively associated with their emotional satisfaction, level of personal fulfillment, and sense of accomplishment. This makes sense: focusing on one’s skill, ideas, the process of creation, and one’s own individual quirks and the meaning of one’s products helps the entrepreneur recognize their own value and feel proud of all that they have accomplished. However, emphasizing this information is not associated with better relationships with customers – it is possible that sharing this information establishes the entrepreneur as the expert and the customer as the non-expert, which could lead to respect and admiration by customers, but not to shared experiences and relationship building.

Sharing advice with others who are less established in one’s field is, somewhat surprisingly, not related to performance, emotional satisfaction, or a sense of accomplishment. It does, however, have a strong positive correlation with the entrepreneur’s satisfaction with their personal relationships. If establishing relationships with people through your business is what you desire, then, being a willing and eager mentor might help you reach that goal. If you’re perfectly fine finding your personal relationships outside of your job, however, then setting yourself up as a mentor and guru might not help you gain the other benefits that you might like (including emotional satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment).

Overall, sharing different types of personal information does seem to be related to entrepreneurial outcomes. Sharing about the hard work you have done, your process, ideas, motivations, and unique contributions may have beneficial emotional outcomes in addition to telling your readers things that they want to know. Sharing advice with others and telling them a bit about yourself (where you’re from, what your values are, etc.) appears to help you build relationships with customers or other authors. Making sure your personality comes through in your marketing does seem to be associated with increased financial outcomes.

Correlation, however, does not imply causation. There are many successful authors who follow different types of marketing and branding strategies, and many unsuccessful authors who have copied them to no avail. I hope these findings are useful for giving you ideas of things you might try and new ways to think about the important and still underexplored area of personal branding for authors.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A very happy Thanksgiving weekend to all of you! I hope that you are able to take some time this weekend to sit and read a good book; stories are one of the things I am consistently grateful for each year, and this year is no exception. Other things (non-exhaustive) I am grateful for are friends and family who put up with my odd fascination with the world-building aspects of fiction, and the fact that I will soon be done with my PhD coursework and will hopefully have time to do more fiction writing!

With that, I am off to eat some more leftover turkey. Gobble gobble! (Imagine a world populated by turkeys…what would Thanksgiving dinner consist of?) Have a great week!

Personal Branding for Authors: Part IX

Last week’s post covered the five main types of personal information that authors chose to share about themselves: their personal profile, their qualifications, craftsmanship information, unique value they added to their books, and unique aspects that differentiated them from others. There are three more things that authors tend to share about themselves that don’t fit with any other types of information. In other words, these three are important enough and different enough to stand by themselves. What are they?

First: Giving Advice to Others

Whatever their personal brand is, and whatever other types of information authors share about themselves, it is unrelated to whether or not they help other people who are less far along in the field. This is good to know! On the receiving end, you can know that you likely won’t tend to receive help and advice disproportionately from authors who have one personal branding style than those who have another. Of course, the type of advice you might receive – or give, if you’re farther in your career – will likely be different based on the type of brand you have. People who are more open about themselves and their lives might give advice that encourages other authors to connect with their readers in personal ways, to create valuable relationships, and to always be authentic with their readers. People who focus more on craftsmanship might focus the advice they give to other authors to the realm of nuts and bolts of writing, editing, and publishing a book.

In short, just because a person has a particular type of brand doesn’t mean that they’re more or less likely to be willing to help you out. On the flip side, if you have a particular image you’re going for, you don’t need to feel like you have to offer the same kind of advice or help to others as people do who have entirely different brand images. Figure out what makes most sense with the image you’re trying to portray!

Second: Showing Passion for Your Work

Passion has long been known to be a key defining element for entrepreneurs, artists, authors, and others who pursue a vision. Whatever people’s personality, whatever brand image they have, people are just as likely to show passion for what they’re doing. Why would it matter whether someone is passionate about their work? Well, for one thing, passion gives us cultural permission to talk about our work. It’s expected that people will talk about the things they’re excited and passionate about, so if you’re passionate about writing, about creating worlds, about crafting dialogue, or about making people laugh until they cry, you can talk about how you work to do that in your books and people will be willing to listen to you without feeling like you’re giving them a sales pitch.

Another benefit of expressing passion is that it gives people a reason to trust us with their time and hard-earned money. If someone is passionate about the work they do, they aren’t likely to be trying to trick us. If someone is just doing a job to make money, we question the quality of their work. We anticipate that they’d try to cut corners, or that their work isn’t really better than anyone else’s. In contrast, creator passion is hard-wired into our brain as a heuristic of quality and trust. We like people who are passionate about their work. We trust them to do a good job – more than we should, actually. (There are many passionate authors who are not highly skilled and as a result, end up with disappointed readers.) But when you are of high quality, people expect you to be passionate about your work as an indicator of that quality. If you aren’t passionate about what you do, no one else will be. So don’t be ashamed of what you do – go out and be excited, and your excitement will encourage other people to take you seriously and check out your work!

Third: Expressing Your Personality

Interestingly, authors’ perceptions of how much their customers know about their personality was not influenced by other types of information that authors shared with customers. Personality, it seems, is different from the brand image you portray, from the qualifications you have, from the advice you give, the causes you support, and what sets you apart from others in your field. Personality is unique, and can be treated as such. As an author, you can decide how much to share about yourself separately from whether or not to let people know what you’re like as a person. It’s actually easier to express personality than it is to tell people more specific things about you or to build a focused brand – just talk with your customers for a few minutes, share a few updates on social media, or write an “about me” paragraph for your website, and your personality has the chance to come through. It doesn’t have to. Some people choose to be strictly professional online, and to not let readers know what they’re really like. That’s okay too. But whatever you choose, whether or not you display your personality doesn’t have to be linked to the type of brand image you display.

As you build your brand, think about these three factors that are independent of other types of information you might choose to reveal about yourself. How much do you want your readers to know about your personality? What, specifically, are you passionate about? Do you want to be known as someone who gives back to the community and helps others? If so, how do you want to incorporate that into your brand? Leave a comment below with your thoughts and experiences!

Personal Branding for Authors: Part VIII

As an author, building a personal brand requires that you share some information about yourself with your potential readers. In previous weeks, we’ve discussed the types of personal brands that can be built and the motivations for building a personal brand. But whatever your motivations and goals are, the fact of the matter is that you need to actually get out there and tell people information about yourself if you’re going to establish a clear image of yourself as an author. Different authors, of course, have different types of information that they are willing to share about themselves, and different facets of their lives that they want to keep private. After interviewing a number of authors, we found over twenty-five different categories of things that they could share about their lives with customers. Using statistics,* however, we found that this personal information could be categorized into five different dimensions of how authors and other creative entrepreneurs tended to share information. Authors could share any or none of the information detailed below, but the people who tended to share one specific thing in a dimension also were more likely to share the other type of information in that dimension.

So what are those dimensions? Let’s take a look.

Dimension 1: Basic profile and customer targeting.

Most people built their personal brand on being friendly and emphasizing ways in which they are similar to their customer base. This could be general similarity (e.g. lovers of fantasy, mothers) or more specific similarity (e.g. religion, profession, hobby). These individuals also tend to act, look, and talk in a specific way that represents their goods and services, talk to customers about their values and principles that are non-controversial, and tell their readers about inspirations for their books.

This is all pretty basic. Some people just stop here. Some people, however, add other information about themselves in the following ways:

Dimension 2: Non-work related information.

This smaller subset of individuals views their personal brand as a platform for sharing themselves and their beliefs, even if it drives some people away. These people like to raise readers’ awareness about important issues, tell people about the causes they support or donate to, mention the struggles or hard things going on in their own lives, reveal beliefs that may be controversial, and talk about their hobbies, family, and personal interests that don’t relate to the books they sell.

Dimension 3: Craftsmanship.

 Many authors reveal to their audiences the process behind their writing. In this dimension, authors choose to share the amount of time it takes to write their books, the skillset it takes to be a writer, the training they have had (apart from actually being a writer) that makes them good at what they do, and the actual process by which they write books. Authors who choose to share this dimension of information pull the curtain back on the writing process, so to speak, and give their readers a detailed look into the mechanics of how they create worlds and bring them to life.

Dimension 4: Author’s Added Value.

Authors who share this dimension of information talk about how their unique quirks, beliefs, and feelings make them and their books different. Their brand may focus on emphasizing their unusual interests or personal characteristics that make them different from other writers, showing how their personal beliefs, opinions, and emotions are seen in their books, and explaining how their books stem from who they are and their background. For instance, while you don’t need to know anything about sociology to understand or enjoy my novel The Quest of the Unaligned, the fact that I was a sociology major in college and wrote it to examine how different sociological theories would work in practice sets the book apart from other fantasy quest stories you might find in a bookstore.

Dimension 5: Qualifications.

Interestingly, choosing to emphasize your experience as a writer and how well-trained you are in your field is its own dimension, and not part of the basic demographic dimension above. This may be because some writers don’t have any official training that they can talk about, whereas everyone can talk about how they relate to their customers. Writers who do have experience and training, however, tend to mention this as part of their brand. It is worth noting, however, that having qualifications doesn’t give you a strong brand on its own. People want to know both that you’re good at what you do, AND that you’re the kind of person that they want to buy a book from.

In addition to these five dimensions, there were three other things that people tended to share that didn’t fit with any other pieces of personal information. We’ll talk about those next week, so stay tuned. In the meantime, however, reflect on the type of personal information you choose to share with your customers. Which dimensions most reflect your personal brand? Why have you chosen to share those dimensions in particular and not others? Comment below!



*Exploratory factor analysis (principal components analysis) of 26 items resulted in eight factors, three of which had only one factor loading at the .5 level or greater. The remaining five are discussed above.

Personal Branding for Authors: Part VII

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been discussing authors’ motivations for incorporating personal information into their brand, or the way in which they present themselves to potential customers. Why would authors share different types of information about themselves with readers, and what types of information do they share? We’ve talked about authors who build a person-focused personal brand, a product-focused personal brand, and three of the four motivations for sharing personal information: establishing competence, building trust, and adding product value. The last motivation that authors have for sharing personal information with customers is differentiating themselves from competitors.

Differentiating Yourself Through Sharing Personal Information

If you are writing and selling books, your competitors are all other writers that your target market (potential readers) might choose to buy books from instead. We all know that there are thousands of people every year who write and self-publish their work. There are hundreds more who are published by traditional publishing houses and have professional marketing help to promote their works to the public. All of them want people to read their books, just like you want people to read yours. So even if you’ve written the best book of the year, how likely is it that readers who would like your book will pay attention to you long enough to give your book a shot? That depends on how much you stand out from all the other writers in your space.

So how do you stand out? One way is through sharing personal information. No one else has your unique story and background. No one else has your unique set of interests, quirks, and personality traits. If you flip through the author pages of ten different fantasy authors, you might read that some of them are married, some have a dog or a cat, and so forth. But then let’s say you read about an author who lives on a house-boat and writes books while sailing across the Pacific Ocean. Huh. That’s different. That catches your attention.

And that’s the point. Catching a reader’s attention is the first step to their stopping to actually read about the books you’ve written. Many authors, then, try to use their unique life story information to stop browsing readers in their tracks – or just to stand out in the reader’s mind if they’re trying to find you again in the future. “I read this fantastic book by a small-press author,” a reader might muse a year after reading your book. “I don’t remember exactly what the title was, but I remember that the author was a retired police officer who is a prize-winning rose gardener.” With that information, your reader can likely look you up and find out what else you’ve written.

Similarly, unique or specialized information about you can make you uniquely attractive to a specific market segment. For instance, pastors’ wives can uniquely reach other pastors’ wives with books that are relevant to their unique struggles. Career military who are also writers can more easily sell their books to other people in the service, because they come from a similar background and seem like family. For me personally, my background as a homeschooled student from K-12 has helped differentiate me to the homeschool community from the other myriad of fantasy novelists in America, and has led to offers of speaking engagements and more sales of my book than I would have had otherwise.

How are you different from other people who write your genre? What unique life experiences have you had that don’t really impact the quality of your book, but might make you stand out to customers? What groups are you a part of that you could speak to about your experiences as an author, or what types of people might uniquely resonate with your unique background and point of view? The answers to these questions might help you identify parts of your story that would be useful to share as part of your personal brand.

Savvy Saturday: How to Scare an Author

This past week, the Internet has been full of blog posts on how to make cute costumes, decorate your yard to look like you’re under attack by zombies, and give children nightmares that can only be offset by a Halloween candy sugar rush. But these posts are tame for writers. When you spend your free time plotting how, exactly, Dr. Evil wants to take over the world for the fifteenth time, or what, precisely, would make Greg the Good be willing to sacrifice himself and everything he has worked for, you approach ghost stories in a very different way than the rest of the world does. “No, no, no,” you find yourself saying. “That werewolf’s motivations aren’t internally consistent with his history and expressed desires!” and, “Ooh, I know! Let’s split the party now! That’s a great way of increasing tension and ratcheting up suspense! Let me guess – the team that is super confident that nothing’s going to happen is the first one that gets killed, thus giving the audience a sense of poetic justice and irony, while also raising the stakes for our more likeable and intelligent protagonist who will figure out what’s happening just in the nick of time!”


So instead, if you’re friends with a writer and want to scare them this Halloween, try springing these five literary horrors on them. In this case, the greater their literary knowledge, skill, and writing experience, the scarier they’ll be…*

  • Dress up as the villain from their latest novel, then knock on the door and say that you don’t like the ending he or she gave you and that you have made your way to the Land of Authors to seek revenge!
  • Dress up all in blue, and when anyone asks you what you are, say, “The blue screen of death! You have encountered an unexpected error. Your computer is restarting. All unsaved work will be lost.” End with an evil laugh.
  • When you find yourself talking with the author, tell them about how the situation he or she is currently in reminds you of a story you recently read where everybody died. For bonus points, say, “Not that I’m a believer in foreshadowing or anything, but it is a little strange.”
  • Take even more advantage of the power of literary foreshadowing! Get three separate friends to each tell the author a story about a dream they had, where they were interacting with something black [a black cat, a blackbird, eating blackberries…] and suffered a funny-but-horrible tragedy. Then show up to the author’s house wearing all black and ask if the author wants to go do something fun. Mention that you had a “feeling” that you ought to wear black today.
  • Above all, when you’re talking with the author and he or she makes a suggestion, be sure to answer, “Sure! What’s the worst that could happen?”

Go ahead – have fun! What’s the worst that could happen? (Muahahahaaa…)


*Scariness not guaranteed. Potential authorial reactions include but are not limited to yelling in Elvish, activating zombie defense systems, or playing along and railroading the joke until you’re terrified that something is actually out to get YOU. Be warned.