Author Topic: LIMINAL - psychological thriller  (Read 132 times)

Offline NaomiShulman

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LIMINAL - psychological thriller
« on: November 21, 2021, 06:47:17 PM »
Please critique the first 5 pages of LIMINAL, an 80,000-word psychological thriller with a neurodivergent romantic subplot. Thank you!

[Prologue]

When I was ten years old, I dreamed I was walking down a dimly lit street. As I walked, I met myself at different ages. There was eight-year-old me. And six-year-old me. And two-year-old me wearing purple hair scrunchies and an eye patch. I smiled at them and hurried on. I wanted to meet the older ones. Where were they, the teenage and grownup versions of me? By the time I realized they weren’t coming, all the little ones had gone, and I was alone.

I woke up wondering why only the younger ones came. It was just a dream, but the abandonment gutted me. I needed the older ones - I
needed them. I forced the same dream every night that year. I looked everywhere for them on that dark lonely street.

I never understood why they didn’t come.

[Chapter One]

“My baby! Help! My baby is still in there! Please, somebody help!”

Distraught mothers were always the worst part of the job, and unfortunately this one’s baby was trapped on the second floor of a burning townhouse. As the lone female responder, the responsibility to calm her defaulted to me. Calm, in this case, meant keeping her from running back into the fire. There is no calm in these situations – only survival. I stood by for moral support, huffing and silently cursing Barnsley Township’s powers that be.

“My baby! Why is nobody saving my baby!”

Why was nobody saving her baby?

I knew, of course, why they weren’t – and it was wholly unacceptable. I looked at the mother and shook my head in pity before marching off to confront Gavin. Nice guy, decent fire chief, but a real dud of an incident commander.

“Where are you going!” the frizzy redhead mom screeched. Her breath formed frantic, cloudy puffs that vanished to nothingness in the icy night. “Come back!” she yelled, pulling at her own hair. “The house is that way!”

I looked back over my shoulder at the frazzled mom and the burning building. Then I glared ahead at Gavin who was busy clogging up the radio with maddening idiocy regarding safety protocol. He’d given abandon positions and retreat orders at least a minute ago, switching our approach to an exterior attack. There was no time to push my way through to him. It may have already been too late for the lady’s kid, but in another thirty seconds or so there’d be no chance at all.

I adjusted my PPE gear and checked the inhalation and exhalation valve on my face mask as I rushed at the building on foot. The mom was still screaming about her baby and my team was still doing whatever the heck it was doing about the fire. I knew I’d hear about this in some upcoming disciplinary proceeding, but that was no reason to hold back. I charged ahead knowing that, regardless of the outcome, at least one conscience would be clear.

If Gavin was trying to stop me, I didn’t hear him. Every second of a fire this size meant everything. We’d gotten the two older kids out of the house, and successfully stopped the guilt-ridden mom – who’d left her eight-year-old in charge of her younger sisters overnight in a freezing house – from running in again, but the baby was still upstairs. We couldn’t attempt a window rescue because the fire had autoextended from the kitchen window into the baby’s room on the second floor. Whatever the kids had burned in their attempt to stay warm had been a tragically wrong choice.

The terrible heat of the fire contrasted harshly against the frigid outdoor temps. I felt it before I even reached the front door, or what was left of it, but within seconds I no longer noticed or cared. I’d entered the tunnel-mode of a rescue mission – my sole focus was finding that baby. The fire roared louder than any infant’s cry, so I had nothing to go on other than my memory of the approximate architectural layout Gavin sketched on our way to the scene while speaking with dispatch.

I found the stairs right away, but they were in bad shape. Even assuming I found the baby in time, there was no way the stairs would still be there on my way back. I sucked in compressed air through my breathing apparatus and tiptoed lightly and quickly up the stairs and toward the baby’s room.

The home was blessedly small with just two bedrooms, only one of which was upstairs. I made my way to the crib, sidestepping a few visibly crumbling floorboards. The crib was in the innermost corner of the room and the baby lay unconscious under several blankets. I flung the top layers of burning fabric off the baby and turned toward the door, hearing a whooshing thud.

Forget the stairs, the hallway itself was no longer an option. The window and building exterior diagonally across from the crib were a wall of fire and billowing smoke. I kept my feet firmly planted on a secure section of floor, carefully pivoting my upper body in search of an alternate escape.

Just then, a powerful mist of water broke through the window blaze – evidence that my team had switched the hose to the fog nozzle. Presumably, they realized where I’d gone and hoped that by covering more surface area with a less forceful stream, they could cool the room somewhat and avoid accelerating structural collapse. The strategy would give me the best chance of completing the rescue.

I waited for a break in the fog, then leapt out of a gaping hole in the wall, clutching the baby to my chest, eyes fully open until the crimson blackout of impact.

“My baby!”

“Libby? Libby!”

I was barely conscious when I hit the ground, and the chaos was fierce and immediate. The mother battled EMS for access to her baby, Eric and Gavin hovered over me like vultures as the rest of everyone did whatever they were doing. Muffled radio commands stung my ears, brasher and more obnoxious than the blazing disaster somehow now under better control.

How long was I knocked out?

“Ten forty-five, code two – one victim, nineteen-month-old female; code three – one victim, thirty-year-old female.”

The world spun and my vision blurred as I rolled my eyes at Gavin’s decision to finally give up on the ten-codes and join the other stations in the county in switching to Clear Speech over the coming weeks. Just when we’d managed to get the whole team to the point of competency. It’d be real clear, sure…

“I repeat: ten forty-five, code two – one victim, nineteen-month-old female; code three – one victim, thirty-year-old female.”

My mind recited the codes as I lost consciousness again:

Code Two: Serious injury, life-threatening

Code Three: Serious injury, not life threatening

“Lib? Oh no, Libby – stay with me. Libby!” Eric shouted in my face and radioed something at someone. “Oh God, Libby! Wake up! Please Libby!!”

No Code One—

I saved her…

[Chapter Two]

The first person I met when I came back to work was Eric. Because of course it was.

“Well hello there, hero!” His quirky, lopsided smile was a drop too big for his face and, per usual, far too wide for the situation. Odd, but admittedly endearing.

“Hey.”

Eric signaled at the others who were playing a board game at the table by the minifridge. “Guys, look who’s back!” he shouted. “It’s Libby!”

They didn’t hear him, and I was glad for that. Not that they’d necessarily have obeyed his rally cry anyway. Eric was wonderful, truly he was. But let’s just say ‘reading the room’ wasn’t his forte. Thankfully he knew it and played it off well. The dude owned his awkwardness like none other, weird eye-scrunching and all. What Eric couldn’t accomplish with social normalcy, he achieved by unapologetically being his lovingly eccentric self. He grinned wider and cheered louder, sending starbursts through my line of vision. I blinked hard twice to dispel them.

“Lib, I’m so glad to see you!” He squeezed his eyes in exaggerated blinks as he worked himself into ever greater excitement. “Oh God, I was worried sick about you! Not sick sick, you know. You get me, though. Right?” he gushed. “Hey guys,” he called again, “look who’s back!”

“Stop it,” I whisper-snapped. I was only back for maybe one minute, and already Eric was making problems for me. Well-intentioned problems, of course, but problems nonetheless. I had such a splitting headache and needed to get my meeting with Gavin done and out of the way. He’d called me this morning at 7:00 a.m., telling me not to come in until four for a private chat. Something about needing to talk about ‘the long term.’ So I came in at 2:45 p.m. If I wasn’t at the station, where was I supposed to be, exactly?

“Aww, a bashful hero, huh?” Eric winked at me like a schoolboy trying to impress the girl who’d inevitably turn down his prom proposal. “Uh, Lib? You alright?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” I steadied my gait and hulked over to my locker. I wasn’t feeling awesome, but my broad, stocky frame and wild, bushy hair had years of practice hiding it. Eric’s pale, lanky frame and prematurely receding hairline didn’t hide anything. Neither did his goofy smile or its equally expressive counterpart, the Frown of Gloom.

I wasn’t the only one who teased him for beaming his feelings out in all directions. It sounds meaner than it was. Eric was well-loved at the station – he made it impossible not to love him. At twenty-seven, he was the baby of the group and possessed a rare level of openness. It didn’t hurt that he diffused the occasional spat with his animated class clown antics.
 
Unfortunately for him, the mild disjointedness in his mannerisms didn’t earn him a place in anyone’s inner circle. He was well-loved at the station. But he wasn’t the one people invited to gatherings off shift. Neither was I, not anymore – but that was intentional. I didn’t care for mixing work and pleasure. Eventually they gave up asking me. Eric, on the other hand, wanted to be ‘one of the guys.’ When he first joined the team, he used to ask me for social pointers. I felt sorry for him in the beginning and let him hang around with me during work. In true Eric fashion, he glommed on and took the invitation farther than it extended, frequently asking me how to “mask,” whatever that meant. It took a while, but eventually we found our rhythm.

Offline JoV

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Re: LIMINAL - psychological thriller
« Reply #1 on: November 23, 2021, 02:14:01 PM »
Hi Naomi,

What a cracking prologue. I love it! It holds an enticing promise. I'd buy your book on the strength of these few sentences alone.
 
I also like your opening. Even though people and dogs in my household did their best to distract me, I wanted to read it to the end this evening. I'd like to re-examine it, but for now my only query is: repetitions. I've noticed 'window' and 'stairs' repeated in consecutive sentences which jarred for me. But then Libby quotes precise times and procedures and I'm wondering if repetition, as well as analytical precision, is a part of her character. I could go on listing the things I like here - the pace, characterisation, dialogue. I'm - generally - not so good on constructively pointing out where things can be improved, and with your opening - how can I tell you how to make the thing better, when I enjoyed it the way it is?

Offline NaomiShulman

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Re: LIMINAL - psychological thriller
« Reply #2 on: November 23, 2021, 03:32:49 PM »
Thank you so much, JoV!!

Libby's character is extremely rigid in the beginning, yes. I'll comb through again for excessive word repetition though. In the early chapters, Libby is hellbent on doing her job the way she believes it ought to be done. She's put on administrative leave following the unauthorized rescue in chapter one (I'll paste my query blurb below this message), which kicks off the story. Once she's in the dream world, her perceptions and the flow of chapters gradually shift. Her rigid mental compartmentalization gives way to bleedthrough between the parts of her life as she pieces together how she ended up where she did. The book and chapter structure reflect the shift as well, incorporating multiple scenes and timelines within sections as she makes peace with herself and her past.

As far as her singular focus on procedures at the expense of emotion in chapter one, the reason is twofold:

1. Tunnel-vision on facts and action is the norm in a crisis.

2. Libby, though undiagnosed, is neurodivergent. This plays an increasing role in the story as it unfolds. Eric is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, which is what he's referring to when he asks Libby how to "mask."


Here's the blurb:

Emotionally repressed firefighter Libby is placed on administrative leave following another unauthorized rescue attempt. As she leaves the station, her boss gives her an ultimatum - face her demons or resign. A visit to her estranged mother’s grave on her way home resurrects a heartache Libby buried long ago, prompting her to finally confront her past after years of stubborn denial.

That night, Libby finds herself trapped in a lucid dream with a dark version of her childhood self. Together they plod through unsettlingly familiar places cloaked in a heavy fog felt but never seen. Libby relentlessly and painfully pieces together fragmented memories and their collective meanings, yet the door to the waking world remains locked. Detached from her truth and unable to recall the origins of the dream, Libby soon suspects she’s hovering between far more than awake and asleep. She scours the dream world for clues as her young guide grows dangerously impatient.

Logic and factual understanding won’t be enough to free her from her demons - or from the dream. Libby’s neglected inner child waited a long time for her arrival and isn’t about to let her go without finishing what she came here to do.

LIMINAL is an 80,000-word psychological thriller with a neurodivergent romantic subplot. Its strong female lead and haunting portrayal of the human tendency to relegate painful memories to the dungeon of our psyche will appeal to readers of Sophie Hannah and Ashley Audrain. 


Offline JoV

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Re: LIMINAL - psychological thriller
« Reply #3 on: November 24, 2021, 08:04:00 AM »
I'd read your query before I got to your opening pages. Your story is right up my street. Have you had many beta readers? If you're looking for any more - my hand is up!

Offline NaomiShulman

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Re: LIMINAL - psychological thriller
« Reply #4 on: November 24, 2021, 08:36:46 AM »
Thank you for the offer - I'm honored!! I actually haven't started the beta reading process yet - still finishing the manuscript. ;-)

I find it helpful to craft the entire package (manuscript and all query materials) simultaneously. I'm aiming to have everything ready by February, so I'll start recruiting beta readers soon. I'll make a note to contact you then if you're still up for it!

Offline JoV

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Re: LIMINAL - psychological thriller
« Reply #5 on: November 25, 2021, 07:41:58 AM »
Sounds good. Best of luck with the final stages of your work on the piece!