13 August 2017

Stories from Life: Fruit Bats, Couches, and Going to Bed Early

- There is a fruit bat who decided to live right outside the door of the apartment next to ours. We know he's a fruit bat because ever single night he brings all of his fruit snacks and drops seeds and fruit gunk all over the floor of the hallway in front of the door, which is about 15 feet from ours. I'm very thankful it's not our apartment, but we walk past the mess of fruit stuff every time we need to go to the elevator. Nobody lives in the apartment next to us, so the mess doesn't get cleaned up except on the couple of days a week that the staff that cleans the apartment complex comes through to sweep and mop the hallways. Angel has taken matters into his own hands by going outside with a broom every night at 9 p.m. to shoo away the bat. We're hoping that this habitual disruption of his cozy home will make him decide to find a new home, a little further away. I might also mention that it's rather disconcerting to have to walk right past a large bat hanging on the ceiling and noisily chomping away on fruit every time I walk back to my apartment, if walking home after dark. We've had more than our fair share of bat encounters in our married life: Like this bat in our first house or this bat (btw, it cracks me up that Angel's bizarre bat video has over 6,000 views on youtube when none of the nicely edited videos I've ever made have come close).

- In July, I posted on Facebook that what I really wanted for my birthday were kitchen utensils that wouldn't fall apart every time I used them. It was one of those days when they spatula fell into pieces again and I was like, "Why exactly have I been putting up with this for so long?" My amazing sister-in-law heard my plea and bought me this set of silicone kitchen utensils. They are so cool, and they don't fall into pieces when used. And they look like a rainbow. I've never had silicone cooking utensils before this, but I think they're kind of amazing.

- Speaking of Angel, I needed to have a serious chat with him the other day that the appropriate response when the baby incites me to vomit on the living room floor (in my defense, there was absolutely no warning--I felt fine, I was simply walking across the room), is NOT to take a picture and text it to my father, of all people, who shares my utter horror and distaste for bodily fluids and medical stuff. Like, why? DON'T DO THAT. Also, #reasonswhytilefloorsareawesome

Art day with the little sisters

- We have family from the USA visiting right now--a very rare treat as visitors are an infrequent luxury--which means my two littlest sisters are sleeping at my house due to limited beds at Mom and Dad's house. This definitely has its benefits, particularly when I ask them to take out the trash on their way out in the morning. Many nights, though, we're already asleep by the time they let themselves in, so we've hardly noticed their presence. The 10 year old and 15 year old have more of a nightlife than we do, I suppose.

- For the first time in our marriage, Angel ran a race and I didn't attend. It was a "Banana Relay Race" and they literally had to run with a banana as a baton to pass off to the next runner. He ran two 4k laps at 15:50 and 16:02. His team came in 4th place in the race. I have attended all of his races in the past, but the ultra-early wake up call combined with a few hours of standing around in the heat with likely no clean bathrooms available made me feel I wasn't quite up to it this time. My family went to be his cheerleaders in my stead and I hear that my mom took on my role quite nicely, telling him that he was "too slow!" as is my tradition.

- I've decided that my next major purchase to save up for will be a comfy couch. We always talk about how wonderfully cozy our couch in the USA was--we bought it at a thrift store for $200 with wedding gift money right after we got married, and it was the best ever. Our couch in China was horrible beyond belief: vinyl that was ripping apart at most seams, and if you sat down you sank so low you were practically sitting on the floor. We bought a very inexpensive couch (about $100) when we first moved to Malaysia, and it serves a good purpose for living room seating, but it's too short to stretch out on and it's so firm that it could never really be considered "cozy". My plan is to keep this couch, but save up and hopefully for Christmas get the sort of couch that we always fondly reminisce over, a truly comfy couch perfect for napping. We could do with a bit of additional seating in our home, anyway.

What's going on with you?
06 August 2017

Self-Publishing My Book: The Road to the First 100 Sales

Bloggers are always publishing books, it would seem. It's an understandable, natural progression of sorts. Through blogging, you gradually become more comfortable with your writer's voice, and you move on to a project larger than a blog post.

Problem is, a book is a whole LOT scarier than a blog post. Independent publishing these days is easier than it ever has been before--but publishing a book still requires the sort of time and money that a simple blog post will never require.

So, when you are weighing just how much you want to write a book and see it actually published, you're going to ask yourself at some point: "Will it be worth it?"

I've seen many books and ebooks published by various bloggers over my years in the blog world...and I've found myself wondering exactly how much are these books selling and whether the financial benefit received from the book is actually worth it.

Because I wondered this myself long before the idea for The Cactus Who Craved a Hamburger came to me, I thought I'd be transparent with what the self-publishing journey has looked like in the pre-publishing stage and in the months since publication.

Self Publishing My Book: The Road to the First 100 Sales

Goal-Setting Stage

Getting a book on the market, particularly a children's book, has long been a dream of mine. I have submitted various manuscripts I've written over the years to various agents and traditional publishers, but have never yet had success. When I first drafted these cactus stories, I thought they had a lot of potential, but I also knew that they would not be a good fit for traditional publishing. To me, the very strongest asset of these stories is that they are set in a non-Western world. The number of children's books set in Southeast Asian countries in general or in Malaysia in particular is so very small. I have a passion for diversity in children's literature and although there are no humans in my book at all, the all characters are local flora and fauna, the stories clearly embrace the tropical rainforest climate of this region, and the illustrations show details of normal life in Malaysia.

I knew that from a traditional publisher's perspective, a book that includes words from Bahasa Malaysia and portrays as normal a world where monkeys and monitor lizards and cockroaches are a normal part of the neighborhood wildlife would not be relatable for the average kid living in suburban USA.

However, I believe that books that you can't relate to are how minds grow, so I decided it was worth going the self-publishing route. Somewhere, a long time ago, I read that "most self-published books don't even sell 100 copies." I have no idea if that's even true, but because that stuck in my mind for so long, my goal from the beginning was to sell at least 100 copies of the book, in order to break that imaginary milestone that "most self-published books" never reach.

Pre-Publishing Stage

I'll skim rather quickly through this stage, which for me lasted from the beginning of February, when I wrote the first draft of the cactus stories as bedtime stories for my little sister, to late April, when I released the final version of the book.

For most of this time period, the book was on my mind every day. It started with drafting and redrafting (Fun fact: many of the characters did not end up keeping their original names, but Ty's name has remained the same from the beginning!). I tested the stories on the kids I am with on a regular basis. I changed elements and figured out when my language was confusing and adapted various parts of the tales.

From there I moved to illustrating, which included a long learning curve for me as I'd never used a drawing tablet or digital art software before. This step including a good bit of Googling for "How do I...". I already knew about CreateSpace and generally how to go about using them to publish a book, so I did research to check and confirm page size and DPI requirements before I began making digital illustrations.

Once I had collected all of the illustrations, I set out to format the book using Adobe InDesign. Yet another bit of software I had no experience with, so this also required Googling to find out how to make my book look the way I wanted it to. Once the book looked generally problem-free and I had designed the cover art, I saved both files as PDF, and began the editorial process, looking out for plot points that didn't make sense or dialogue that didn't seem natural. At this point I had my mom and sisters read through the book on their own to see what changes they might make, what confused then, or whether they could find any errors.

Once things looked pretty good, I uploaded a copy to CreateSpace so I could begin the process for ordering the proof. The proof arrived at my USA address and my sisters there got their very first chance to read the book and give me feedback. My grandpa read it and spotted another two typos so it was back to Adobe InDesign to fix those typos and scour the document for more--a missing comma here, an extra space between a word and a period there. Fun!

There were times when I felt my eyes couldn't take the proofreading anymore. Finally, my team and I declared the book "finished" and I released the book for sale and started writing announcement posts for the blog. At this point, I had still never seen the book in person--Amazon doesn't ship to Malaysia--so I was completely trusting my family in the USA who said the colors looked great and we were ready to go.

Marketing Stage

This is admittedly where I am weakest. As the typical artist temperament--I like to create. I don't so much enjoy the process of convincing people that what I have created is worthwhile. The biggest truth I've learned so far about marketing is at the very least, make sure people have a chance to find out that your book exists. You can't control how they'll respond, if they'll buy it or if they'll enjoy what you wrote, but you can at least let them know that the book exists. And you may just be surprised at how many people are interested in hearing more and in buying your book for themselves, and even a spare copy for a grandchild or a friend's kid who has a birthday coming up.

I have covered the basics of marketing: I posted on the blog about the book. I created a video on our Youtube channel telling the story behind the book. I made a static page about the book that's linked in my blog header so that the book info doesn't get buried by blog content (btw, you should probably read that page, I think it's pretty funny if I do say so myself. I created and used a hashtag on instagram: #WhereIsTyTheCactus

{My sister created this t-shirt inspired by the book}

In real life, I've taken the simple route of just talking about the book. Sharing this exciting new thing in my life--the fact that I wrote, illustrated, and published a book for children--with friends and family members. Not everybody is on social media, so you can't just assume  that because you posted an announcement on Facebook that your friends and family know.

I could definitely take it further with marketing, but I'm slowly feeling my way along in this area. If you have any advice or recommendations, I'm all ears!

I will be honest with you: I am fairly certain that nobody who has no connection to me at all has bought my book. That's still a dream, and it's a dream that's not going to happen unless some of the book owners decide to leave reviews on Amazon. Yes, complete strangers have bought the book--but those are strangers just in the sense that they've never actually met me. Strangers as in people who read my blog (Thank you!!!!) and people just removed from me by a degree or so, friends of people who know me who mentioned my book to them.

Reviews are the hardest thing to get, apparently--my book still has 0 reviews on Amazon in spite of sales that surpassed my initial goal. So I will ask, for those of you who own my book and have read it, please, if you wouldn't mind, I would so appreciate if you'd take a few minutes to write down what you thought of The Cactus Who Craved a Hamburger on Amazon! I have appreciated it so much when various people have written to me to say, "Hey, your book just arrived in the mail and I sat down and read it to my daughter!"

And for the very curious, as of today, current total sales for my book are: 107

On to the next 100!

Is it worth it?

For me, it was worth creating this book from before it was even published. From a financial standpoint, I surpassed the break-even point--this was because the only real cost involved in creating the book for me was the cost of the $80 Wacom drawing tablet. It's pretty obvious to you all that with a couple dollars of royalty from each copy (the author's portion, left after printing costs and Amazon's cut) multiplied by per-hour wage on this book is quite dismal. You're going to need to sell far more than 100 books in order to make a book a financially advantageous investment of time.

But as you can imagine, because of that typical artistic temperament...I don't think of the worth of the book as solely limited to finances alone, although they certainly matter. I got to write a book! That parents in multiple countries have now gotten to sit down with and read to their kids! More kids are learning that Malaysia exists (when I was the age of the target reader of this book, I didn't know Malaysia existed or anything about it) and are learning about my favorite of all Malaysian critters--the everpresent cicak! I met my goal of 100 sales, and I did it within two months of publication! For me, that sounds like a pretty good start, and I'm glad I took the scary risk of creating The Cactus Who Craved a Hamburger.

What dream could you take steps toward today?
28 July 2017

About the Baby

If  you're wondering "What baby?"

It's this one:

Due beginning of March 2018

On June 24, we bought a pregnancy test while we were out doing errands. When I say "we," I really mean "Angel," because in this family there is one person who always purchases anything awkward. It's him.

Angel dropped me off at home but had another errand to do. He knew I'd most likely take the test while he was gone because patience isn't really something I do.

When the test flashed "Pregnant" I fell to my knees, crying, praying, and thanking God. And then I lay on the bed in a sort of state of frozen shock until I heard Angel come in the house and I turned on the camera, which is conveniently stored in my dresser.

 A few minutes after Angel found out.
Obviously nothing to see at 4 weeks...

None of my family was in town at the time. But after getting over the initial shock and tears Angel simply had to tell somebody right away, so he got his parents on Skype in spite of the fact that it was pretty late at night, and then Skyped his brother and sister-in-law.

We toyed with the idea of waiting till Mom and my sisters came home two weeks later and greeting her at the airport with the news...but didn't end up doing that. Instead, we waited till my dad came home about 6 days later to tell him in person, and then skyped my mom and sisters the next day since we were pretty sure Dad couldn't keep a secret from Mom, and then I texted a photo of the onesie along with the line, "Hey, look, I got something cute in America!" to my other sister and my cousin/sister. Mom said she'd tell all the grandparents and aunts and uncles.

I thought that the onesie announcement was really obvious but apparently it wasn't because most of the people seemed to respond with, "Oh, that's cute!" and just accept that we would buy a Calvin College onesie randomly for no specific reason. Which, in all honesty, is what we did. I've always loved wearing Calvin t-shirts and while we were in town we decided that, in faith, we'd buy some Calvin gear for our future baby. We didn't buy newborn size because they grow out of those too quickly, so I picked one sized at 6 months. Even in a "faith" purchase, my practical streak sticks out.

The weeks since have been a haze of sleeping, eating, and vomiting. And feeling so very, very happy I would dance if I had the energy. Angel says he finds life more peaceful now that his usual whirlwind of energy is to be found in bed more often than not. He's stepped it up with housework, and I'm very thankful! In a way, I tend to feel like I feel "normal" and I'm not having all that much pregnancy symptoms, but it's only when I look back and realize, oh yeah, I didn't previously sleep for hours in the middle of the day, or avoid leaving my house because I never know when I'll randomly be hit with nausea. I skipped church for the first couple weeks and on my first week back, about 5 people stopped me to ask if I was okay/what was wrong with me so clearly I'm not pulling off the "I feel totally normal" look as well as I think I am. I'm on some additional prescriptions which may be amping up the pregnancy side effects a bit, but I'm sure not complaining! I think this is so fun and I absolutely love being pregnant.

I amuse myself by making up mental lists of all the things that have made me throw up or feel like throwing up in recent weeks. Lists including: Taking a shower, my hair touching my neck, a shirt or blanket touching my neck, an open trash can lid, any food with a "mushy" texture, my neighbors cooking smelly foods, getting too hot, being too tired, being too hungry, brushing my teeth, swallowing my pills, tacos, etc. I find this all rather funny, but even more so, my family finds it extraordinarily hilarious. Particularly my baby sisters.

"Crispy" or "Crunchy" "fresh-tasting" food is my life saver--this baby mostly wants to eat green apples, oranges, cucumbers, and potato chips. Nice balanced diet, huh? Hopefully the fruits and veggies are enough to cancel out the effects of the potato chips...And you don't want to be Angel if we run out of all of those at once. I've also been really, really, really wanting Skinny Pop White Cheddar Popcorn, a delectable snack I was introduced to on my recent visit to America but of course. It doesn't exist here. My baby sister bought me a toaster for my birthday because we haven't had one in three years, and she thinks I'll want to eat a lot of toast while pregnant.

This is so fun. I am enjoying pregnancy immensely even if I have developed a strong dislike for riding in cars. I want to ban speedbumps from the world. I love talking about the baby with Angel. I'm so grateful God gave us another tiny baby to love and cherish. We know that nobody knows what the future brings and we certainly don't know what this baby's future holds--but we're already in awe that we actually got to see our baby AND the tiny heartbeat on the second ultrasound this morning. We've known about this little one for 35 days so far. 5 whole weeks of waking up with this joy. Wow. We appreciate all of you who have been praying for us and our little one so very much--thanks be to God for such a good gift!
19 July 2017

Visiting a WWII Ship in Michigan - USS LST 393

While in Michigan, we planned to visit our cousin Shannon--who used to live in Malaysia and has gone on a number of adventures throughout SE Asia with us, like when we got to visit the coolest deserted island ever. She's in college now and we planned a day to visit her and explore a bit of the city she lives in. We wanted to do some sightseeing and she recommended the USS LST-393.

We didn't know much at all about what the LST 393 was before going, all I knew was that it was a ship and I never say no to a ship, but if anything, this piece of American history highly exceeded our expectations. I strongly recommend taking a few hours to visit this ship  and learn more about its role during the War.

The LST 393 in Muskegon, MI, is fascinating part of our nation's history.

We arrived at the ship and were welcomed in by a veteran who was staffing the front desk. The first thing he said when we all walked in was, "You all must be students, right?" and 3 of the girls were, but Angel and I insisted repeatedly that we weren't students. When he said, "Are you sure, you don't go to school at all?" I answered, "Actually, we're the opposite of students--we're teachers." And then he still insisted on giving us the student price because he said he knows teachers don't get paid what they ought. He was so sweet, and after giving us all discounted admission, he explained to us what type of ship the LST 393 was, how many boats were built in this model, what their roles were in the war, and how many still exist in the present time.

More than 1,000 LSTs or Landing Ship Tanks were built to be used during WWII. Their flat-bottomed design allowed them to sail right up to shore and deliver armored vehicles or troops that could roll or walk right off the ship onto the beach.

The LST 393 was only restored and opened for public touring a few years ago, and now the main chamber in the center of the ship contains a great deal of wartime artifacts and informational exhibits about various aspects of the War.

Then you could take ladders up and down to explore all the various parts of the ship. This was really our favorite part--it made the ship touring experience particularly amazing as we were allowed to go inside the engine room, and to visit the galley, and the quarters for everyone from the captain to officers to those who slept in rows of cots slung one above the other.

I got really excited when I found out we could go and "steer" the ship. The ship is so large that Anna, Lizzy, and I lost Angel and Shannon for about a half hour since they decided to go explore the engine room while we were exploring the top deck.

We stayed on the ship right up until closing time at 5 o'clock--don't underestimate the amount of time you might want to spend here! We arrived at 3 and thought 2 hours would be plenty, but we could have easily stayed longer if we wanted to read more of the information.

There's something very thought provoking about walking the decks of a ship that served in a war that so shaped the history of our world--to think about the men who lived and worked on that ship and where they went and how their lives were different after the war. I highly recommend touring this ship to anyone who's in the area, it's well-worth the ticket price, even if you're not a student. Granted, I am the sort of person who's simply prone to really love any sort of educational experience or historical location, but this is exactly the sort of place you ought to visit and take your kids.

You may notice from the pictures that we all seem to be excessively well-dressed for an outing that involves climbing ladders and touring greasy engine rooms. The fact is, we were going swing dancing together later that evening, and had dressed with that event in mind. My dress wasn't really the best choice for greasy engine rooms...what we did notice was that the ship was actually hosting a swing dance on its upper deck on June 2nd, and we all wished we could have attended, only there was someone getting married on June 3rd so were a little too busy to drive across the state for a dance, even if that dance were on the deck of this amazing ship...

Do you enjoy learning about history? What is the coolest historical site you've ever visited?
04 July 2017

Fun with Family in the USA

I've been writing about various destinations we visited during our trip to the USA, but I feel it's time to underscore the fact that on this particular trip, destinations weren't really the point. They were a great part of the trip, to be sure, and lots of fun, but the point of the trip was


And, when you're lucky like we are, family who are also your best friends.

So, other than visiting cool destinations, our visit included:

Pulling a prank during a wedding rehearsal.

Posing exuberantly near lighthouses while Angel looks on skeptically.

Sister selfies at Chinese restaurants while Angel tries to photobomb.

Getting my photo taken "with" Red Green since I got so excited when he suddenly showed up on TV!

Grilling 15 lbs. of carne asada for tacos.


Lots of arm wrestling.

Cousins who really love each other.

Excessive amounts of arm wrestling.

Swing dancing, whenever we could fit it in.

Decorating my sister's car for the honeymoon. We put about 5 giant bags of wrapped candy all over the car, we figured they'd need honeymoon snacks to keep their energy up for the long drive to Arizona. Decorating wedding cars is a long-standing tradition in my family, but this was the first car that my generation, a whole contingent of cousins, got to decorate. 

Seeing my grandparents--these are the grandparents I lived with when I was in college--they were actually the first of the family to meet this friend named Angel who sometimes randomly came to visit during freshman year. Surprisingly, my friend named Angel who came over was not a girl. We visited my other grandparents too, but I didn't get a picture with both of them, unfortunately. It's surprisingly hard to get ALL the pictures you want!

As a family, laughing at Angel for ordering a hamburger at a restaurant famous for CHICKEN.

This video is a mixture of moments with our family...all of which seem
There are so many more precious moments with family that went unpictured:

-Angel and his brothers sitting around telling stories for an evening of all the fights they got into as kids and attempting stabbings and the like. (stabbings?!)

- Playing with my nephew, and we discovered that if he learned anything about his Aunt Rachel, it's that she says "Gentle" a lot. :P I'm from a family of girls, haha, there wasn't much rough-housing when I was growing up!

-Shopping trips at Kohl's with Mom and the sisters where we celebrated finding super-good deals on ultra-clearance prices.

-Early Sunday morning, after the wedding, about 20 family members from 3 generations sprawled all over the living room, half still in jammies, giggling over all sorts of stories of past pranks and shenanigans.

-Meeting Angel's former coworkers, one of whom told me, "We really, really miss him. You know, when some coworkers leave, you kind of...close the door behind them. But when others leave, there's something special missing that can never be replaced."

What fun have you had with your family lately?