STRAY blog tour: Book review and interview with Rachael Craw

Back in 2014 I read and reviewed Spark, the début YA sci-fi novel by Rachael Craw (You can read my review here). It was one of the most thrilling reads that I’d read in a while. I interviewed Rachael about writing strong female characters and her writing process (You can read the interview here). Eagerly awaiting the release of Stray, the second book in the trilogy, I approached Walker Books and requested an advanced copy so I could review it. Claire, Rachael’s publicist, kindly supplied a copy and asked if I wanted to be a part of the Stray blog tour, which leads us to where we are now!

It’s important to note that my review is in no way influenced by Walker Books or Rachael.

Review: Stray by Rachael Craw

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Stray, the second book in Rachael Craw’s YA sci-fi trilogy, is set one month after the events of Spark. Aiden has been arrested and is being held in a detention facility. Kitty has thrown herself back into her social life. Evie is conflicted by her desire to hold onto her life – her romance with Jamie, her friendship with Kitty, and working out just what her relationship with Miriam is – and her need to rescue her brother. Stray follows Evie as she struggles with the responsibility she feels she has to find a way to prove Aiden has been deactivated, and the danger she knows she is about to put her loved ones in, in order to prove Aiden is no longer dangerous.

The faced-paced action and fast-pulsed sexual tension that dominated Spark carries through into Stray. But, while Spark was sprinkled with Whedonesque style banter between affable characters, Stray leaves little room for comic relief as Affinity makes its presence known, threatening to rip Evie’s world apart. The Affinity compound is a heart-pounding house of horrors, filled with masked medical teams, mind-splitting telepathic torture and The Executive watching it all behind black glass. Then there’s The Proxy, a complex character who is equally tragic as she is terrifying.

Over the course of Spark, Evie was prone to bouts of fainting due to being unaccustomed to her superhuman abilities, and often required rescuing by her “tribute to nature and science” love interest, Jamie. While Evie is still finding her feet in Stray, she is physically and mentally stronger, and therefore much more exciting to follow. But, this doesn’t mean Evie is any less fallible, as she learns the hard way that nobody is who they appear to be. There are surprising developments to other characters who featured in Spark, but any commentary on this would spoil the thrill of following them on their journey.

While it would have been helpful to have a glossary of the acronyms as a reminder the sci-fi terms explained in Spark, this didn’t detract from the story. Benjamin and Davis could have used with a bit more fleshing out, as they were almost interchangeable characters. Overall, Stray is a tightly-written progression from Spark that climaxes with a bloodied, gut-wrenching finale that promises to leave you looking at the final few chapters through blurry eyes. Shield, the final book in the trilogy, promises to be one hell of a ride.

Stray was published on 01 September. Shield will be published in 2016.
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Interview: Time-frames, Trilogies and Twitter – Rachael Craw on her writing process, the second time around

Congratulations on the success of Spark and on the release of Stray!

Thanks so much Liz, it’s exciting to finally see Stray going out into the world.

You mentioned during our last interview that it took you five and a half years to write Spark. What time-frame did you have to write Stray?

I had one year to write Stray though I did have a pre-existing manuscript to work with. I wrote it in the same year I wrote the first draft of Spark. However, I found it immensely challenging dealing with the rewrite. I wished several times that I had been brave enough to ditch it and start fresh but I was too much of a scaredy-cat. Ultimately I am so pleased with and proud of the final product but I found it was a struggle. In many ways writing the first draft of book 3 has been so much easier because I had nothing to work with. Well, actually, I had 50 pages of an old version of bk3 that I wrote years ago but it was all about Evie living with a character named Gabe who was cut from book 1. She was in Uni and trying to move on with her life. Gabe was her Cooler in the same way Helena is a Cooler for Jamie.  There was an ‘event’ that dragged Evie back into the world of the Affinity Project and back into the path of Jamie. I loved this old version because it was such a dramatic beginning for the reader who would have a face-slapping-Holy-Hell moment when they discovered Evie wasn’t with Jamie at the beginning of the book.

So, I had to dump all that because Gabe no longer exists and the story went a different way. But I’m not a planner so it was much better for me to write without the constraints of a pre-existing manuscript and follow the story’s natural direction.

Did having Spark already published help motivate you during your re-drafting of Stray, or did it put pressure on you?

I found it tremendously distracting having Spark out while working on Stray. It kept pulling my attention away from the work. I felt constantly divided in my loyalties and responsibilities. It’s been a much healthier ride working on book 3. I feel like I will manage it much better once Stray is out.

You’ve joked on Twitter about writing yourself into plot holes. As you were writing Stray did you ever want to go back and make changes to Spark? 

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Ha! Hmmm, that is such a good question. No. I don’t think there’s anything I would really want to change in terms of plot details. I think the constraints of the world in the pre-existing story demand creative solutions and actually forced me to lift my game and dig deep to find pathways to advance the plot. But yes, plenty of plot holes!!! Lots of brain-wracking to fill them in and make it all work.

What prompted you to write and digitally release the short stories, ‘Kill Switch’ and ‘The Black Room’?

The marketing team at Walker Books Australia requested a short story to go out with the promo-material when Spark was being launched and that’s how ‘Kill Switch’ came to be. I really enjoyed writing from the perspective of a Stray and exploring the horrors of genetically induced madness. I wrote ‘Black Room’ by myself when I was working on Stray, as a creative exercise to give me some instinct for Ethan Tesla’s background – he’s a new character you meet in Stray. It also gave me the ReProg room – a sinister interrogation chamber that didn’t exist in the first draft of Stray. That physical environment is almost like a character in the book so writing ‘Black Room’ was a tremendously profitable exercise. I then offered it to Walker to use for promotional purposes and they snapped it up.

Had you always planned to write a trilogy, or did you only come to realise while writing your first draft of Spark that the story needed the room of a trilogy?

I always wanted to write a trilogy because I was a fan of reading book series in childhood. I love revisiting old characters and going on new journeys with them. The relationships deepen, you get to see how characters grow and change over time, how they cope in new challenges. In the same way I loved following Buffy over seven years and Mulder and Scully through years of the X-Files (and now I’m working my way through Supernatural – don’t get me started #WinchesterWife) that commitment to characters draws me back over and over. I love that same experience in fiction also. With the Spark trilogy I had 3 main plots I wanted to explore so 3 books made sense.

What’s your favourite trilogy?

I was a BIG fan of the long running  Trixie Belden Mysteries (rural American teen detective) when I was a tween – there were nearly 40 books in that series. But for trilogy joy I can’t go past Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking. I LOVE.

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Do you read other YA sci-fi novels while working on this series, or steer clear?

I have very little knowledge of sci-fi fiction. It wasn’t a genre I ever spent time in as a reader. However, I have always loved sci-fi films, especially grimy future society in decline built on the detritus of obsolete technology type stories (think Blade Runner). I read a little bit of William Gibson at Uni which I loved but that was about it. I’ve only recently begun to read YA sci-fi but I imagine it’s counted as pretty light as far as the genre is concerned. But I have really enjoyed the Lunar Chronicles and the books by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner.

You’re very active on social media. Do you allow yourself certain times to go on Facebook and Twitter?

Twitter

No. I have no restraint. I need an intervention. Save me.

As a writer, what are the greatest benefits of social media?

Getting outside of my head. Engaging with other human beings – even on the most basic level of sharing a laugh, a meme, whatever. It’s a very lonely business, book writing, so Twitter and FB keep me from going full hermit. The best part it is engaging with readers and authors. The YA community is hugely supportive.

You give a mighty roar of thanks to #SparkArmy in the Stray acknowledgements. What is the #SparkArmy?

The term Spark Army was first hurled into the Twitterverse during a fun chat with a bunch of YA bloggers. Kate from Fictional Thoughts coined the phrase first. It became a rallying hashtag for promoting the Spark Trilogy. Kelly from Diva Booknerd and Eugenia from Genie In A Book created a goodreads group under the name The Spark Army and the gals in that group helped to promote Jamie in the Sydney TeenCon Book Boyfriend battle. It’s amazing support for an unknown author like myself, something you think only happens for rockstars like JK Rowling or Casandra Clare. It may only be a handful of people but it’s a beautiful thing. People use the #SparkArmy hashtag for all things Spark related. Please feel free to use it!

You recently sent off Shield, the final manuscript in the trilogy, to your editor. If you were to write another trilogy, what would you do differently?

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I’m not sure I would change anything other than making sure my deadlines don’t clash with book launches. Spark came out on the same day my first draft of Stray was due in. It was a nightmare. This time has been so much better. Other than that I don’t think I would change anything.

Do you have other projects on the horizon?

Right now all of my creative energy is focused on completing the Spark Trilogy but my subconscious brain is ticking away and there are a couple of seeds sending out roots. I will let you know!

 

Stray Blog Tour

September 1
Happy Indulgence | Diva Book Nerd
September 2
Behind the Pages | Cassie the Weird | YA Midnight Reads
September 3
Liz McShane Blog | Imaginary Misadventure
September 4
Fictional Thoughts | Genie in a Book
September 5
Kids Book Review | Books for a Delicate Eternity | Nicole Has Read
September 6
Loony Literate | Book Nerd Reviews
September 7
Striking Keys | Very Dark Horse
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@RachaelCraw | RachaelCraw.com

Interview: Rachael Craw on feisty women in fiction, the writing process and YA

‘Imagine the perfect soldier. One who doesn’t fear death, or pain, who never quits, never gets sick. A soldier stronger than ten men, fast as a horse and able to sense the approach of danger. Imagine a soldier untroubled by heat or cold, able to heal in a day from a bullet wound and who, in hand-to-hand combat, could anticipate the enemy’s every move and counter it.’

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Spark, the first book in a YA science-fiction trilogy by Rachael Craw, is a thrilling read about a young, feisty female protagonist who is trying to understand and control her super-human abilities while also trying to protect her best friend, Kitty, and resist the inexplicable pull towards Kitty’s brother, Jamie (You can read my review of Spark here). I was left pondering about feisty female protagonists long after I finished reading Spark, so I fired off a few questions to Rachael about feisty women in fiction, her writing process and thoughts on YA.

You mention in your biography section at the back of Spark that you wanted to write about a feisty female. How would you describe a feisty woman?

I don’t even know if feisty is the right word, in retrospect. Seems like such a buzz-word now and slapped on any female character with a snappy comeback. For me I think my interest lies in the protagonist being an initiator, someone who challenges the limitations placed on them by circumstance/nature/environment. Someone with a bit of fight in them! Someone not waiting to be rescued but taking action.

What was the driving force behind writing about a feisty female character?

I think it was more organic than a “I’m going to write this type of character” and probably a natural expression of what attracts me to a protagonist, someone flawed, grappling with their lot but also someone with conviction and some fight in them. I am particularly wired toward justice. I love characters who stand up to bullies, and stand up for the oppressed. I spent a significant part of my childhood being chased by bullies and big boys after mouthing off at them for the way they were picking on a kid. I have no idea why I was like that. I just couldn’t stand to see that kind of cruelty. The sense of injustice would bubble up in me and come out rather fiery.

What are your top five favourite books depicting feisty women?

How about 6?

Elizabeth Bennet: Pride and Prejudice

Jane: Jane Eyre

Trixie Beldon: Trixie Beldon Mysteries

Anne: Anne of Green Gables

Karou: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Claire: Outlander

What are your top five favourite films/TV shows depicting feisty women?

Buffy, the Vampire Slayer

Wonder Woman

The X-Files

Kim Possible

Xena: Warrior Princess

Why does YA appeal to adults?

I kind of feel like the lines have blurred. People are freer to read across categories without stigma. I approach YA no differently from adult lit but YA tends to have that ‘cusp of life’ feel to it, that teetering on the brink of discovery, wonder, horror that shapes and defines the character’s journey.

Do you read YA (for enjoyment, as opposed to research)? What YA title resonates with you the most?

Yes! I am an equal opportunity reader. I swing from Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Isabelle Allende, Alice Hoffman, Ian McEwan, Emily Perkins to Patrick Ness, Samantha Shannon, Leslye Walton, Neil Gaiman, Laini Taylor, Elizabeth Knox without the slightest hesitation. Back and forth from Contemporary Literature to Commercial Fiction without batting an eye-lid and many of these authors blur those lines too. I am a HUGE Patrick Ness fan, don’t make me choose a title.

What time of day do you find to be the best for writing?

Morning.

Do you type or handwrite?

Write on my laptop, but brainstorm in a notebook with a pen.

Do you have a writing ritual?

Nothing clever. Get kids to school. Check social media. Write.

How do you overcome writers’ block?

By banging my head on my laptop? LOL. Slowly, painfully, sweat, tears, prayer, by writing even when it’s like birthing a watermelon.

Did you pitch your series to the agent, or did you just pitch the first book?

I had my worked professionally assessed by a literary assessment service that also operated as a literary agency. I had mentoring through them and eventually they offered to represent me.

How much of the series did you have plotted out when you signed with Walker Books?

I had already written book one and the first draft of book two. Book three is in development.

How soon after you finished writing Spark did you start writing Stray?

Spark took 5.5 years. I wrote the very first draft of Stray in the first year of Spark, then came back to it now and then in between re-writes and assessments of book one.

What advice would you give to emerging writers?

I definitely count myself as an emerging/aspiring writer, with much to learn. I strive always for perfection and suffer the horrors of never attaining it but continue to strive anyway. Learn to receive criticism. Get professional help! Read the best in your genre. Write all the time. Never give up.

 

Spark, the debut novel by Rachael Craw, is out now. Stray (the second book) is due out in 2015 and Shield (the third book) is due out in 2016.