Ask any writer and they’ll say that writing a book is hard work. Having a coauthor should make things easier, right? Not necessarily. As author Colleen Oakes puts it, “writing a book with a coauthor is a completely different experience than the self-driven, isolated shell that book writing is for me normally.”
Oakes and her coauthor, Erin Armknecht, recently self-published Sister of the Chosen One, a YA fantasy novel in which twins Grier and Valora—who is the titular chosen one, tasked with saving the world—navigate their complicated relationship. We reached out to Oakes and Armknecht to talk about writing with a partner, self-publishing, and releasing a book during a pandemic.
Tell us a little about your backgrounds.
Oakes: I grew up in Littleton, Colo., and went to school in New York. I now live in Colorado with my husband and son. I’ve been writing YA books since 2014. My best-known novels are the Queen of Hearts series and The Black Coats.
Armknecht: I grew up in Nebraska and South Dakota and went to school in Nebraska. I was a newspaper reporter right out of college, then my husband and I taught in Indonesia for a while, and now we live in St. Louis with our son. I do freelance editing and wrangle my kindergartener.
How did the premise of this book come about?
Oakes: I’ve always loved “chosen one” narratives, but I often wondered about the collateral human beings in their orbit. I had been thinking about that for a long time, and that’s how the story was born—from a question: “How much does it suck to be the sister of the chosen one?” Erin had been one of my beta editors through the early books in my career, but, besides that, we were friends and had been since college. Besides being a brilliant editor, she was also an incredibly funny writer. When the idea for Sister of the Chosen One came along, I thought: who better to write this story with than a fellow fangirl and hilarious essayist? Since it was from the perspective of two sisters, we each took a different sister to truly accomplish the dual voice.
Erin, this is your debut book, and Colleen’s previous works have all been written solo. Can you both describe what it was like working with a coauthor?
Oakes: It was a learning curve, but a good one. I loved creating this world and these characters with Erin; she had such great ideas and really was tuned into Grier’s complex character arc. Together we came up with the story, and then took turns writing our chapters, reading each other’s work, and then moving forward into the next chapter.
Armknecht: I was intimidated and overwhelmed at first. It was a great learning experience, but also a lot of fun to collaborate and build this world together.
Can you give any advice to other authors who are thinking about bringing on a coauthor?
Oakes: My most practical advice would be to figure out your technology early. We played around with different ways of sending the manuscript back and forth and that took a lot of time. I would also say that it’s okay to have different ideas about where the story needs to go; through writing the book you will find that allowing for individuality helps make the story better, rather than more challenging.
Armknecht: You have to be able to communicate honestly with your coauthor, and trust that you can give honest feedback and share opinions and ideas openly.
The writing of this book took four years. Can you describe what that process was like?
Oakes: We planned it out for about a year before we truly got into our writing groove, and from there it was a long process through storyboarding, editing, and planning the chapters scene by scene. When the finale came, we knew we had to write that in person together, so I flew to St. Louis for a furious, intense writing session that resulted in some great scenes and loads of caffeine highs.
Armknecht: We did a lot of Skyping (this was pre-Zoom) and FaceTime, and a lot of texting and emailing. Our big finale writing extravaganza was a lot of exhausting fun, and then, the following year, I flew to Denver for an equally intense editing push.
Colleen, as someone who has experience in the publishing industry, and Erin, as someone who’s new to it, what were your thoughts upon releasing Sister of the Chosen One?
Oakes: It’s a book we are very proud of. I loved seeing the publishing of Sister of the Chosen One through Erin’s eyes: it was wonderful to be reminded of just how exciting it is to publish your first novel. Still, every book release feels fresh and different, because not only have you changed as a writer, but your books themselves are representative of your growth.
Armknecht: I’m incredibly grateful I had an experienced coauthor to show me the ropes. Holding my book in my hands for the first time was a feeling I won’t ever forget.
It’s tough to release a book when you’re taking on all of the responsibilities yourself. It’s even tougher to do so during a pandemic. How did you manage to release a book this year?
Oakes: It was rough. Both Erin and I have a young child at home, and, for myself, I can say that almost all my work time was lost in the pandemic due to the schools closing. In addition, there is the mental health to deal with: anxiety, exhaustion, and nervousness about the future. Releasing Sister of the Chosen One was one of the few highlights of the year—it was so wonderful to share this story we loved with readers everywhere.
Armknecht: We could have tried to wait out the pandemic, and pushed the release off indefinitely. The book was ready, though, and so were we. This past year was incredibly hard, but sharing our funny, empowering story was a huge source of joy.
What kind of marketing and publicity did you do for the book? Did Covid-19 affect any of it?
Oakes: We did our own social media marketing—targeted ads on Instagram and Facebook—as well as a book blog tour with YA Reads Tours, the YA Scavenger Hunt, and a few giveaways. All the marketing I’ve done in the last few years has been virtual aside from book signings, so this wasn’t that different. Hopefully we can do a book party for the paperback release in St. Louis once we are all vaccinated.
Armknecht: I’ve daydreamed of my first book release party and signing since we started writing. I won’t lie—it was disappointing to accept that it wasn’t going to happen, but we just had to get creative and take a different approach. We had an online release party that was a lot of fun. Thank goodness for tech-savvy husbands!
What do you know now that you wish you had known in the beginning?
Oakes: That writing a book with a coauthor is a completely different experience than the self-driven, isolated shell that book writing is for me normally. It was a bit more work. At the same time, there was so much unexpected magic and laughter.
Armknecht: I confess I really knew nothing at the beginning, so I went into this with the expectation that I’d need to be an information sponge!
Were either of you surprised by anything during the process?
Oakes: Just at the incredible amount of sweetness that Erin has inside of her. Leo and Grier’s love scenes are amongst the best scenes in the book, and I found myself falling head over heels along with Grier. Romance has never been my strong suit, and she really helped me to grow in that area. We each brought our strengths to the table; I didn’t know I was missing that before.
Armknecht: I knew writing was a full-time job, and I knew Colleen worked incredibly hard. Still, I don’t think I fully appreciated or understood the intensity or dedication this woman has for her work. She’s inspiring.
How do you imagine readers at this moment will connect to Sister of the Chosen One and its protagonists, Valora and Grier?
Oakes: We’ve had such positive reviews and feedback for the book so far. Readers have loved the monsters, complimented the love story, and rooted for these sisters. I’ve gotten emails from sisters that say: “You really nailed the sibling rivalry” or “I fight with my sister just like this.” We’ve gotten several requests to expand the world, and side characters Leo and Renata have a very special place in readers’ hearts.