There is a website, which shall remain nameless, to which you can pay a modest sum to have the ‘first page’ of your novel read and ‘critiqued’. For ‘first page’ read half of your first page and for critiqued read criticised and scored by passing readers.
I wouldn’t recommend this to my worst enemy! It is a thoroughly demoralising process – particularly for new writers – because it seems the majority of readers are other writers desperate to promote their own stories. They think the best way to do that is to annihilate the competition by ruthlessly voting other contributions down and selecting random negative comments. How can a new writer learn anything from that?
Obviously, they can’t. It’s certainly not the route to honest criticism, though, in fairness, there are some genuine readers who will vote honestly and give brief but useful feedback. But one valuable lesson you learn from such a process is the vital importance of getting those first pages absolutely right. They are our 'ambassadors' into the publishing world and we owe it to ourselves to make them as polished and perfect as we possibly can. (Though that’s not to say the rest of the writing should be allowed to lapse, of course!)
Writers are like overly-sensitive mothers: our stories are our babies, wrenched from our imaginations only after a long and painful labour and delivery. If our babies fail to make it past first base because they have defects which we, as loving parents overlooked in our affectionate ignorance, we then have to claw them back into our literary wombs and hide them from the world, perhaps forever.
But since we can’t trust random strangers with their own vested interests in bringing us down, then who do we entrust with our babies on their first outings? Not our loved ones, I fear. Family and friends will rarely be able to give us the kind of totally objective feedback we need. But not everyone can afford to pay for a professional reading service – and ideally you would need more than one reader. Writers are generally very experienced readers and are best equipped to critique and offer suggestions. In my experience they also give most generously of their time.
Forging good relationships with other writers and building a small network of friends, should ensure one or two readers who will be able to read at least those vital early chapters and give their honest opinions. It’s a symbiotic relationship, however, but in my experience, ‘swapping babies’ (temporarily, of course) is a very rewarding and valuable process.
I’d like to form a ‘First Three Club’ where writers band together to offer beta reading and honest criticism of those all-important first three chapters which we send out to agents. Who knows, such a club may already exist, but if one does, it’s a well-concealed secret society – at least, I haven’t found it yet.
If you know of one, please let me know. In the meantime, if I read yours, will you read mine?