March 13, 2011

Wish Me Luck

I have just entered a fantastic contest where the prize is writing a travel story on Turkey for the Rough Guide. Here is my tale of one of my African adventures entitled Spontaneous Events in the African Bush.

Sandwiched between two ex-747 British Airways pilots on this miniscule Cessna doesn’t reassure me as our former Rhodesian Bush War pilot, throws us into a nosedive. He swoops the plane up in time to align it mere feet above a galloping herd of dust covered elephants. Moving in unison, we become part of the thundering rhythm of this majestic tribe pounding the earth with a clear sense of purpose. Fear gives way to exhilaration as I embrace the exciting beginning to my African safari. Leaving the elephants behind, the plane teeters towards a dirt landing strip where impala gracefully make way for us as we bump along to a halt. I welcome the hot dry air that engulfs me as I firmly plant my feet on the rich red soil, glad to be reconnected to the earth.

A gregarious one-armed man with a beaming smile runs over to introduce himself as the owner of the lion sanctuary we came to visit. With genuine excitement he tells us if we hurry, we will make it to the wateringhole before dark. Speeding along in the open-air land rover, I feel a sense of freedom as Africa surrounds me, alive with intrigue, beauty, and mystery.

We arrive at the wateringhole as the sky glows orange and the trees begin to silhouette - a perfect backdrop to the gathering animals enjoying their evening ritual. We watch in awe, unaware that we are in the direct path of thirty odd elephants including an angry bull charging towards us, flapping his ears and rearing his trunk. I can’t understand why the driver isn’t whisking us out of here but instead has his head in the glove compartment. Panic sets in when I realize that the land rover has broken down and our fate has been entrusted to a piece of tin foil he is convinced will re-ignite the engine.

I can’t decide if I am more anxious about the proximity of the elephants, the emerging darkness or my pressing bladder. Thankfully, the elephants patiently walk around us and we are finally rescued 2 hours later.

The guesthouse lies across from the main lodge and is a welcome sight. As I head over to join the others for dinner, casually roaming in front of me is a prowling lioness on the loose! Only when I gather the courage to make a run for the lodge, do I realize the lioness is in fact the family dog, a huge golden lab.

The stars shine in the clear vast sky with more brilliance than I thought possible; the cool air tempered by the roaring campfire. I sink into the weathered armchair, reflecting upon the day’s adventure and the stillness of the bush. Just as I allow myself to relax, my host recounts the story of losing his arm to a lion, while in the background I hear the hippos snorting in the unknown darkness of the Zambezi River.

March 8, 2011

What's your secret, Yuki?

Yuki Hayashi
Freelance writer

Yuki's distinct writing style is witty, down to earth, conversational, intriguing and direct. I realized one day that she is my Facebook friend that is most likely to make me laugh! She has the ability to see the humour and quirkiness life presents and her experience is impressive and varied.

Yuki has had her work published in almost every Canadian lifestyle publication including Flare, Chatelaine, Fashion, Elle, Style At Home, Saturday Night, Canadian Family, the Globe & Mail and National Post. She often has the opportunity to combine her two passions, writing and traveling and has been on assignment to Tel Aviv, Honduras and the outback in the Northern Territory of Australia.

I met Yuki while we were both working at Redwood Communications in Toronto quite a few years back, maybe 10. We share a love for travel, continued learning and challenging ourselves. I admire Yuki's sense of adventure and how she exposes her 9 year old daughter Esmé to new cultures and experiences through their travels. She successfully balances her work and family life, living both to the fullest.

Can you describe the life of a freelance writer? What would a normal day be like?
It's a lot more relaxed than when I used to have to get ready to go to an office! I'm not a morning person, so working from home allows me to simplify my morning routine and just focus on getting Esmé ready for school. I can do this in jeans and crazy-lady morning hair. I don't have to worry about feeding and clothing myself for work. Sadly, we're still late for school waaaaay too often. Like I said: not a morning person. But freelancing suits my lifestyle in a profound way. It really reduces my stress level, and therefore my family's stress levels, by extension! 

Anyway, once Esmé is out the door, I take a coffee to my home office upstairs and start work. I do a mix of corporate and custom work - advertorial stuff for big companies, and also Web and magazine articles for women's and general interest publications. "Work" consists of either writing an actual story, researching via email or phone interviews, or lining up either research interviews or more work. Depending on what day of the week it is I'll work either all day or just until about 1 or 2, then head to the gym for a workout. I'm a big believer in work/life balance and I feel best if I can get to the gym 3 or 4 times per week. I'm not sure if this is a typical day for the average freelancer, but it's my routine of about 3 years and it really works for me! I love it! 

Once or twice a year, I'll take a work-related trip on my own, and if during the school year, these entail major logistical hurdles and expenses, paying for morning care and after school care til my partner gets home, etc. We also travel as a family, mostly during holidays and summer, since my partner is a teacher and has summers off.

Yuki's Workspace
As far as my office aesthetic goes, it's a space I feel supremely comfortable in. It's got amazing light, and it's all about me, not anyone else. Aside from the fact the desk has two chairs so my daughter can work sitting across from me, the design is geared to my taste and needs, no compromises with anyone else. I don't like bulletin boards, so I tape everything to the walls, I have a giant mood/inspiration board across from my desk with decor and travel photos, as well as posters, mementoes from past trips and so forth to look at. I also jot important notes on my walls (I hate how Post-its can fall off), and have lots of reminders of my favourite trips to places like Honduras, Israel, Australia and the Caribbean, including (ethically harvested, ie from the dry beach, not in the water) coral and shells. It's basically what my dream office would have been in high school. I see no need to use a filing cabinet, keep things neat and tidy etc. But I don't like it when people move things or change my office in any way - it looks messy but I know EXACTLY where everything is!

Things are designed for comfort--I sit several hours per day in a Eero Saarinen swivel Tulip armchair. It is comfy and I can sit upright, slouch or be comfortably cross legged while I work. It was a great investment. Across from me is an old stenographer's chair I found on a street corner.

How long does it take to write an average length article for a magazine?
Probably 2 to 3 weeks, if you plan ahead and pace yourself, doing preliminary research by reading up on a topic, then setting up interviews with experts and a "regular person" with experience in the topic at hand, and then finally sitting down and writing the piece once your research is complete. Then it may come back to you 1 to 3 times with follow-up questions or revision requests from the editor, which may entail simple rewrites, or contacting the source for a couple follow-up question or two. So, add another 1 week for that. So roughly 3 weeks. Sometimes editors will contact you asking for a "fast-turnaround" project with only 2 weeks notice. That's usually do-able though not ideal.

How involved are you in the editing process? Do you get final say in the wording before it goes to print?
My level of involvement has to do with the venue and whether my name is on the story or not. When it comes to advertorial, which is unbylined, I really don't care. I research and write to the best of my ability, but whatever changes the client wants are fine with me, whether I make them or the editor makes them. If it's a consumer publication and my name is on it, I will want some say in the final copy. It's a back-and-forth, collaborative process between me and the editor. An on-staff editor knows the magazine's tone and editorial goals better than I do. But at the same time, I don't want my name on something I'm embarrassed by.

Do you read every article you write once it is in print?
No. I read very few, actually. Just the ones for my top 2 consumer magazine clients, to see how the final edits look and make sure I get a handle on the tone and style they prefer. 

What was your favourite assignment and why?
I was sent to the Northern Territory of Australia for 10 days to research and write an adventure-travel feature last spring. I was given carte blanche to write whatever story felt right, which is highly unusual but then, this was for a small-circulation niche publication and I was not being paid (though, hello: getting a free trip and hiking/camping tours etc!). I was also given no word count (again: also highly unusual) so I was able to really stretch myself and bang out a 8,000 word travel feature. It didn't run exactly the way I wanted it--in fact the edits were ironically much bigger than what I'm accustomed to for my "regular" work-- but that's fine. I have my own preferred manuscript and plan to spin that out into a bigger project one day.

It was an amazing, amazing adventure. I really liked working with the freelance photographer who was also on the trip, and the guides were excellent. Australia is a gorgeous place and although it was never on my bucket list of places to visit, I am so glad I did and I'm sure I'll go back with my family one day. Tel Aviv runs a close second. Awesome, awesome trip, beautiful country!

How do you develop a writing style to distinguish yourself from other writers? Is it a reflection of the writer's personality, how they see the world, or is it more crafted than that?
 I write in a way that feels relatively natural to me for my consumer work, or as close to it as I know I can get away with. You learn to write for venues that seem to like your tone. If you get a lot of heavy-handed edits, it means your editor isn't nuts about your style. You can either suck it up, change to what they want, or stop working with them (they may make that decision easier by not contacting you anymore, ha hah! That's happened to me!). 

Different venues, and even different types of stories, allow for more or less of your style to come through. Obviously a feature about your quarter-life crisis will have more of you in it than a profile of a public figure or a how-to on buying cross-trainers. That said, I try to make my tone accessible, friendly, informed with occasional flashes of humour.

One of the biggest mistakes aspiring freelancers make is thinking it's all about you and your awesome "tone." It's not: it's about you and your amazing ability to research, research, research, present the info in an accessible format, and stay within the assigned word count... and get your copy in on time. If you're a featured columnist, it's a different story. At that point it is all about you and your fab writing style. I'm NOT that kind of marquee writer - so my writing tone isn't the focus, the story is. 

Do you write when you are not writing for work? Do you keep a journal?
No, I prefer not to write other than email and Facebook. I'm sloooooooooowly procrastinating towards a book proposal. But it's hard  because I write everyday, so I don't have a lot of motivation left afterwards!

How do you promote yourself as a writer?
Facebook is a big one. Most of my Friends are in the industry, so I keep people abreast of my travels and lifestyle projects/hobbies as it helps me brand myself as a writer. My niche is "outdoorsy, active, global-travel mom" and my FB profile and updates reflect this. I also have a blog but I don't update it that often...

I also send out an annual Christmastime greeting card. I used to send out chocolates or other swag to thank editors for assigning to me, but now I make a lump sum donation to charity (World Vision, Soi Dog Foundation, Elephant Nature Park are past beneficiaries) to thank them for their continued support of my career. I'll often also make donations to support editors I know who are running charity races and so forth. The main thing I do to promote myself is, I do a good job on the assignments I get - that's the best way to drum up repeat business!

What would your dream trip be?
I've had great luck with both planned-out trips (booking a villa on the volcano island of Montserrat, which is where my partner and I got our scuba diving open water certification; Churchill Manitoba to swim with beluga whales - that was awesome!) and work ones I had nothing to do with planning (Australia, Israel, Honduras). I feel as though I've already been on so many dream trips, both on my own and with my family! 

We're headed to Thailand soon and I'm excited about it, but I think "dream trip" wise, Central America is it for us. I'd like to return to Placencia, Belize, during the whale shark migration. They've got a good track record for appearances. I'd like to rent a beach shack, and just snorkel all day, go on a few dives too, and cook our own dinners, lazily bike around town, etc. I've never been on a trip lasting beyond one-week on the ground, so I'd love to be able to actually stay somewhere for 2 or 3 weeks and enjoy it at a really relaxed pace.

What would be your ideal way of spending a day off?
With my family, hiking in the woods or canoeing. If alone, just reading a bit, then walking to the gym for a nice, long workout and steam room session, then eating lunch at my fave downtown Indian or Ethiopian resto.

Any plans to write a novel one day?
I would like to write a travel book, but I need to find some time!

Photos from Yuki's travels - Detroit, on assignment for Readers Digest and Churchill, Manitoba

Wishing Bird by Ava

I am constantly blown away at Ava's creative mind. At 8 years old she gets the concept of doing a series where you present a strong idea with variation. Here is one of her drawings from her Wishing Bird series - a detailed, patterned, magical bird that when you look at it in the eye, grants you a wish. The beaks on the righthand side are other birds that are fanning the Wishing Bird with palms. Magic is in the air! Each bird is presented in the same composition but contains different patterns, colours and messages. We are planning a mother, daughter, grandmother art show in September at Granville Island in Vancouver where Ava's Wishing Birds will be for sale as well as on her upcoming blog which will be launched shortly.

March 1, 2011


I have started a series of paintings called Floraluna inspired by nature, the healing power of vibrant colour and symbolism. Here is the first one of the series painted on a 16"X16" block of wood with some fabric collage. The fabric on the bottom left corner is my own painted pattern which I printed onto cotton at Spoonflower. Each of the four sides of the canvas are painted in a different solid bright colour. Floraluna 2 coming soon...