INTERVIEW: MacAllister Stone of Absolute Write – Part I

I’ve made no secret about my gratitude for certain literary communities — among them, Absolute Write . Its forums are a sprawling network where one can as easily receive critique on erotica as greeting cards; speak to industry people, such as agents or small press publishers; or joke around with other, writerly loons. (Guess where you’ll find me.) 

In the midst of it all, a single figure roams, dispensing accolades and bannings as required. She assumed ownership of AW in 2006 and has taken it from 5,000 members to over 25,000 in that brief time. Known as “Mac” to her acquaintances, “El Jefe” to the boards, MacAllister Stone has always been an enigma to me. She was therefore a natural choice for my inaugural interview for WU.

Jan for Writer Unboxed: Welcome, Mac, and thank you for being here. As you know, I have a rep for asking hard-hitting questions – like the time on Tartitude when I forced Laura Kinsale to explain her fascination with hats. But we’re at a new venue now, and to establish my street cred here, let’s set the scene for our audience: Look around AW Central and tell me what you observe. How luxurious are the furnishings? Do your minions wear uniforms?

MacAllister Stone: Hi, and thanks for having me! Writer Unboxed is a great destination for writers, and a fun read besides. It’s an honor to be here.

Hmm. What do I see when I look around AW Central? I envision it sort of like a busy and vibrant multi-cultural downtown, full of distinctive little shops and bakeries and pubs and galleries. As for my minions wearing uniforms? Not so much, no. :)  The mods are all a pretty individualistic bunch of folks, too. They’re more like municipal volunteers who paint signs, sweep streets, give directions, and act as designated drivers.

How does a double major in English and Arts end up running a board that serves writers?

Mostly by accident, actually. Much of my professional life has been spent working with horses. But I’ve always written, too. I found AW while I was researching publishers and novel-writing. I just lurked and read for a long time before finally signing up. After I’d been a member for a few years and a moderator for a couple of those years, when the former owner asked if I’d be interested in taking over the site.

Some people here won’t be familiar with AW. Can you give them a sense of its scope?

Hoo boy.  It’s a pretty big place. On the forums alone, we have around 25,000 members — and since I purge inactive and spammer accounts, that’s actually a real number of people logging in and reading, even if they aren’t all actively posting. There’s something like 125,000 threads, and nearly five million posts. I occasionally stumble over a sub-forum that I don’t remember building, and had no idea was there.

And if that’s not enough, there’s also a blog and an archive with hundreds of pages of articles and interviews.

When I look over the threads that provide an introduction to newbies, two things struck me: first, that you have set down only one rule to guide members’ behavior, and second, that you value an inclusive culture. Why do you feel it’s important to set a writing community up in this manner?

Our one rule has been there from the very beginning, before my own tenure, even.  Respect your fellow writer. In simplest terms, that loosely translates into “don’t be a jerk” really.

On occasion, that actually seems to make some people a bit uncomfortable. My own experience is that if you start making up a bunch of rules, then you actually limit what’s possible. You artificially limit discussion, thought, and you attempt to force structure onto people who are certainly capable of behaving like civilized and rational adults without outside intervention. The natural response to that forced structure — heck, even my OWN natural response to a situation like that — is to figure out smart-ass ways to work the system, while staying within the letter of the law. Then the mods and admin either end up looking like a bunch of hide-bound idiots who’ve essentially tied their own hands, or else like the rules only apply to everyone else. Either situation creates a toxic environment for a community.

We don’t even have the profanity censor software enabled. The AW Cooler is a writers’ board; we certainly should each have the minimal control necessary over our own language to know how civilized adults speak in public. 

Inclusiveness is a bit trickier to articulate, of course. And certainly I’m regularly accused of far-left political correctness. I’ve admitted elsewhere that I have this romantic notion of the Cooler as a sort of Rick’s Cafe, from Casablanca. A place where anyone in the world might walk through the doors, at any moment.

Can I borrow from the AW Newbie Guide? We tell every new member “We have Muslims and Catholics and Moral-Majority conservative Pentecostals. Republicans and Libertarians and Anarchists. We have brown people, pink people, pot-smokers, hippies, suburban moms, ex-cons, ex-cops, and Homeland Security specialists. We have married folks, and polyamorous folks, and singles and swingers and queers.” The only way for us all to get along with each other is if we can respect one another’s differences, perhaps even learn to cherish one another for those different perspectives.

My concern about this stuff has to do with building and maintaining a mostly-egalitarian community, for several different reasons. Primarily, though, I think we’re better writers if we can get out of our own world view and walk even a few tottering steps in someone else’s shoes, once in a while.

That’s what “respect your fellow writer” means to me.

If someone becomes interested in AW after reading this interview, where would you recommend they begin?

Honestly, you can pretty much jump in anywhere that interests you, really. We’re a welcoming bunch. We get a lot of people who are there researching a specific publisher or agent, for example, and go straight to those threads.

I do absolutely recommend reading the Newbie Guide before you start posting. Everyone gets a private message with a link to the Newbie Guide, in fact, upon completing registration. If you tend to be a person who needs a little extra time to feel comfortable posting, the whole Newbie forum is a tremendously helpful place.

Where would you like AW to be in ten years’ time?

Wow. You know, that’s not a question I think about very much. Mostly, I’d like to be right where we are now, pretty much. Maybe a little bigger. On a studlier server. I can see offering blog space to members, for example. More than anything, I’d like to see our members go right on writing and selling their books, articles, poems, and stories — and I very much believe they will.

Let’s talk a bit about the challenges you face in running AW, beginning with organization. How much of your own day is absorbed by forum challenges such as technical issues, resolving disputes, financial matters?

How much time AW takes up can vary pretty wildly, from day to day. Generally I spend at least a couple of hours a day just dealing with AW-related stuff that ranges from answering emails to troubleshooting server and software problems.

You’ve recruited a significant army of people to help with the day-to-day management of AW. Can you speak to how the moderators are selected? What they do?

There’s no way I’d want to try to maintain a community the size of the AW forums without the Mod Squad. These are amazing people who volunteer hours and hours every week to help keep the peace, answer questions, solve problems, and they really are the central nervous system of Absolute Write.

The moderators are selected pretty arbitrarily from among the members, sometimes because they demonstrate specific expertise with a specific subject, and always because they display leadership, a sense of humor, and common sense. I should make it clear that we have a metric ton or so of members who would be terrific moderators, but the turnover is pretty low, really.

I sometimes have a terrible time modding someone because I worry about it taking all the fun out of the community, for them. And there’ve been a couple of instances where mods stepped down for exactly that reason. They don’t get any real formal training, although I do think we have a pretty good informal on-the-job training and support system, and we all ask each other for second and third opinions regarding tricky judgment calls.

Absolute Write forums have been described as a boisterous family. At times, as with all groups of passionate people, disagreements arise. Give us a sense of the spectrum of disagreement, and the tactics you and the moderators use to resolve them.

People are messy, sometimes, in their relationships and especially in their disagreements. Being a human being is a sort of emotionally messy proposition, I think.

Since we have people who’ve belonged to the board for years, we know a lot about each other. You know how family members know just which buttons to push to make you see red? There’s some of that. But there’s also this amazing thing that happens when someone gets engaged, or has a baby, or sells a novel, and they can’t wait to come to AW and announce it, so we can celebrate together.

As to how we handle disagreements, that very much depends on the specific instance. We have the usual spammers and trolls who show up, and those are the easiest cases to deal with, of course. We just summarily eject them. There’ve been a handful of members who’ve had trouble with online stalkers. Those sorts of situations generally call for a good deal more discretion, but still can usually be handled by blocking an IP or banning the offender.

We have members that are perfectly and utterly committed to their personal beliefs on everything from the serial comma to religion to deficit spending. Usually when those sort of disagreements arise, they can be handled with a gentle reminder to respect each other. Or we can lock threads. We can even send people to a sort of virtual penalty box and restrict their posting access, until they cool down — though that doesn’t actually happen very often.

We come under a fair amount of fire from critics — usually from people who got themselves banned, or else people who aren’t even a little bit happy when they Google their fledgling agency or publishing company and find they already have a three-page thread full of tough questions from well-informed working writers, sitting on the front page of the Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check room. I get, on average, two or three emails a month full of vague threats about lawsuits.  The DMCA has some pretty specific provisions protecting board owners from that sort of thing, or it wouldn’t be possible to host a place like AW, honestly. Knock on wood, so far only one of those threats has materialized into an actual lawsuit, but that’s been ongoing for the last three and a half years and still hasn’t been resolved, so I can’t really go into the gory details.

Getting sued can sort of shake you up, though. I spend a lot of time second-guessing myself. Hoping we’re being fair. Trying to provide a place to educate people who’ve written a book and have no idea how many fly-by-night companies will promise them a bestseller as long as they’ll keep writing checks. Trying to balance what’s best for this community of writers, and how we’re going to keep our virtual doors open.

In part two: the meaning behind Mac’s avatar, how she pays the bills, and the rewards for serving as AW’s owner and CEO. Although Mac and I haven’t discussed this, if you have a particularly fond memory of AW to share in the space below, I’m certain she’d be interested to read about it.

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About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve heard great things about AW, so it’s very cool to get this behind-the-scenes, from-the-horse’s-mouth look! (Not that Mac is a horse… You know what I mean! >P) Thanks!
    Kristan´s last blog post ..Writerly Wednesday

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  2. liz says

    I lurked at AW for years, and just signed up as a member a few months ago. It’s been a wonderful resource. Thanks for the great interview, Jan. (And thanks for running such a great place, Mac!)

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  3. Rachael says

    I’ve been at AW for two years and I can’t imagine writing and querying without it. I just love it there and it really does feel like a boisterous family sometimes. :)

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  4. says

    Great interview, Jan and Mac!

    I don’t even remember how I stumbled across AW, but I was in awe: “OMG, all this great information for FREE!” I had just started querying agents and hadn’t even heard of many of them until I saw the various threads on AW. Truly invaluable information.

    And then there were the threads where you could get a virtual hug and cocktail when you got a rejection, along with commiseration and inspiration. Being part of AW makes the writing journey a lot more fun. :)
    Donna Cummings´s last blog post ..The Books Only You Can Write

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  5. says

    I found AW at a moment when I was about to give up, because querying and enduring rejection alone and without guidance was incredibly hard. In the last three years, I not only landed an agent, I found my tribe of feral goofballs. Thanks for keeping the lights on, Mac!
    Bryn Greenwood´s last blog post ..A first date with your character

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  6. sue says

    I loves AW, yes I does. I stumbled on it when I was idly clicking through links posted on a certain Super-Agent’s blog and I’ve stayed there ever since.

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much my writing has improved since I’ve been there. I’ve also made some wonderful friends amongst the feral goofballs and I’ve even met a few of them in RL.

    AW is my online anchor and Mac steers a pretty fine ship. I have already promised her several pints if she makes her way to England.

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  7. says

    Just wanted to stop in and add my own Mac-fangirling. Great interview, Jan! And it’s so awesome to read some of the behind-the-scenes AW stuff. I’ve only been around the boards for less than a year (I discovered it early during the last Nanowrimo) and I already can’t imagine writing without the amazing support community in place there! In fact, I just got my very first short story accepted for publication in a small magazine which I never would have known about without Mac and AW!

    ~Lia
    Bookewyrme´s last blog post ..AAAH!!!

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  8. says

    As a died-in-the-wool, avid fan member of AW for over two years, I gobbled up this interview, delighted to learn more about Mac, the inner workings of and her vision for AW. I don’t know where I would be without AW’s support, resources, members’ valuable, generous advice and the most wonderful community of fellow writers on earth.

    Over the two years, I have met and developed RL friendships with other AW members, and I look forward to meeting more. There is nothing like the company and conversation of other writers to lift you up and sustain you through this mostly solitary journey.

    Thanks so much, Jan, for this interview, and a great big thanks to Mac for all that she does. She’s an international treasure!

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  9. says

    Aw, thanks, everyone. I just mentioned to someone on Twitter last night, in fact, that AW is a lot more than a website — it’s a community.

    (Gee, that actually sounded a little too much like, “Soylent green is people!”, didn’t it…)

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  10. says

    AW has been a lifesaver for me in every part of the writing and querying process: I honestly don’t know what I would have done without it. And Mac does an amazing job of keeping everything together, keeping us from running too wildly amuk, and in general ordering the universe. We owe her many, many cases of Glenfiddich. :)
    Amy´s last blog post ..taking a moment to honor a hell of a judge

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  11. Clovia says

    I lurked on AW for years before finally signing up. I posted in B&BC first, to comment on an agent I’d queried, then stuck my head into a few threads, posted, and ran away to hyperventilate.

    I was actually going to just let my account lapse, because it was too distracting, when I got a note from that agent through AW’s private message system. She’d seen my post wondering if I should resend my query, or just sit on my hands–she’d never gotten it, and could I please resend.

    Let my account lapse after that? Yeah, no.

    I have since settled in with a group I can honestly say include the best friends I’ve ever had, gotten amazing feedback on my own writing, and have the support I need on those days when no one in real life GETS it.

    It’s still too easy to waste time there (Krampus!!) but so much a part of my day it really throws off my schedule when I can’t get to the boards.

    So thanks, Mac :)

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  12. says

    I first discovered AW years ago when I began querying agents. It was a godsend–not only because of the ‘bewares’ section but because in my ignorance I hadn’t known there WAS a community of writers on the internet. Eye-opener!

    Then, when my first agent dropped off the earth without telling anyone, I went back to WU to find out what others were experiencing. It is such a great resource.
    Sarah Woodbury´s last blog post ..Welsh Heraldry

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  13. says

    I love AW — such a wonderful resource and plethora of information. Beyond that, the sense of community there is so strong. I can’t even remember how I came across it one day — I’m guessing while researching an agent — but I’m so glad I did. It’s been invaluable!
    Shari´s last blog post ..Thank you- Grey’s Anatomy

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  14. says

    I really believe the reason people become so firmly attached to AW is that sense of community. People crave contact with other people whom share interests and experiences — for that matter, we even crave people we can genially disagree with. We’re such social beings, and so increasingly isolated in our everyday lives the last several years. Our face-to-face time is filled with work and family obligations, and it’s harder to maintain a circle of social ties and extended family with whom we feel honestly, emotionally close.

    And even though, to some degree, the internet would seem to enforce isolation rather than encourage relationships, a community like AW mitigates the geographic isolation and temporal challenges with both its permanence and its sustainable record of conversations.
    MacAllister´s last blog post ..AWer New Releases!

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  15. says

    It’s true. It’s an amazing place. I don’t know what I would have done without it, and I can’t imagine what I did without it before I joined.

    You have communists, libertarians, arch conservatives, vegans, kid lit writers, devout catholics, unrepentent atheist, teenagers and ancient giants – and it works. It does not explode. Somehow the ethos of the place is just right, and is kept right, and we thrive.
    Max´s last blog post ..Gay marriage around the world

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  16. says

    I stumbled across AW back in 2006, about the time Mac was taking over. I lurked for a while and finally registered.

    For years I had wanted to write a novel. Had dabbled and given up only to start the cycle all over again. And again. I didn’t know anything about the industry. Heck, I didn’t know anyone *in* the industry, other than as glossy names on the paperbacks I bought.

    But, when I found AW I was no longer… so alone. I met people with a similar interest in writing, with vast experience and a willingness to share with anyone who posted, so long as they didn’t behave like a complete butt.

    I was inspired. I began writing for real, because I interacted and paid attention and *learned*. There’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t pop into AW and learn something or, more often these days, contribute what I’ve learned over the past few years for others.

    In June I received my very first publishing contract, from a major publisher. And I know that it’s in a large part because of the indefatigable community of people, knowledge and expertise that’s hosted there.

    I’m also reminded when I read this article that, while the community is free to participate in, it’s certainly not without cost to keep it going. It’s been a while since I’ve sent a donation, so I’m headed over to do so again because I cannot imagine my writing life without AW as a major part of it.

    Thank you, Mac, for all that you do to keep the servers and boards running!

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  17. says

    Oh Mac, she is so right in that interview about the AW boards. But….she better not dump my memebership cause I’m not around. I have serious writing to do. I don’t post like I did, but love my AW peeps and and Mac, too and you better not talk bad about them. :)

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  18. says

    I lurked on AW for a year before finally screwing up enough courage to join in ’05… and today I stand :twitch:hic:shudder: before you – a member of Mac’s Mod Squad. Every word she speaks is true: AW isn’t all things to all people, but it’s definitely THE thing for some of us. Alone behind our keyboards in a field where ‘alone’ can turn self-abusive, AW offers a place where we can reach out and touch, be touched, support and be supported, ask questions and give answers, or just goof off. All work and no play yada-yada-yada. It’s the place where I found my greatest beta reader – without whom I would have never tried one.more.time… and ended up with a real, live, professional agent. If I’m ever published, it will be because of AW and its denizens.

    If you’re a writer and you’re not *there*, you don’t know what you’re missing. If you’re serious – or even not so serious – about becoming one, you owe it to yourself to drop by and look around.

    And if you actually join, don’t give me any heartburn or I’ll have to call out El Jefe.

    Oh… and hi, Mac! Great interview! :D (Never hurts to polish the brass.)

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  19. says

    I love AW. I used to participate regularly in the chain-chain-chain of haiku fools. Now I’m less regular, but that doesn’t make me any less a fan.

    Thanks for a great forum, Mac. And thanks for a great interview, Mac and Jan!

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  20. says

    When I first stumbled across AW there were like 350 folks on it. Watching it grow to an around the world community has been great fun and very full filling. The amount of information that is found all in one place is without equal. Mac and the mods do a great job and are appreciated.

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  21. says

    Absolute Write is literally how I survived my first 10 years in the workforce. My first couple of published fiction works came from the AW forums. I learned most of what I have from reading the posts provided by the generous members.

    When I wasn’t working on fiction, I worked in nonfiction, publishing a few articles. It was AW’s forum that helped me to land my first newspaper gig. I didn’t have a clue how to proceed and it was the members there that walked me through it.

    Mac is funny, friendly and very awesome, as are the rest of the Modders.

    Seeing everyone really working together in order to write and the encouragement you get makes it one of the best boisterous families you’ll ever have.

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  22. CBlaire says

    AW…Simply the BEST all-around writer support forum I’ve found. Always ready with answers AND encouragement.

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  23. Mara says

    AW is the friendliest, most useful, and best-moderated internet forum I’ve ever seen, bar none, and Mac and the modstaff deserve the lion’s share of the credit. I can’t imagine a more useful resource for writers, whether novices or veterans.

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  24. says

    I would not be published in any form if it weren’t for AW. Within my first month, the squirrels had beaten my query into shape so it got a bite first time out, I’d found out why my word count was making agents raise their hands in horror and I’d found some people to read my book who weren’t ‘Oh, well, yes, lovely’. I have learned more there than all other places put together, including how-to books, I found my writers’ group and have made friends as real to me as the ones I see in meatspace who have the added advantage that they like talking about writing too….

    They also put up with me being loopy at them/ waffling while on meds and generally being a PITA

    AW rocks and I’ve promised myself that a portion of any and all advances will wing its way to Mac. So Mac, you’d better sacrifice that goat and pray I get a megabucks deal :D

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  25. Yeshanu says

    What struck me about that interview is how well we’ve gotten on with just that one single rule. I’ve felt safe at AW and had a lot of fun. The folks there have inspired me, and hopefully been inspired by me on occasion. Thanks for everything, Mac!

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  26. says

    AW is truly awesome (and not just for the day-to-day procrastination that is an inherent part of writing life ;)) I’ve been one of those at-first-lurkers on AW, just because the site itself is kind of huge and a bit overwhelming at first, but the all the help, info and last but not least awesome writers you meet there are definitely worth it and the online world would be a sadder place without it

    Thanks Jan for the fabulous interview (can’t wait for part II) and thanks Mac for all the awesome work you do!

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  27. says

    Dittoing Jenny and Julia, basically. I absolutely believe that I wouldn’t be published today if not for AW and everything I learned there, or at the very least it would have taken me years and years longer. It’s an amazing place, with amazing members.

    I started lurking in 2005; I’d sit in front of the computer late at night nursing my infant daughter to sleep and reading the PA threads, because they were so nice and long I didn’t have to do a lot of clicking. :-) I registered in 2006 and have never looked back, and now I get to be a moderator as well, which is fantastic and makes me very proud.

    I recommend it to every writer and aspiring writer I come across.
    Stacia Kane´s last blog post ..Some Stuff

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  28. Anon76 says

    I stumbled on AW about, hmmm, eight-ten months ago, maybe. I was already print published, already worked a short stint as a content/acquiring editor at a very good ebook house, and was one of the ground floor people years ago when a new romance review site (now rather large) was opened by a friend.

    I was truly astonished by AW.

    A “wow” moment hit me on visiting the site. Not only could I learn from others, but I had information I could pass on. Publishing is a scary world, and often it’s hard to get anyone to talk specifics about what to expect next. Those specifics get talked about at AW. And so many pub houses are represented that the new writer gets a chance to see all the different angles and choose what is best for them.

    And the chance to send a private message to another member (unless you block that person) and give points to a really great post, well, it’s priceless. We all need a pat on the back now and again. Even the veterans.

    (Sending a wave to Stacia. We’ve posted often on other sites but never got to actually say “howdy” to each other until AW. Kind of an “OH that’s you? type of thing.)

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