Monday, July 21, 2014

A Day in Dublin

A few weeks ago my friends and I went on a fun adventure across the pond, our very own British Invasion! Our first stop (and my favorite) was in Ireland. We only planned four days there, but I so wish we had done more! I've already got ideas for my next trip...

We set up home base in Dublin at the Staycity Serviced Apartments - Christchurch, and I highly recommend it! So nice to have our own apartment instead of a small hotel room, but still have a front desk to bother with questions. We had booked a one bedroom flat, but somehow got upgraded to a two bedroom corner apartment on the top floor with a huge living/dining room.

 Plus, great views. This is what I went to bed to every night (note, it's 10:30pm in this picture. I don't think the sun ever really goes down. It was light whenever I was awake):

If you book with them, just know that while this is how most sites show the building (side note: that top row of windows is our flat):

this is where you enter, and where a taxi will drop you off:

Even though we were exhausted and unrested after our red eye flight, after we settled in a bit we went out exploring! This was our only day without a planned tour, so we wanted to see as much of Dublin as we could in a day. One of the great things about the Staycity location was that it was a 15-20 minute walk to just about every major tourist attraction in the city! And true to it's name, Christchurch is right next door to the building. 

So we headed out towards Trinity College. On our way, we just happened to walk by a freakin castle. I mean, in how many cities can you be walking down the street, and just accidentally go by a castle from the 1700s?

Once we made it to Trinity College, we decided to spend time exploring everything Dublin has to offer, rather than spend money to take a tour to see the Book of Kells (it's on the list for next time). But we did take a little stroll around the grounds. It was a gorgeous day.

After getting cornered on Grafton Street by a super-friendly guy trying to sell us Japanese Horoscope Scratchers for kids of addicts, we took a little break to walk through the serene St. Stephen's Green, an oasis in the middle of the city. In the midst of all this greenery we learned something unexpected: there are palm trees in Ireland!

After a visit to the library, we grabbed lunch from the PeacockGreen Christchurch.

PeacockGreen was one of our favorite places to grab a bite or some tea/coffee. Cute little place, great atmosphere, and it smelled delicious! I think our only complaint is that they didn't open til 7:30am, so we couldn't stop on our way to our day tours!

After a little rest at the flat, our next goal was to find the Stiletto in the Ghetto. It's real name is The Spire, but from what I understand, most Dubliners hate it. The government spent millions of euros to build this giant 120-meter-tall monument to nothing, so locals have all sorts of colorful names for it. The Stiletto is the one we liked the most.

We wandered around a bit more, seeing the sites on and around O'Connell Street.

We took a stroll over the Ha'penny Bridge on our way home, which wasn't as exciting as I expected it to be. Just a sort-of-cool bridge jam packed with people.

We ended our day with some delicious take away from Umi Falafel

and some Irish gameshows on the TV, resting up for our tour the next morning. It was a long, busy day, but it was a pretty good first day in Ireland!

Have you been to Dublin? What was your favorite thing?

Disclaimer: I am not cool enough to have affiliate links or sponsors (at least not yet). All opinions are strictly my own, and all links are shared because I think they're awesome. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

BookCon 2014 Recap

The last weekend in May found me on a day trip to NYC for the greatest event in bibliophile history: the first-ever BookCon! I heard about this through a friend of a friend on Facebook and had to go. So I recruited some friends, and off we went! It was held at the Javits Center, home of this gorgeous entry:

Oh my gosh...I'm at BookCon!!!! My people!

So what is BookCon? A full day of book-lovers and authors hanging out, talking about books, with free books and book-related paraphernalia. Also? Famous people. Going into this, there were two people I had to meet. The first? The Dread Pirate Roberts himself, Mr. Cary Elwes! Sadly, our bus was running behind, so we were too late to get in line. I was so bummed that I had to settle for a few quick photos (including this awesome one) as I walked by:

 BUT, he decided to stay longer, and they reopened the line just as I was walking by. I hopped in line and was meeting Westley in a matter of minutes. Because of the demand, we weren't allowed to take photos with him, but I snapped this one while he was talking to the person in front of me (complete with epic photobomb), and this selfie as I walked away.

He was so nice! He apologized for having allergies and being sniffly. As I was wandering down an aisle, I spied a book called "Fun with Kirk and Spock" and figured that would be a great gift for my brother who couldn't make it to BookCon due to a really bad sciatica flare up. The author, Robb Pearlman, signed it "Get to the sick bay!" when I told him who it was for.

By the way, BookCon had some GREAT lighting for photos! You may remember I said there were two celebrities I wanted to meet at BookCon. The second? TOPANGA (aka Danielle Fishel), who was also very sweet and hasn't aged, like, at all.

BookCon was a BLAST! I came home with free books, bags, pins, pens, posters, an awesome "I Read YA" cup, and all kinds of book-related promos and stuff. It was so much fun and I can't wait to go back next year! Except, I'm going to get a hotel overnight so I don't have to miss anything!

Did you go to BookCon. What was your favorite thing?

Disney Princess Half Marathon

In February 2014 I ran my first ever half marathon...and I finished it!

If you're unfamiliar with Run Disney events, Disney organizes races of different lengths throughout the year at both US parks. The courses literally go though the parks, costumes are encouraged, and Disney characters are all over the place.

It was the middle of 2013 when I first learned about these events (particularly the WDW Princess HM) and sent it to my bestie saying we should get in shape and do it "next time". She promptly told me we were doing it this time. It basically went like this:

So, nine months before the race, I stepped on a treadmill and went for my first ever run. I've never run. I've been the adamant "I hate running" chick. But now....while I still hate the treadmill, I'm starting to like running. Sorta. It's a weird sport.

By the way, I suck at running. When I say I'm "running" what I really mean is "I'm walking fast with some bursts of running in between". My average pace is considered power walking by most tracking tools. I am getting better, though! Very slowly but surely.

Anyways, the main event starts uber early, since it needs to be over for the parks to open. We were up at 3am to get into our Princess Woody and Princess Buzz costumes (best friends....princess-themed I really need to explain our decision?) and to the bus with plenty of time to spare. Then we spent an hour or so waiting in our O corral, excited but sleepy.

Finally, it was our turn to start! As each corral starts, Disney sends the runners off with fireworks!

Then the run is on! Because we weren't used to the heat, and we both had a rough start that morning (and I was having...female issues), we ended up power walking most of the race, but still. We finished! The course for this race was more highway than I expected, but hey- it's the Disney highway! And they've got a lot of character photo-ops along the way. We didn't stop, since we were going way slower than we expected, but it was still high energy and fun! Disney runners are the greatest, most encouraging people ever!

Here, have some race selfies:

So, the course. It starts outside Epcot, onto the Disney highway heading past the race track towards Magic Kingdom. The most exciting part is when you turn a corner and realize you're on Main Street heading towards the castle. It's this burst of energy at the half point of the race that spurs you on! After running through Tomorrow Land, you come up behind the castle and there're two heralds blasting their trumpets as you run through the castle! Then you head out the back of Magic Kingdom, back on the highway, and end up at Epcot via back stage Epcot.

Just before you reach the finish line, at mile 13, there's a live gospel choir spurring you on to the end. And at the finish line? Mickey and Minnie are giving high fives. It's super exciting, and then they give you a medal, a cold towel, and a snack box!

That's what I look like after a crazy 13.1 mile expedition that I fully didn't expect to finish! At mile 3 I was certain I wouldn't finish, had a brief revival around mile 6 at the castle, then lost faith again from mile 8 on. It wasn't until around mile 12.9 that I thought I might actually make it. But I did. I still can't fully believe that I did a half marathon.

The night before we left, RunDisney announced a brand new race in DisneyLand: The Avengers Half Marathon!! Guess what we're signed up for?

Also on this trip? Other amazingness. I had dinner in the Beast's West Wing. THE WEST WING! It's forbidden, you know.

Belle had the napkins folded like roses (obviously), We got to see THE rose, and Beast was even home to meet us. Yes, I tried the grey stuff (and, yes, it was delicious).

And, to satisfy my geekiness, I had a butter beer in Hogsmeade after a terrifying broom ride around Hogwarts.

This was such a fun week! Definitely one for the memory bank! 

Have you done a RunDisney race? What did you think?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"How to Start A Riot"

I really loved this book! It made me think- stop in my tracks, reread, and chew on pieces of it. Pastor Jon takes a fresh look at the book of Acts and the lives of the early Christians, then compares it to how today's Christians are perceived. While the first Christians were known as the ones who "turned the world upside down," Storment proposes that their modern counterparts are more frequently seen as seeking to maintain the status quo. His book is a challenge to modern day Christ followers to live like Christ and stop using their faith like it's the Home Shopping Network. To realize the riot-causing power the reality of Jesus' resurrection and ascension holds, and live like we actually believe it.

Storment dives into the atmosphere of the Bible to make sense of a culture we tend to misunderstand in today's world, and presents it in an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand manner. He mixes in enough pop culture references to keep it fun (comparing key players in the early church to Tupac or Yoda? Yes, please!). My one complaints about this book is that Storment has a bad habit of writing a powerful paragraph, then throwing out this silly one liner that distracts and ruins the moment.

You should definitely pick this one up! I have a handful of favorite quotes from this book, but I'll leave you with this one that makes me (and I hope you) think: "Everywhere the early Christians went they started a riot. Everywhere I go they serve tea" (page 28).

Highly Recommended. 5/5 Stars

I received this book from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 9, 2014

How to Self-Publish Your Book to Attract Readers

[Photo Source]

I am not a publisher. I know absolutely nothing about the publishing world. These tips have nothing to do with how to find a publisher or any of that stuff. But I love to read, and I simply love books. The look, the feel, the smell. Imagining what I'll find in it's pages. So I know what I look for in a book- what makes me buy it, and go on to read it.

I've bypassed a lot of potentially good books because they were obviously self-published and unattractive. Maybe I shouldn't, but when a book is unattractive, I sometimes think less of it's content. If it doesn't fit a certain visual mold, I wonder why it wasn't good enough to get a "real" publisher. And if it wasn't good enough to attract a publisher, then why should I read it.

I know, I know! I'm not saying this is logical or fair, but it happens. And I'm not the only one who thinks like this. So how can you self-publish the book you've worked so hard to write in a way that attracts readers like me? Ashley's Five Rules of Self-Publishing.

1) Hire a Good Cover Designer
Spend some money to get a great cover. Despite the old adage, people do judge books by their cover. How else are they going to judge which of the billions of books on the planet they want to read? Create something eye-catching and interesting. Make sure any art or pictures that go on your cover are high quality. Go to a book store and look at the covers in the same genre as your book, or just the covers in the popular section. Take notes, and go forth to design your own.

2) Have Great Cover Copy
What's cover copy? It's the stuff on the back of a book that is a reader's first introduction to your book. Don't be too vague or too detailed, but tell us something! I can't stand it when I read the cover copy and have no idea what the book is actually about. Give readers a little synopsis. Feel free to put a few endorsements from other people, but don't take up too much of the cover with endorsements. Readers want to know what your book is about, not hear a bunch of praise. And please, please, don't describe your own book as awesome, or the greatest, or life-changing. It may be all those things, but you shouldn't be the one to say it. Ever.

3) Be Mindful of Font Size and Spacing
This is one you may not think about, but I definitely have. In my experience, a lot of self published books have giant print and huge margins or line spacing. This doesn't happen with big-name publishers. You want your book to be easy to read, but you don't want it to look like a children's book (unless that's what it is...then by all means, wide space it up!). I think the reason this happens so often is that self publishers don't always meet the traditional word counts, so they use a bigger font and spacing to make it seem longer. Please don't do this. Settle for a shorter book, or add more content! Similarly, don't use a weird font. Stick with the classics, which are easier to read. If you want your book to be taken seriously, make it look professional.

4) Hire a Good Editor and Proofreader
UGH! This is the most important one to me! Big-name published books get edited carefully before going to print. It's kind of a game to me to find mistakes in those books because it doesn't happen too often. But you know what game is way too easy? Finding errors in self published books. They're everywhere. It's annoying and detracts from your message. If your book is riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors, I lose some respect for you. Hire an editor and proofreader. You, as the writer, are too familiar with the book to recognize the mistakes in it. You need others to do this dirty work. It's worth the investment.

5) Give Your Book Away
You've written this book you're proud of, and now you want to get it out to the world! Yes, you want to sell it so you can make some money. But in order to get the broadest audience and generate the most attraction for your book, you need to give some copies away. Give advance copies to some book or lifestyle bloggers (whichever is a match for your genre) who can create online buzz for you before your book is even available to buy. Give away copies on your own blog or social media sites (by the way, you should have some social media pages. Which ones are up to you, but get out there!). Remember, you are unknown. Why would someone want to buy a book from someone they don't know? Your first job is to get your name and your message out there, before you start making money.

Yes, following my rules will take a little time and cost some money. But isn't it worth it to give your book the best start possible?

Are you self-publishing a book? Tell me about it in the comments! Any rules surprise you?
Are you a reader? Do you agree with my rules?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Aspiring to be Debt Free

It's been on my Bucket List for a few years to be debt free by 30, but beyond making minimum payments (which wouldn't get me there), I wasn't really doing much. Then I finally read Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover and got inspired. The updated version with all the stories of real-life people becoming debt free and wealthy (many of them younger than me!) was the push I needed to make a serious plan.

By the way, did I mention I met him once? In Times Square? At Jon Acuff's S**** Book Launch?

In March I sat down, added up my debts and faced the music: at 27-years-old I owed $25,393. That's a big number. A lot of money. No credit card debt (I've been good about using that thing wisely), but between my student loans and my brand new car, it really added up. Now I needed a great way to get rid of it.

So, I started to plan. While I know Dave Ramsey has some great advice, I don't love everything he advises. It just doesn't work for me. I also love Suze Orman, so I kinda threw their philosophies together and created my own plan that would work for me. For example, I didn't cut up my credit cards like Dave says to do. Suze says it's okay for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke to have and use credit cards as long as they do so wisely. And given that I have an irregular work schedule or sometimes only get 4 shifts a month, I like the security of back up just in case. (I also like the bonuses I get from my one store credit card. I only use it when I'm buying something anyways, and pay it off that same week). I also kept more than $1K in my emergency fund, for the same job-insecurity reason. I have one month of spending/billpay in my emergency fund.

I knew I wanted to pay off before I was 30, preferably even sooner, so I started doing some math to see how much I was really paying each year, and how soon I could get rid of all that debt. After playing with the math, I figured two years would be very doable (And it puts me debt free a year before 30!)

Before making this plan I had $50 automatically going from my checking to savings every week. I stopped that and now divert it to my Debt Snowball. According to the plan, for this year, I make all my minimum payments on each debt. I pay and $50 every week. Then I need to pay an extra $414 each month ($96/week). Based on Dave's Snowball technique, my student loan will be the first to go, so the plan is for it to be gone in one year. Then everything I'm currently paying towards that loan will "snowball" over to my car loan. I made a chart to visualize it, but it was too boring.

Now that I had my plan, I needed a way to keep myself motivated. I did the math and found that becoming debt free according to plan would take 244 payments. I started to think about making some kind of coloring page, but that didn't work like I wanted it to. So I started looking at puzzles. I found that Shutterfly makes custom puzzles of 252 pieces, and they were on sale for less than $20! So I hunted for one of my best Living-Life-to-the-Fullest pictures that represented why I want to be debt free. I settled on this one:

Once I had it in hand, I sat down with my boring chart and all the puzzle pieces and wrote $$ amounts on each piece. I went all out: minimum payments, weekly $50, extra $96, the rollover starting next year, every expected payment has a puzzle piece waiting, plus a few extra pieces. I started labeling the edge pieces with all payments for the first few months, so I can have that done quick, then just divided the rest. It was time and brain consuming, but worth it.

Now every week I make my payments and add the appropriate pieces to the puzzle, which is in a nice $3 frame from Walmart, where the glass pops out instead of the back! Now I'm only 3 months in and the puzzle is coming together. Look! I've got an eye and Kathryn's got hair! 

I also keep track of it all in my journal and take a monthly assessment of where I'm at. It's exciting to see the numbers going DOWN in a big way! I've also got the plan listed right next to the tracking page to keep it in front of me.

 So far in three months I've knocked out $1500!! That's $1050 more than making minimum payments would've gotten me!! I've also gotten into the habit of paying an even $100 instead of the $96, which is making a nice mini dent, too. Every little bit adds up! If I can keep up this pace I'll have it all paid up even before the two year goal date!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Don't Be a Stupid Emotional Idiot

Wanna know what the worst possible advice is? I guarantee someone has given it to you at some point in your life. You may have even advised someone else with this line. What is it?

"Follow your heart" 
We hear this All. The. Time. 

I've always hated this saying, even though at first glance it sounds nice. Then today, Lady Antebellum got their song Compass stuck in my head. Which makes me mad, because the only lyrics I know are "So let your heart sweetheart be your compass when you're lost and you should follow it wherever it may go" and I hate this sentiment! 

Following your heart is how you make stupid decisions. For example, if I had listened to my heart when I woke up this morning, I would have shut off my alarm and slept til 1pm. Then I would have blown off work and all responsibility, spent my bill money on a plane ticket to London, and stalked Benedict Cumberbatch until he married me. Finally, we would have a cumberbatch of adorable British babies, and hang out with all The Doctors and Martin Freeman and live happily ever after (Moffat's not allowed near us).

Obviously, my heart is not the reason I am a well-adjusted adult.

Here's the truth:
[photo source. Quotation mine.]

Sorry to break it to you, but your heart is stupid. The Bible calls it "deceitful above all things and desperately sick" (Jeremiah 17:9). It also says to "guard your heart", not to follow it (Proverbs 4:23). And why do you think David was always asking for a pure heart? Because our hearts are messed up. Left to their own devices, our hearts will lead us to short-term comfort, bad decisions, and heartache.

Yes, our hearts are important. They hold our dreams, our emotions, our passions. Ultimately, our hearts are who we are. We shouldn't completely ignore what our heart is telling us. But because the heart is the seat of our emotions and dreams, they can be fickle, which leads to stupid decisions. God knew this about us, so gave us a brain and the Holy Spirit to help make the right choices. When we add these two into the mix, we are able to wisely follow the dreams in our heart. 

For example, I am now saving and planning for a trip to London where I can "accidentally" run into Benny, and researching the UKs laws regarding stalking so I don't end up in prison. 

So do me a favor and stop saying this? Maybe say, "Follow the Spirit", or even, "Follow your dreams", but stop following your heart. Don't be a stupid emotional idiot. Be a brilliant rational boss.

What did your heart tell you today? What should we say instead of "Follow your dreams"? 

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