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.

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.