Making a meal of sound bites

IT FEELS WRONG TO LAUGH, BUT … by Anele Mdoda; TAKE IT FROM ME by Danny K; IN MY ARROGANT OPINION by Khaya Dlanga; SOUTH AFRICA: A LONG WALK TO A FREE RIDE by Nik Rabinowitz; BECOMING by Shaka Sisulu (Pan Macmillan)

‘I wouldn’t call myself a writer at all,” said Anele Mdoda, popular radio and television personality and, as of this week, a published author.

She is one of five high-profile South Africans under the age of 35 who were chosen by Pan Macmillan for their Youngsters book series — a play on the Elders organisation started by Nelson Mandela.

At 12 000 words each and with vibrant cover illustrations of each author, their Twitter tag on each page and an Instagramesque square format, the books are aimed rather heavy-handedly at a younger market and have been launched to coincide with Youth Day.

“We’re looking for new markets,” said Pan Macmillan publicist Laura Hammond. “Usually publishers have targeted the white middle-class woman, who is the traditional book buyer. But we found through the success of books like Frank Chikane’s Eight Days in September and Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble that there are so many book buyers out there we are just not reaching. So we decided to aim at a younger, more diverse market.”

They chose well. Besides Mdoda, the Youngsters include musician Danny K, comedian Nik Rabino-witz, Twitter celebrity Khaya Dlanga and struggle royalty and Cheesekids founder Shaka Sisulu. And, to seal the deal, radio journalist-turned-successful author Wiener is the series editor. That is a collective following of 186 492 fans — just on Twitter.

Did Wiener receive panicked calls from the writers? “You have no idea,” she said, laughing. “Fortunately I had just been through it as a first-time writer.”

And that is part of Pan Macmillan’s strategy: showcasing untested writers, which would be risky if it was not for their star ratings — celebrities in their fields.

But then there is the niggly issue of, well, writing — this is a book, after all. “I was very conscious of letting them keep their own voice,” said Wiener. “We didn’t want to polish it too much.”

An uneven mix
It shows, in varying degrees, depending on the writer. Rabinowitz cleverly roped in his writing partner, scriptwriter Gillian Breslin, resulting in a hilarious and tightly written 12 chapters.

Others, such as Mdoda, without the writing experience of Breslin or even prolific columnist Dlanga, had a tougher time of it.

“It was absolutely horrendous,” she said. “The doubt that goes into writing is unbelievable.”

Mdoda is magical behind a radio mic. And on Twitter, blogging or on Tumblr, she is a natural, as evinced by the fan base she has built up. But a longer form of writing takes getting used to, even if it is just 1 000 words, times 12 chapters. I struggled to understand the point of her second chapter, about alcohol, which ran to just two pages.

Other chapters seemed to be strung together randomly without enough of a flow between thoughts.

And there were others she decided to exclude, because she did not have a strong enough opinion to sustain a whole chapter.

As with anyone accustomed to a different medium, I could not avoid feeling a little help would have gone a long way in helping Mdoda to express herself in more words than a radio sound bite or 140 characters on ­Twitter.

But Wiener, who had an oversight role and did not work with the text, said a decision was made to let Mdoda write the way she spoke.

I could not help wondering about the wisdom of that when every few sentences screamed for a rewrite. What works in a blog and as a tweet does not look right on a page, no matter how clever the packaging may be.

Even the best authors need a thorough and capable hands-on editor, a skill that is sorely lacking in South Africa, where so many talented writers are handicapped by poor editing. How much worse is it for a first-time author?

Still, Mdoda’s natural instinct for connecting with her audience redeems her book, as does her larger-than-life and cheerful personality, which practically bounces off the page.

Mouthing off
Her strongest chapters are those in which she is most confident with the subject. Chapter three, “Mic Check”, should be required reading for every radio student in the country, and her story of making it so big in a male-dominated industry, without buckling to pressure to change her appearance, is a fascinating topic that I would love to hear more about. Her “irreverence”, as Wiener characterises her writing, keeps you hooked and willing to push through the clunky sentence construction. Mdoda did not get where she is without being funny, and she is a delight to read at times.

In the moving intro, which she said was the hardest part to write, she speaks about coming to terms with her mother’s death. “I had never spoken about it before,” she said.

The books are quick and easy reads; they will take you from one to two hours. But be warned:  they are very much like 12 blog posts stuck together. You may have to stagger reading each chapter in the same way you probably like to have your favourite columnist in weekly doses.

At R85 each, and available as an e-book, the publishers are hoping they will be an easy buy for a youthful market — the digital natives who are more comfortable with social media than with a book in their hands. If this can get them to read more, it will be great for the local publishing scene. There is no guarantee, however, that what works brilliantly in one form will work in another: a book has its own rules and criteria for success.

Nonetheless, Mdoda and her counterparts can pat themselves on the back for stepping out of their comfort zones and trying their hand at writing.

She said: “Khaya and I hang out a lot and, whenever we saw each other while writing, we’d say: ‘Wow, this is by far one of the bravest things we have ever done’.”

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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