25 August 2017

Pregnancy Abroad: First Trimester

The second trimester looms ahead as September approaches, meanwhile, I'm over here so ecstatically overjoyed from looking at the picture from our 12/13 week ultrasound that I thought I'd write an update.

(at the beginning of 12 weeks)

Weight gain: +0. At eight weeks I was -1 lb. but at this last appointment I was back up to normal so I'm trying to tell my mom that's perfectly normal. I even specifically asked the doctor if there was any reason to be worried about my weight so that I could tell all my older family members that it'll be fine, I'll get large enough to please them soon enough. Any corroborating stories I can use as evidence that you're not really expected to gain weight in the first trimester anyways?

Belly: I can tell a difference, and my stalkers (i.e. rather intense family and friends) can tell, since my stomach has always been a completely flat plane, but I think any normal human being who didn't stare at my body to a creepy extent would just think I also look like a normal human being. It might show in pictures if I wore skin-tight clothing instead of my usual round of dresses and skirts but let's be real...if my clothes are tight I will probably throw up. My usual fashion preference for dresses with flared skirts is basically perfect. What's not so perfect is my preference for high necklines, which, let's just say, are not quite baby's style.

Food: Baby appears to take after me as a picky eater, only, in typical overdramatic fashion, takes it to the extreme. Meat of any kind is the most consistent aversion, which makes eating real food challenging. We amazingly found bagels in the frozen food area of a specialty grocery store, so I've been able to eat bagels (even got them  on a 2-for-1 sale), other than bagels my diet still is mostly comprised of fresh fruit, chips and guacamole (I attempted to make a homemade black bean salsa but the baby REALLY hated it. Everyone else in the family thought it was great), and various form of potatoes--chips, fries, and mashed. Also, I cried because someone posted a photo of Five Guys on social media. They have the best fries.

Symptoms: I feel like July and August have passed in one intensely fast blur. I suspect this is because I spent the last two months sleeping. The most adventurous Energizer battery-powered being that is myself has temporarily become a low-energy homebody who doesn't go anywhere unless needed. I've learned to prioritize energy for the most important responsibilities of each day--because if I shoot for more, I'll end up sleeping in random public locations. Two of the reasons I've stayed at home as much as possible are: 1) Bathrooms. Too many places here have utterly terrible or non-existent bathrooms, and I'd rather just throw up in my bathroom at home, thank you. I haven't been back to the grocery store after the horribly disgusting state of their bathrooms made me cry at 7 weeks. 2) Car rides. They feel like riding a roller coaster on the ocean. I blame the constant arrangement of speedbumps and potholes that this island's streets are littered with. So...I only leave the house if I need to lead some event or teach something or if there is no more food in my house. 

Doctors: Three appointments so far and three ultrasounds--the last being by far the most exciting. At the second ultrasound, the doctor and Angel saw the heartbeat, but I never did, and at this last ultrasound, they took the time to show me the heartbeat, and I was like, "No wonder I couldn't see it last time, that's not at all easy to see!" Not being a medical professional, I have no idea how these people distinguish what they see in ultrasound pictures. But I did get to see the cutest five fingers on each hand and two little feet. Baby measures at 13 weeks plus a couple days although by dates we think I'm more like at the end of 12 weeks. I have a strong aversion to doctors and hospitals, but we always schedule them for when Angel can go, and he buys me my favorite smoothie bowl after every appointment and that makes for a good reward.  The first trimester has not been without a few rocky moments--hence the three appointments and all the little extra pills I get to take, but we're so thankful for every new day with baby.

Gender: Rather too soon to know, but my entire family is convinced the baby is a boy, to the extent that they're pretty much convinced me and Angel that they are somehow in the know and the baby is,  in fact, a boy. The fact that Angel's family consists entirely of boys thus far provides further evidence for their case. Family has also attempted to nickname the baby "Churro" but I do not approve.

Preparations: I've gotten several questions recently if we've started buying things for the baby or setting up the room or various things like that. I can't help but be bewildered by such questions. My major preparation plan is to wait and hope people with older families are like, "Oh, we don't need our bouncer anymore, I don't know why I kept it in storage for so long, do you want it?" I'm rather minimalist and I know babies aren't that minimalist, but I kind of plan on making do with whatever people happen to give us and buying whatever is an actual necessity shortly before it's needed, rather than a long time before it's needed and having to store it for months in this tiny home. Also, they don't really have much in the way of sales and coupons, or thrift stores, in this country, so there's no point in looking early for budget reasons. What the baby needs now is medicine and doctor's visits, so I get those--fun fact: prenatal care and childbirth aren't covered either by the Malaysian health insurance companies we've looked at or the international health insurance we ended up getting, so you pay for your own babies. And it's my biggest privilege. One of the things I was sad about with Em was that I never got to spend my hard-earned money on her, as seems to be the right of a parent. I tell Angel with every box of pills he buys--how amazing is it that we get to buy this for our baby! What a gift!


If my joy is annoying, I offer an apology, but not an especially sincere one. I'm having so much fun. I have so loved being pregnant for all these days so far. I praise God for every symptom, because I am so in awe of this blessing and miracle. My favorite parts of pregnancy so far are daydreaming about the baby by myself as I try to nap and chatting with Angel about the baby--about anything from names to suspicions that our child may hate brushing their own teeth given how much they hate it when I brush mine.

The only thing that's been running through my mind since yesterday's good report is:
"Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!" 2 Corinthians 9:15
That verse is referencing, of course, the gift of Jesus Christ and salvation. But in my mind I secretly add another gift that hasn't impacted the world and eternity so much, but, to me, still seems rather indescribable: the gift of a baby--with a heartbeat and cute hands and feet.
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: 111 (Feb 2018)

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?