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PHOTO REVEAL: Olivia Helling

Olivia Helling author photo - square

We have something a little different today – an author photo reveal and guest post from QSFer Olivia Helling:

The 2 Reasons Why I Cosplayed in my Author Photo

Since publishing my first book in 2014, this has been my author photo:

Olivia Helling old pic

And let me tell you, it’s a spitting image of what my ego looks like. Seriously.

I kept meaning to change it. First, I thought to some kind of icon, but I could never figure out what. Then to a rainbow watercolour. Then to… well, you might be sensing a theme. None of them were me outright. I was hiding my appearance. Not for the usual reasons in gay romance, where authors have legitimate reasons for hiding their identity. I might have started out thinking that, but that’s not why.

I hid because I was subconsciously hoping no one would notice me.

That started changing in 2017. I started meeting other authors in real life and in Zoom calls. I signed up to attend GayRomLit as a supporting author, and they wanted a photo. It makes sense. If you’re going to meet people in real life, or want people to come find you, they should probably know what you look like. After that, I took the small step of changing my Facebook page avatar from Daniel Travere to me, sitting in a tree.

But that wasn’t enough. I needed a real author photo. One that I could post to Amazon Author Page, the grey box forever vanquished.

I could have settled for the usual headshot. Greenery behind me or maybe a bookshelf, a big smile plastered on my face. That works for a lot of other authors, and any photo at all would have been a step up.

But no, I had to go big. I had to go strange. I had to become a kickass warrior.

Olivia Helling

I did this photo because this is the kind of person I want to be. To be as strong as my prince protagonists, forging forward despite their anxiety and despite their flaws to save their kingdoms. To be the type of person who can yell at the world, “Here I am!”

It took me a while to figure it out this was what I wanted, and to keep it figured out. (If only real life really was like novels, where we can learn a lesson once and it sticks forever after, lest readers complain.) But my decision came down to two things: my new definition of success, and my vision word for the year.

My new definition of success: make things I’m proud of

In my first therapy session to help me handle my anxiety and depression, the therapist asked me a simple question: What is your definition of success?

It seems like an easy question to answer, going by the number of articles and blog posts written on it. According to said articles, it’s not to make money. After a certain point, money won’t buy you more happiness.

But wait. The indie authors I know and listen to all say their definition of success is to make a full-time income, so they can quit their dayjob and write all day long. That should be my dream, right?

Except I’d already quit my job three years earlier, after I published my first book. I’m one of those few lucky people who can live on my partner’s income, and my partner wanted me to quit too. So I had the full-time writing gig. So what about a full-time income? I’m a bit obsessed with the business side and marketing, and making money, but if I really cared so deeply about earning more, I would have long ago switched to a more popular niche genre than LGBT fantasy romance. Even after four years of not making anywhere close to even part-time income, I haven’t once seriously decided to make the switch.

I couldn’t answer my therapist, except with a rambling bit of “yeah, but I do like earning money on my books. I don’t think I’d be happy just writing for free. Except this, except that, and the other thing.” She assigned me homework to figure it out.

So I googled the hell out of definitions of success. Someone out there must have something that would click, right? Looking deep inside myself was out of the question. If I knew the answer, then I’d already know. When Google didn’t help, I emailed a few other authors who were in the same situation as me.

I was sort of right. The answer came from a blog post, specifically Joanna Penn’s post on all the reasons why she writes. And there was the answer, the one that clicked inside of me. The same thing that was driving me all along to keep creating, to keep improving my writing craft, to keep rewriting books that others might have just cranked out.

I want to be proud of the body of work I create.

So when it came to all my vacillating on whether to do this photo (is this stupid? Is this too much money wasted on something that won’t directly impact sales?), the question became: If I did this photo, would I be proud of it? Or would it be fine to just get a quick headshot done?

I’m not the type of person who settles for good enough, or even I’ll improve upon it later. I have to aim for 110% on the first try. It’s a virtue, and a challenge, when I don’t even know what 100% looks like.

If I did this photo, I would be so proud of it. That answer, and a whole lot of reassurance from my mastermind group and family, got me searching Etsy for costumes and Google for a photographer.

I want to SHOW myself (and stop hiding)

I think I knew that style philosophies existed in theory, and I probably still don’t fully understand it, but it wasn’t until I was doing some research for a character that it really hit me. Searching for the reasons behind femme, I stumbled upon the photography project Limitless Africans sharing African LGBT people’s personal styles and style philosophies. Not just a notion of what they liked and didn’t, but that they deliberately chose their clothing to represent them and what they believe in.

Me? I didn’t have a philosophy. Or so I thought.

At GRL, an author clued me into an essential part of author fashion. You need to wear something that stands out. You need to wear something that all your readers will take one look at and know it’s you. You need to wear something interesting so that people will come up and talk to you.

I, however, only stood out as that tall person often seen wandering around all by her lonesome.

See, my fashion philosophy so far can be wrapped up in one word: Invisible.

A timeless sort of invisible, one that doesn’t stands out as too fashionable or too badly assembled, one that doesn’t say anything about what I like or my personal identity.

Being invisible can have its advantages, but as someone at a con who wants to make friends, or an author sabotaging her own books by trying to keep them hidden, it really sucks.

But hiding ends this year

Each year, I pick three words to guide me. I learned this from Chris Brogan, and it works a lot better for me than trying to pick goals for an entire year. Those annual goals usually last me two months before my priorities shift and new opportunities spring up.

This year, one of my words is SHOW.

Show, as in show the world who I am. Show the world what’s in my head. Dress in the clothes I like. Dare Greatly. Be vulnerable. Share what I’m doing in my writerly life, show my struggles, show the things that I obsess over (in a good way).

And show the world what kind of author photo I really like.

For years, cosplayers have completely amazed me. They spend months crafting intricate costumes to go to conventions and pose for other people. They go to photoshoots and act like the character they’re dressed as.

More than that, they dress up as characters they love, that mean the world to them, that represent something close to their hearts. In public. They brave ridicule, and people telling them they don’t get their costume, and their own self-doubt. They show the world what’s in their heads.

So, I could have gone for the standard author photo with a smiling female author against bookshelves or bushes. I have nothing against that kind of photo.

But I wanted to dare greatly. I wanted to become like those cosplayers. I wanted to show that this is what I write, not petticoats and bookshelves but swords, riding boots and vambraces.

Between these two specific goals, I knew I had to create a costume as a prince, and do a photoshoot.

And you know what?

Anxiety dogged my every step, but as the photoshoot approached, my anxiety calmed. An amazingly chilly wind whipped my eyes, and I had one hour to get the right photo, and I loved it! I loved working with my photographer, and posing, and dressing up.

Between poses, we’d head back inside to warm up, and my photographer would flip through the shots on his camera, and I just gawked. Was that really me? Was I really that awesomely stoic swordsperson against that magical castle backdrop?

Yes, yes it was. The person I wanted to become.

Olivia Helling author photo - squareOlivia Helling writes the dark fantasy series GODSBANE PRINCE and the historical fantasy romance series DAMON SNOW. Although she grew up an avid book lover, she couldn’t find the LGBTQ fantasy she’d always wanted. So now she writes them herself.

With a Religion & Culture degree and a love of history, she crafts wonderfully dark worlds and malicious gods. As if that weren’t trial enough, she burdens her protagonists with her own struggles of vulnerability and self-doubt, love and obsession. But through twists and intrigue that keep readers guessing to the last page, characters and readers alike finally emerge like a light in the darkness.

Olivia loves to talk with readers, so come chat at:


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3 thoughts on “PHOTO REVEAL: Olivia Helling”

  1. What an inspiring post! Still trying to figure out my author photo. Currently, I’d like it to be a myrtle warbler, but that still doesn’t tell people what I look like. Ugh. Maybe me posing as the Angel Moroni in front of a waving Pride Flag? OMG … that might be the answer :)


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