We were asked to write a story involving a crowd. My mind went immediately blank. Then Wordsworth's famous poem about daffodils popped into my head: "...a crowd, a host of golden daffodils..." So I sat down to write the story that is summarised at the end of this one. However I got absolutely nowhere with it. I threw it away and wrote this one instead.
But you should never waste material, so I incorporated the the bare bones of the story I failed to write into this one.
Sometimes people ask how long it takes to write a story. That's a hard question to answer because it depends what you mean by "writing". When I actually sat down and started pounding the keys on the keyboard, it took about an hour to write the first draft. Then I spent another hour revising and polishing it. And then it was done. In a sense, it only took two hours to write the story. But I'd been thinking about it on and off for three days before I approached the keyboard. Consequently, by the time I started to type, it was mostly there in my head and all I was really doing was transcribing it...
So did the story take three days to write, or did it take two hours to write? I don't really know...
When Bob arrived at my house that evening he was quite excited. "Hey," he said, "I've found a really intriguing web site."
"It's a scam," I told him.
Bob looked hurt. "How can you say that?" he asked. "You haven't even looked at it yet."
"I don't need to look at it," I explained. "I've known you since we were both five years old when we sat together in Miss Tyler's infant school class. You have no secrets from me. The web site is a scam."
Bob and I did everything together as we grew up. We went to the same pubs, we listened to the same music, we fell in love with the same girls, we lived in each other's pockets. Nevertheless, somehow our lives still managed to go in quite different directions. I wanted to be a scientist and Bob wanted to be very, very rich. Bob studied Business Administration at university and I got a degree in chemistry. Bob went on to a high-flying career in entrepreneurial management. He had completely satisfied his stated ambition by the time he was thirty. But I found that by the time I graduated, I was completely disillusioned with chemistry and I had absolutely no idea what to do next. After floundering around aimlessly for a while, I somehow ended up as a freelance writer journalism, the odd short story, the ghost writer of autobiographies of the rich and reckless. That sort of thing. It keeps the wolf from the door. Just about.
Despite his managerial skills, Bob is often more than a little naïve about the ways of the world. He thinks the best of everyone and he is always very shocked and surprised when they take advantage of him. Furthermore, his lack of technical knowledge makes him the ideal target for computer con tricks, and he's lost several small fortunes over the years by giving money to Nigerian princes who told him that they had several billion dollars on deposit in Nigerian banks. All they needed was a small donation that they could use to bribe some bank officials. Then they would be able to smuggle the money out of the country. Of course, once they got the money out of Nigeria, they would be happy to share it with the people who had provided the initial loan...
One day Bob got an email that said it came from me. It explained that I was stuck in Kuala Lumpur. I'd had my passport, airline tickets and wallet stolen. Could he send me $5000 so that I could replace them? Of course he could and he sent the money off via Western Union immediately. He told me all about it in the pub that evening. He was very proud of himself for rescuing me and mildly surprised that I'd got back home so quickly from so far away...
I can't tell you how many pyramid schemes he's invested in. Every time I tell him it's a pyramid scheme he says, "No, this one is different. It's not a pyramid scheme, it's called MLM Multi Level Marketing. It's quite legitimate."
Sometimes I despair... His proudest moment was when he fell for a classic crowdfunding scam. A web site was soliciting contributions from interested parties all over the world. The donated money would be used to finance the manufacture and marketing of something the site referred to as a "Dean Machine". This device was first publicised in the 1950s by it's inventor, the late Norman L. Dean. It used asymmetric cams to generate a uni-directional force that propelled the machine (and any attached payload such as a submarine or a spaceship) in the direction of the force. It promised to revolutionise all forms of transport both on and off the world! Bob had donated more that $10,000 before he told me about it and showed me the web site.
"Bob," I said, "it's a scam. The Dean Machine breaks the laws of physics. It can't possible work."
Bob remained unconvinced. "The only laws that apply in this country," he said proudly, "are the laws of this country." And he donated another $10,000.
"Mark my words," I told him, "all the crowdfunding donations will vanish into a black hole and the people who have solicited the money from you will fold their tents and steal away into the night."
A month or so later, the web site posted an apologetic message saying that they hadn't received enough money to manufacture the machine. Unfortunately they couldn't return the donations that they'd been given. The money had all been spent on raw materials and administration fees...
I resisted the temptation to say, "I told you so!"
Consequently, when Bob came round that night and told me that he'd found an intriguing new web site, my first reaction was to assume that it had to be just another scam.
"No," said Bob. "You really have to take a look at it. You know how computers are taking over more and more of people's jobs?"
"Yes," I said. "Ever since computers were first invented, people have been saying that they will usher in a new age of leisure as they start to take over the tasks that have previously needed warm bodies to perform them. I remain dubious. Every job they take over usually generates at least three more jobs that people need to do."
Bob took that in his stride. "This is different," he said. "This one is going to put you out of business."
"Me?" I asked.
"Yes," said Bob. "It's a crowdfunding site that is going to develop an Artificial Intelligence program that will do the sort of freelance writing that you make a living with. All you need to do is provide the program with a theme and maybe a few key words. Then it will write the story for you."
"I see," I said. "So if I tell it that the theme is 'Guilt', and the piece must be no more than 1500 words long, the program will happily write a story about an author who feels so guilty about the books he shoplifted when he was a child that when he returns to the bookshop for an autograph session he assuages his conscience by donating all the books he signs to the bookshop owner?"
"Yes," said Bob.
"Or," I said, warming to the idea, "if the program is told to write a story about a crowd and you give it Wordsworth's daffodil poem '...a crowd, a host of golden daffodils...' to work with, it will write a story about a man who works in a genetic engineering laboratory. He goes out one day to check on the crowd of daffodils they have growing in the field next to the lab. The daffodils tell him that they are all very worried about being uprooted by other plants that have escaped from the lab and gone rogue. While he is reassuring them that they have nothing to worry about, he is attacked by a mutant black tulip, but he is rescued in the nick of time by a scarlet pimpernel and they all live happily ever after?"
"Something like that," said Bob.
"Nonsense," I said. "It's a scam."
"I'm donating half a million dollars," said Bob. "I really believe in this one. Come on, let's go down the pub. There's a new guest beer on tap."
For the last six months I've been living on my savings. All my usual markets have dried up and I've not been able to drum up any new business at all. It happens sometimes. Every business has its ups and downs, its time in the doldrums. I'm sure I'll get a new commission soon...