An interview with Marc Aplin

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MarcAplinPlease tell us a bit about about yourself and Fantasy-Faction.

It is kind of hard to talk about me and excite anyone reading this because where as I feel like I’m always doing a lot, I don’t really seem to do anything, at all. If I list the things I do it might ‘sound’ pretty cool: I work as an advisor to the Government on Social Media, I actively compete in Mixed Martial Arts, Thai-Boxing and Jiu Jitsu, I run one of the web’s most popular Fantasy blogs (Fantasy-Faction), but reality my life is – and I feel always will be: Wake-Up, Read, Work, Train, Eat, Read, Sleep (repeat 365 x the number of years I’m granted life!). I have a bearded dragon and a girlfriend, too – they fill in the gaps and require an equal amount of cuddles ๐Ÿ˜€

In terms of Fantasy-Faction, I started the site as a way to promote good books and good authors. You know when you read something and you think: “Oh my *#$@&%*! goodness that was incredible!!!!” and you feel the whole World needs to experience what you’ve just experienced? Undertake the journey you’ve just trodden? Meet the characters you’ve just met? Ride the same emotional highs and lows before that sense of achievement you get as you turn that final page and complete that epic quest? That just happened to me a little too much.

I was going to work and saying: “Man, you need to read this book!” and people were saying: “I don’t read, mate.” So I was saying, “No! Seriously! You NEED to read this book!!!!” and they were saying, “BUT – Video Games…” and I was getting more and more depressed. I decided to set up a Blog and Twitter account with the aim of convincing a single person to read a book by Brent Weeks, Trudi Canavan, Garth Nix or Peter V. Brett (the four authors who had given me the above ‘OMG you need to read this’ experience I discussed above.

Turns out people on the Internet are more open to persuasion. Within a month I was getting 30 hits a day to the blog and I had 100 followers – I was seriously thinking I’d made it. 30 people listening to what I had to say beat the 1 or 2 at work (who, let’s be honest, weren’t really listening anyway). Within a year we were hitting a couple hundred hits and now a bad day is around 3000 hits… A good day is over 20,000.

All that said, Fantasy-Faction is now WAY more than just Marc Aplin – I am a small part of a huge community. As a community (that is our staff members, our forum users, the people who comment on the website, and share or respond to us on Twitter) we look to promote: books, authors and the genre as a whole. Most important to me is that every day I get emails, messages and comments saying: “I picked up ‘x’ because you guys recommended it and it is one of the best books I have ever read!” or “I had never heard of ‘x’ before I saw you tweeting about it, I am so glad I found them!”. That will never get old and so long as I get even one of those type e-mails per year I will keep the site open.

1459967_10152851662594375_4401338494754676805_nHas anyone ever tried to squeeze between the bars to escape you in a cage fight?

Quite the opposite. Usually people meet me – see that I look pretty young, my face isn’t all smashed up (so presume I am inexperienced), hear I am a geek who loves books and fantasy novels, and instantly thinks they’ve got an easy fight on their hands. Without getting too serious with your jokey question: I believe that fighting is just like any other skill: it is about intelligence and practice. No matter how tough you act in front of your friends, unless you have done the research and training then you will never be a good fighter.

And, if you have done the research and training you will never be the guy thinking ‘I am going to have an easy fight’ because you learn that this stuff is just science and it is easy to learn: the angle of a choke, the amount of force you need to put into a takedown, the way you need to change direction to reveal an opening. If you aren’t scared or nervous about a fight I don’t think you are a very intelligent person – I guess the people I’ve fought haven’t been too intelligent O:)

Your displeasure at ‘only’ winning silver in your recent mixed martial arts competition was evident on your face – as a writer how do you think you’ll react to negative criticism and rejection given your competitive spirit?

This continues along the line of what I said above: I was angry at myself because I was the guy who hadn’t done enough research and training. The difference between me and the guy winning gold was that he practiced harder than me and did better research – I only had myself to blame. Writing is similar. No one is born the best writer in the world. They have practiced and honed their craft until they’ve reached a level where they’ve risen above others in the field (initially this just means they’ve written more than people who they went to school with, then they’ve written better stories than hobbyists, then they’ve written better stories than amateur writers, then they’ve written stories better than other industry professionals, then they’re fighting for spots on the New York Times Bestsellers List).

242586_10151002995251126_2050083577_oI have had a lot of negative criticism about my fighting – in the early 2000’s I was bloody terrible and my writing, too. The answer to both is: listen to it, understand you need to put in more hours behind the scenes, and don’t give up. If you try to take shortcuts or you decide to carry on along the same lines you are going then you won’t make it. Something I’ve always thought when training for a fight is: “When I am not in the gym the other guy is. He is there training hard to punch me in the face or snap my arm.” Similarly, when you are not writing, other people are. The New York Times Bestsellers List only has a small number of slots. Whilst you are playing video games or watching television, skipping a writing day for whatever reason, someone who really, really wants one of those spots is putting in the work to get it. If you can accept that then realise that writing might not be for you. If you can’t accept that then go pick up your pen, you’ve got catching up to do.

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What is it like to be running a site like Fantasy-Faction? What kind of difficulties do you encounter and what do you most enjoy about it? What does it all mean to you and what was your proudest moment so far?

It is a great honour to run Fantasy-Faction. To have such an incredible team producing such amazing content is just unbelievable. Jennie, the Content Editor for Fantasy-Faction these days, has over the last few years taken over the role of uploading articles to the site meaning that I often don’t see work from the more experienced staff members until it appears on the site. This means that I’m as excited to visit Fantasy-Faction in the morning as anyone else ๐Ÿ™‚ What I feel each and every minute of my day though is ‘connected’. Through Twitter, the Forums, Facebook and the Blog I feel part of a community 100,000 people strong. I get about a Tweet a minute, I speak with readers and authors and publishers all days long and I love each and every minute of that because the Fantasy Genre is one heck of a place to spend your life.

MarcAplin1The difficulties are that there is just so much going on. We’ve got our writing competitions, our book clubs, our anthologies, our articles on the main-site, our Twitter accounts, our Facebook accounts, our Forums, the Grim Gathering and we’d like to launch a proper Genre Award, Podcast and even YouTube show – but we just struggle to find the time. I’ve really tried to delegate over the last few years in order to help the site grow, but when you do that people can think you are throwing work at them whilst trying to get an easy ride whereas if you don’t do it then people think you don’t trust them to handle things. I guess it all boils down to this: Fantasy-Faction is a non-profit site that is larger than most sites making pretty impressive revenues. My challenge has been to deal with the growth of Fantasy-Faction without paying people. Something people say a lot is: “If you did this you could make sooooo much money”, but the reason Fantasy-Faction is so successful and so much fun is because we don’t care about money. Everything we do is focused around enjoyment and awareness. As soon as you start doing things to earn ‘ยฃ’ or ‘$’ you aren’t doing what you are doing simply for the love of doing it.

My proudest moment is probably winning the Reddit Award. We were also nominated for the British and World Fantasy Awards, but those are professionally / industry / panel judged awards. Don’t get me wrong, they mean a huge deal, but to win an award nominated and chosen for by the community meant that everything I’d set out to do with Fantasy-Faction – to reach people and give them something they can enjoy – had been accomplished.

How did you come across Mark’s books and what did you think of them?

Mark’s book came to me like any other: in an envelope from a publisher who was telling me this is going to be the biggest thing ever. I get it a lot and usually the books are very good but not as ground breaking as they try to make out. In fact, when a publisher tells me a book is going to rock my world I’m instantly raising my expectations and if it doesn’t meet them I’m pretty hard on them (it happened a fair few times in 2014 when books kept being labeled ‘better than A Game of Thrones’).

I find it hard to talk about Mark’s books these days as he is a good friend of mine and I know he will read this and it is kind of like saying ‘Man, my friend is a good looking chap. I wish I had his bright eyes and perfect hair’ when he is standing right next to me… but seeing as you asked I will try to describe what I think is special and different about them:

Mark’s original trilogy, The Broken Empire, stands as one of the finest examples of Literature to be found within the fantasy genre. The reason fantasy struggles to win awards in literary competitions is because so much of fantasy is based on an interesting plot, an interesting environment and interesting magic systems (things external to the characters). Literature tends to award prizes to authors who explore the human experience and which can refresh the human condition by doing so. Essentially, change in the characters or their experiences in a novel should change the reader’s everyday life in someway, too.

eot_manuscriptNow, I realise the above sounds somewhat dramatic (although, that said, have you ever been to one of these literary events or read the writing of a true literary critic? It’s pretty… Dramatic!), but it would be hard to argue that Mark didn’t achieve this in his first series. For those who finished the series: the most obvious change to most readers would be to their tolerance – and possible forgiveness – of a character who has committed murder and encouraged/allowed rape. I imagine before reading Mark’s earlier novels most readers would be of the mindset that a murderer or rapist of Jorg’s kind can never be forgiven and can never change. However, after finishing the third book I took time to read over reviews and found many (most, even) felt that by the end of the series the main character had done enough to be ‘forgiven’ or earn ‘redemption’; one even referred to Jorg as ‘lovable’! However, there were also those who felt that he certainly did not. Here’s some thoughts from one of the most talented bloggers in SFF, Justin Landon, who wrote that : ‘Jorg has made his bed, and while he may try to do some good (at last) on the way out, thereโ€™s nothing he can do to be forgiven’ and that ‘Of course, Jorg would never want our forgiveness’. This highlights another vital requirement when issuing the ‘Literary’ tag to a work: ambiguity and the ability for multiple interpretations. So: some felt Jorg did just enough to earn redemption, some felt he did so much he became ‘lovable’, Justin felt he did not do enough and never could, whilst some may read Justin’s thoughts and say that surely the fact Jorg doesn’t ask for or expect redemption means he deserves it? Personally, I’m still not decided and it is something that messes with my head to this day.

I actually wrote a piece of literary critique for Mark’s work whilst at University and got the highest grade in my three years there. There is so much depth and room for exploration into Mark’s work that it wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up being read in Universities in 100 years time… I see it as that important.

What is it you’re currently reading? Any good?

marcAI’m hopping about books at the moment. I’m being read Peter V. Brett’s ‘The Skull Throne’ over Skype by a friend who got an ARC (I can’t wait dammit!!!), I’m reading a book on Edward Snowden called ‘The Snowden Files’ by Luke Harding and I’ve recently finished Daniel Polansky’s ‘Those Above’ and Peter Newman’s ‘The Vagrant’ – all of these books are fantastic. The three fantasy novels I mentioned are all due out this year, they are all that dark atmospheric kind of fantasy that we readers have continued demanding and the publishers have continued printing. I keep expecting it to get old, but as Mark and so many others are proving there is far more grey to explore…

You run writing contests frequently over at Fantasy-Faction. Do you have any advice for our flash-fiction contestants?

I’d say know your world, know your characters, come up with a novel length story and give us what would be your best scene within that novel. I’ve found the best Flash Fiction feels as though a lot has come before and a lot will come after. A big problem with Flash Fiction is that people focus on writing just that short story and they forget that it shouldn’t feel like a short story that exists in its own space. The challenge is making something feel as though it is part of something much larger without losing your limited word count on description and backstory, etc. As soon as someone says ‘huh’ or ‘yawnnnnn’ you’ve lost them and getting the balance between the two is a real art to master. If you’ve not mastered it yet and aren’t prepared to put in the time then remember you might lose your slot to the person who is… see… I just took things full circle!

Best of luck people and I look forward to reading your entries! ๐Ÿ™‚

by Agnes Meszaros


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