Alex Eaton-Salners is an in-house attorney for Western Digital, a technology company headquartered in San Jose, Calif.
This is the last pre-pandemic daily puzzle I had left in the NYT queue. It's been a crazy couple of years since it was accepted. Lots of changes in the crossworld and in society at large.
My next several crosswords in the Times will probably be variety puzzles. Similarly, as Will Shortz mentioned in his introduction to my most recent Sunday grid, my first published puzzle book is a collection of diagramless crosswords. It comes out next month from Puzzlewright Press and includes an extensive how-to-solve guide for diagramless newbies. You can pre-order a copy here.
Diagramless puzzles are clued on the easier side, so even if you're only a mid-week solver, I'd encourage you to try the next one the Times runs (it might even be by me!). Or, if you'd prefer to check out the archives, look at February 6, 2022, June 27, 2021, or October 18, 2020.
I left several "seconds" on the cutting room floor while creating today's puzzle, including HELIUM, EXODUS, TAURUS, and FEBRUARY. Needless to say, I had a hard time finding a word that starts with UARY!
As sometimes happens, the starting point for this puzzle didn't end up in the final grid. While brainstorming on another puzzle idea involving the phrase UP OR OUT, I came up with the gimmick you see here. UP OR OUT describes career advancement in hierarchical partnership and tenure organizations, where workers either need to climb the ladder or leave. During the editorial process, UP OR OUT was replaced with IN OR OUT, erasing the link to the original inspiration. So, I guess that means the result was "OUT" rather than "UP" for UP OR OUT. ;-)
In some ways, this puzzle marks the end of an era for me. It was my last snail mail submission accepted by the editors (though not the last to be published as I still have a couple of earlier acceptances in the queue). Although the online portal is easier to use, I miss the ritual of printing, collating, and sending puzzles in by hand. And, unfortunately for me, I purchased a large supply of envelopes, stamps, labels, and paper clips just before the changeover.
This grid is a blast from the past for me. I constructed it about two-and-a-half years ago (minus the upper-right corner that the editing team rejiggered after acceptance). When I see one of my puzzles after so long, it's like I'm seeing it for the first time — a very strange sensation.
My initial idea was to use anti-kangaroo words with single-letter differences to spell out a message. I gathered all the examples I could find and listed out their letters. Other than a single E, everything was consonants. I decided that SECRET would be a fitting (and doable) revealer if I could find another example that used E. Since the second E word needed to be symmetrically opposite (T)HERE, I manually scoured through lists of five-letter words until I found the H(E)AVE combination.
Once the theme set was in place, the grid-making and cluing went pretty smoothly. Although the order of the themers is fixed (which increases construction difficulty), their relatively short length (except for (R)EVOLUTIONARY) provides an alternative type of flexibility. In particular, it allows placing (C)OVERT and F(E)ASTS in the middle of their rows (a non-standard place for themers).
It's too bad that this puzzle ran so soon after my March 25th grid, which also involved anti-kangaroo words. Today's puzzle was in the queue for 23 months and the one from March was in the queue for only 8 months, so it seems like they could have been spaced out a bit differently.
This puzzle originally employed a much trickier gimmick. Rather than putting both halves of each pseudo-antonym pair in the grid, it clued one pseudo-antonym from each pair (identified with an asterisked clue) while putting its complement into the grid. One advantage of that presentation was that it accommodated twice as many pairings. The editors liked the basic idea of pseudo-antonyms but suggested putting both halves in the puzzle instead.
Embracing that restriction helped me tighten the theme. I pivoted to only including pseudo-antonyms with a positional aspect. And I was able to put everything in the correct place: OVER & HIGH on top, LEFT & RIGHT correctly ordered in the middle, and LOW & UNDER on the bottom. It's a subtle touch.
When I saw the pre-publication proof two weeks ago, I was surprised by a couple of things. First, that the puzzle would run on a Monday. During construction, the editing team requested clues at a Wednesday-ish level. Second, and more surprising, was the change to the last three theme clues. They were originally straight clues (per the editing team's recommendation). I would think converting them to cross-references ups the difficulty, which is counterintuitive for a Wednesday-ish puzzle running on a Monday.
Finally, based on last week's announcement, I believe this will be the last NYT crossword offered as a .puz file. Hopefully, this is an enjoyable final solve in that format!
Kangaroo words are words that contain a shorter synonym hidden inside. For example, the word STEALTHY contains S-L-Y. And if the shorter "joey" word is an antonym rather than a synonym (like today's theme entries), the container word is called an anti-kangaroo word. Interestingly, there are far fewer solid anti-kangaroo words than kangaroo words.
I was happy to see the clues [Color on the flag of every permanent U.N. Security Council member — RED] and [Distance between "some" and "where" in "Somewhere over the rainbow" — OCTAVE] made the cut. I enjoy writing evocative clues for common words. In particular, the latter paints a strong mental image of stretching my right pinky to hit the second C while playing the piano. On the other hand, I was saddened that the editors removed several women from my clues while adding men to clues that previously did not contain a reference to a person. I strive to be inclusive in my clue writing, especially when the grid entries aren't very diverse.
Finally, March 6th was the 500th anniversary of Ferdinand Magellan landing in Guam (my birthplace). To commemorate this anniversary and celebrate Mes CHamoru (Chamorro Heritage Month), Jim Peredo (whose family is Guamanian) and I are publishing four Guam-themed crosswords in the Pacific Daily News. You can check out the first three here: "Island Time" by Alex Eaton-Salners and Jim Peredo, "Travel Advisory" by Jim Peredo and Alex Eaton-Salners, and "Seal of Approval" by Jim Peredo and Alex Eaton-Salners. The fourth will drop this Sunday.
Looking at the puzzle through new eyes (it's been more than two years since I made it), I especially like the ELF-ELF from ELVES example as neither TWELVE nor STEPS appears in the grid. It feels more elegant than the others since EFFECT, TABLE, and NAMES are unchanged. That said, DIE-DIE from DICE is especially nice (!) as adding an internal consonant is an unusual plural construction. I also like that each of the plurals is formed differently (consonant change plus an extra vowel and consonant, consonant addition, single vowel change, and double vowel change).
I enjoy seeing how the editorial team massages the cluing. Some clues make it through unchanged, some are tweaked, and others are completely redone using a different sense of the word.
A few clues I miss:
GORE: ["The Thing" thing] became [Feature of a creature feature, perhaps]
DRAWER: [Chest chamber] became [Part of a cabinet]
MOM: [Ewe to me, if I were a sheep] became [May day celebrant]
IS IT ART?: [A question of framing?] became [Question one might ask when looking at a banana taped to the wall]
On the other hand, I really dig the playfulness of the revised version of IS IT ART?.
Notably, the theme clues also received a more straightforward treatment from the editors:
COME[DIC E]FFECT was [Routine justification?]
TW[ELVE S]TEPS was [Way to keep dry?]
COF[FEE T]ABLE was [Remote location?]
Perhaps that's to ratchet down the difficulty?
It's surprisingly difficult to assemble a usable set of well-known government agencies that don't repeat Agency, Commission, Department, Federal, National, Security, Service, or Trade. We discovered this over ice cream in fall 2018, which now feels like a lifetime ago. Since this puzzle was accepted, the ice cream store where we did our brainstorming closed, the president was impeached, and a pandemic has gripped the planet.
A queue time of more than two years seems long (especially for a debut!). Perhaps Will has an overabundance of Wednesdays and/or hidden-word themes. As of August 2019, Wednesday was Will's third-longest queue with 41 puzzles awaiting publication.
Our must-haves were NSA and AIRCRAFT CARRIER. Ed retired from a career as a U. S. Navy Cryptologic Officer in ceremonies aboard the frigate Constellation in Baltimore's Inner Harbor while stationed at the NSA. Prior to that, among other posts, he served aboard the aircraft carrier Constellation during the Vietnam War.
Our starting point was trying to incorporate NSA into a crossword theme. The idea of hiding government agencies in theme entries actually preceded the revealer GOVERNMENT BONDS. But once we found that, we were off to the races!
ALEX: I'm jealous of Ed's 100% acceptance rate at the NYT (he's one-for-one). It took me 16 rejections before I got my first acceptance!
ED: I'd like to claim some credit for Alex's love of puzzles. We played many word games on the way to school, and I was his math and English teacher for two years.
In an ideal world, all of the plus signs would be perfectly symmetric like those in the middle and upper-right. Unfortunately, ZERO, FOUR, FIVE, and NINE have an even number of letters, which means they can't be symmetrically distributed when crossing. Likewise, no usable odd-length numbers share a middle letter. Therefore, some slightly funky plus signs are the order of the day.
In fact, regardless of their shape, there aren't many equations that generate usable plus signs. There are two constraints at work:
First, the sum must be hidden in two theme answers that are unrelated to the number (ruling out things like THE SIXTH SENSE as a base phrase for THREE + THREE = SIX).
Second, because the shape of the crossed addends must (roughly) resemble a plus sign, they need to share an internal letter (i.e., zERo, oNe, tWo, tHREe, fOUr, fIVe, sIx, sEVEn, eIGHt, nINe, and tEn). We stop at TEN, because larger addends will create a sum that fails the first constraint. As you can see, a number like TWO can only be paired with another TWO since no other numbers have an internal W.
And from those valid equations, our choices are even more limited if we don't repeat sums. That means, for example, choosing only one of FIVE + FIVE = TEN, SEVEN + THREE = TEN, and NINE + ONE = TEN. Likewise, sticking to one ZERO addend as a final twist for the lower-right reduces the possible combinations even further.
Although today's gimmick is similar to my Sunday from last August entitled Bird Play, the idea here predates that puzzle by a couple years. It was originally conceived in 2016, though in a slightly different form.
Themer choices were pretty limiting. BANANA SPLIT had just a couple of alternatives: BANK OF GHANA and BANK OF GUYANA. CHOPPED LIVER was my choice for "chopped" in the original version of the puzzle, though it didn't have any good options at the lengths I needed in this re-imagining. I was really happy to find MASHED POTATO in FOOT PATROLS. It would have been easier to settle for a shorter anagram string, but I think uncovering a 6+ letter sequence makes for a more enjoyable solving experience.
Of course, when picking viable theme entries, I was also constrained by crossword symmetry. I'm super happy that I achieved ordering consistency between the upper and lower sets of themers. Doing so required cross-pairing the lengths. So, for example, the 12-letter BANK OF GUYANA pairs with MASHED POTATO while the 11-letter FOOT PATROLS pairs with BANANA SPLIT.
Favorite clues cut in the editorial process: [It might picture a pitcher] (BASEBALL CARD), [Possible side effect of drugs?] (R-RATING), [Do one thing after another?] (MIMIC), [Junk collector?] (PIRATE), and [Cat nap trap?] (LAP).
For the record, my favorite theme answers to eat, in order, are BANANA SPLIT, MASHED POTATO, CHOPPED SALAD, and STUFFED OLIVE.
I sometimes wonder if crossword editors deliberately foreshadow difficult or unusual words, definitions, or trivia. For example, before a hard word appears in an early-week puzzle or as part of a difficult crossing, do editors try to use that word in the preceding weeks to semantically prime solvers to succeed?
If so, could that also apply to grid art?
Earlier this month, ONION DOMES made its NYT debut with the verbose clue [*Colorful architectural features of Moscow's St. Basil Cathedral]. It seems an odd choice to foreshadow the grid art, theme, and marquee entry of a puzzle running a couple of weeks later unless the intention was to prime solvers for success. Though if the foreshadowing was deliberate, I wonder why the editors used the less-common "Basil" instead of "Basil's" in the clue. The other two times the cathedral has been referenced in the Shortz era (in 2013 and 2009), the more common "Basil's" was preferred. Since today's puzzle also uses "Basil's," were the editors trying to amp up the difficulty by tempting solvers to try the "Basil" variant, which doesn't fit since it's one letter too short?
Today's puzzle has been on file since January of 2018, so Will & crew had plenty of time to curate their publication schedule to achieve such a foreshadowing. Or perhaps it was the other way around — the editors were subconsciously influenced to publish today's puzzle after seeing ONION DOMES in the earlier grid. Perhaps we'll never know.
My jumping-off point was BACK TO THE FUTURE. It's my favorite movie, and I wanted to feature it in an NYT puzzle. It's been used three times before, once riffing on PAST/PRESENT/FUTURE and twice in puzzles where it's entered backward. But no puzzle had ever included it in a RIGHT/LEFT/FRONT/BACK sequence using phrases of the form direction/two-word preposition/the/final word, where each preposition is different. Aha! That's my hook!
To obey regular crossword symmetry (i.e., 180-degree rotational symmetry), the first and last theme entries must be the same length. So step one was finding a phrase of the form RIGHT XX THE XXXXX.
XWord Info has a great tool for finding such patterns. Entering the regular expression ^right..the.....$ on the Finder page — or just a normal search for right??the????? — returns three possibilities: RIGHT ON THE MONEY, RIGHT TO THE POINT, and RIGHT IN THE LURCH. The third one, however, is not a standard English phrase. It's crossed out in the search results because it's a nonsense thematic phrase from another puzzle (a play on LEFT IN THE LURCH). Of the two remaining expressions, RIGHT ON THE MONEY is the liveliest.
The LEFT and FRONT phrases also had to balance, and I found the best pairing at length 14 (the aforementioned LEFT IN THE LURCH plus FRONT OF THE LINE). From there, it was smooth sailing (with an emphasis on smooth since early-week puzzles need fill that's familiar to a wide range of solvers).
This puzzle has a few more open squares (72) than a typical 78-word grid, primarily due to the spacing of the four GRAY AREAS. Each of them abuts only a single diagonally adjacent black block. I felt that the gray coloring would stand out better if it were surrounded by as much white space as possible.
Since the theme isn't contained in the puzzle's longest answers, there's a lot more length 7+ bonus material than a typical Tuesday. I'm quite happy with all of it. There are a few clunkers in the 6 and under range, but I think they're reasonable trade-offs for all the fun stuff they enabled.
I hope solvers appreciate the progression of square INCH, square FOOT, square YARD, and square MILE. It's a pretty tight set.
Wow, I just realized that I was spelling GRAY as GREY in these notes [hastily goes back to fix the first paragraph]. Even though GRAY is the preferred American spelling, to me, GREY (the preferred British spelling) just looks better (and is my natural inclination). I blame reading too many books by English authors in my formative years. I recall having armour and colour corrected to armor and color in elementary school.
Finally, although some things in this world are GRAY (or GREY), others are not — like the inherent dignity and value of human life. Black lives matter.
Favorite clues rewritten by the editors (answers at the end):
I'm happy to debut eight words/phrases today, including two that are five letters long (debuting short words/phrases is more unusual than long ones). They are CAR AD, DISCO ERA, MADE A CHOICE, MY FAULT, PLUOT, PUT ON HOLD, ROAD MARKER, and SLEEP LAB. Even though the three long ones are thematic, that's still more newness than I can typically cram into a themed 15x15 grid. Eight debuts is quite high for such puzzles. As of today, that's good enough to tie for second place in 2020.
If you're a logophile looking for a good quarantine read, I recommend Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper. It paints a vivid picture of the people responsible for crafting our most important reference book (sorry encyclopedia fans!). You'll get humorous anecdotes, interesting trivia, and probably more than eight new words!
One final note — I'm surprised there are non-thematic periods and hyphens in today's cluing. I avoided them in the clues I submitted; they seem inelegant. Perhaps the editors intended them to disguise the theme?
Answers: REMIX, STAINED, UMPIRED, AMAZON, CAR AD, EAT ALONE, and CICADAS.
ROMAN GOD makes its NYT crossword debut today. Interestingly, it almost debuted back in 2018 in this puzzle. There, my original submission had the dual revealer of ROMAN GOD and PLANET. Continuing to think about that connection probably contributed to arriving at today's theme (my jumping-off point was the Mercury/Mars pairing).
Having a central 11-letter theme entry (INNER PLANET) forces either vertical triple stacks of 7+-letter words in two corners or a bunch of 3-letter words (if those longer entries are broken up). I chose the former. Another decision point was how to orient the two Utah blocks breaking up the sides. I chose the configuration needing words matching ????G??T and I??S???? rather than ??B????I and T????A??. ??B????I is very limiting, which means fewer options for smooth and interesting fill.
Of course, combining those decisions with the 8-letter themers in rows 3 and 13 creates large swaths of open space in the NE and SW corners. With only a couple of 3-letter words interspersed between the 6s, 7s, and 8s, solvers may have a hard time getting a foothold there.
That layout, plus the low word count (72) and perhaps some hard vocabulary, is likely what bumped this puzzle to Thursday instead of Wednesday, where it was initially slotted. Hopefully, solvers aren't disappointed that the trickiness factor is less than a typical Thursday offering!
I'm excited to complete my cycle +2 (publishing at least one regular crossword on each day of the week plus two variety puzzle types). Next up is probably a double cycle +2, but it might be a cycle +3. We'll see. ;-)
My original submission used PANDA reparsed as a revealer for two-word phrases starting with P and A (PARTY ANIMAL, PENALTY AREA, and PUTTERS AROUND). Some of the other phrases left on the cutting room floor included PENNY ARCADE, POLICE ACADEMY, and PUBLIC AFFAIRS.
While Will & crew liked the gird art, they didn't like the theme and suggested a redo keeping just the PANDA revealer. After seeing the result, however, Will decided that that guidance went too far and requested a new grid that included some thematic material related to PANDAs.
My next grid was almost identical to the final one, featuring BLACK AND WHITE and WASHINGTON ZOO. The only difference was at the top of the grid, where I had HARISSA at 1-Across. Will didn't like HARISSA in that slot and suggested some alternate fill headed by VERISMO. That left the VERISMO/MUR crossing, which I find less elegant than HARISSA/SUR. But, I trust Will to know his audience!
Finally, I really, really hope this puzzle gets published with circles on the P and A of PANDA. They make perfect eyes to complete the grid art. The preview version I saw didn't have them, but hopefully that will change by the time it runs!
This puzzle had a long and winding path from submission to final acceptance.
My original theme set was ROBB STARK, LYFT DRIVER, STEEL CAGE, KNICK-KNACK, and SWIPE LEFT.
Theme entries proposed along the way included LUTE STRINGS, SAC FUNGUS, SEES STARS, MAN OF STEEL, and NEW YORK KNICK. In the end, KEYSTONE KOP was the keystone that tied the rest of the puzzle together. Since the options for LYFT in a terminal position (e.g., CALL A LYFT) weren't idiomatic enough to pass muster, I proposed the dual reveal (SWIPE LEFT/SWIPE RIGHT).
Unfortunately, even with a workable theme set, there was still trouble ahead. Between KNICK-KNACKS, and KEYSTONE KOP, I had to work six K's into the center of the grid. That proved to be unexpectedly difficult. I tried every conceivable configuration in a 15x grid, including adjusting the vertical spacing of the themers, swapping them left-to-right, and adjusting their horizontal positions.
The best option still required filling the slots WG--, IH--, and PT--. The first of those three proved to be fatal. Although WGBH is familiar to me as the producer of "Nova," "Frontline," and "Masterpiece" on PBS, to the editorial team it was a puzzle killer (even with an additional hint to solvers that it's an anagram of the 41st president's initials).
Fortunately, Will allowed me to take the grid to16x. The resulting fill in the bottom-middle is still a bit rough (III, ITIS, SGTS), but I think it's fair.
We submitted this puzzle in December 2018, and it was accepted in April 2019. It's our second collaboration in the NYT.
Our working title for this puzzle was "Instrument Panel." But we informally thought of it as a story about a raunchy rendezvous involving a love triangle, champagne, stilettos, and a sex tape.
Since we knew that angle wouldn't fly in a mainstream venue, in our submitted manuscript we clued the theme entries as "Heel instruments?," "Rom-com plot instruments?," "Toasting instruments?," "Interviewers' instruments?," and "Procreation instruments?" Because those theme clues hint at the dual nature of the instruments in each themer, we thought an additional revealer was unnecessary.
We were a little disappointed to see that the theme clues were edited into more straightforward definitions and paired with a revision of the southeast corner to add the revealer MUSIC. That grid revision, unfortunately, resulted in some infelicitous words being added to the puzzle.
On the other hand, perhaps that change enhances the aha moment by delaying the solver's realization of the connection shared between the theme entries.
In choosing our group of themers, we prioritized examples where the instrument word was used in a completely different sense. For example, a COMPUTER KEYBOARD is very similar in form and function to a piano keyboard, so that was a no-go. We also avoided themers like SEA BASS where the two homographs have different pronunciations.
Conquering complex constraints compels careful crossword construction.
Here, the hardest thing to get right was the shape of the "7" created by the seven C's. Only a few well-known seas have a "C" in them. And, the location of the C's within those seas are fixed. Thus, it took many iterations to whip this puzzle into shape (hah!).
Of course, there's still always flexibility. I originally submitted a grid with CASPIAN and CHINA swapped and with BLACK one row lower. That version had some limiting fill constraints (e.g., _ _ LN in the upper-right from CORAL and CASPIAN), and I had to rework the puzzle to remove them.
That said, the current configuration is still pretty constrained. There are three downs (BEANIE, ROBOTIC, and RELEASE DATE) that intersect three themers and 10 more that intersect two themers. And in four of those 10, the two fixed letters are consecutive (which are typically harder).
I'm lucky that SEVEN SEAS and CARIBBEAN are the same length and that CARIBBEAN is a good candidate for the top-left point of the 7 glyph, which means SEVEN SEAS can be symmetrically placed as a revealer. If that hadn't worked out, I would have used a stacked SEVEN/SEAS revealer in the lower-right corner.
If you ever visit Horseshoe Falls, allow plenty of time to find parking. When we went, all the lots were full and it took quite some doing to find an open space. Unfortunately, we had a flight to catch that afternoon, so we could only run to the falls, take a quick peak, and then hustle back to the car. Next time, I'd like to meander over to the Canadian side, check out the "Cave of the Winds" viewing area behind Bridal Veil Falls, and ride the Maid of the Mist.
This tribute to "T" took tremendous toil. Thankfully, tallying the terms that T triggers/terminates transcends trifles. The textual tightness that "T" traces transfers terrifically too. Therefore, T's tailor-made to tie together this theme (tentatively titled "Tee Time").
Tossing the T's, (t)ROU(t)/(t)ROU transforms to twin trigrams. Traditionally taboo, today's thematic tenet terms this twosome tolerable. Torpedoing this tradition tends to trouble "team tetchy" (though this transcriber thinks that truculence tiresome).
Trigrams tend to triteness. Typically, tackling ten to twelve trigrams thoroughly taints the thrill. Truncating the thematic terms, today's trigramatic tetrad trounces that trend.
Tricky Thursday themes that thrill through tough-to-twig techniques take twice (to tenfold) the time to tack together. Though taxing, this task's terribly tempting to try (thirteen through today!). Translating twisty Thursday turns to text takes tenaciousness. Transporting thinkers to temporary titillation — that's the true test. The thornier the territory, the tastier to tackle.
This Thursday trade thrives through technology: tightening the theme, throwing together the template, tweaking the terms, tailoring the textual tips. Thunderous thanks to the trailblazing techies tendering terrific tools to transform this titanic task to tractability. Though these tools trim the tedium, turning them to trenchant Toledos takes tireless training.
Sometimes the stars align around publication dates. Even though it's been close to two years since this puzzle was accepted, the timing is spot on. I currently have STIEG Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy on loan from the library. I'll be starting on "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" as soon as I finish Robin Hobb's "The Golden Fool." I'm reading my way through her oeuvre, and I need a break since her next book, "Fool's Fate" isn't available through my local library (and it will take some time for an inter-library loan request to come through). I enjoy her "The Realm of the Elderlings" stories — they're in a similar vein as George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series and Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn" series, both of which I highly recommend if you like epic fantasy.
That said, looking back on this puzzle now, the crossing of STIEG and EGON may be difficult for some solvers. Since both names are unusual, it could be difficult to infer the G if you aren't familiar with either one.
Likewise, another crossing that I'd rework if I were remaking the puzzle today is AREOLAR and EPOCHAL. Neither word is great on its own, and crossing two similarly awkward words makes each stand out all the more. That crossing, however, is much fairer to the solver since the base words are well known. The problem there lies more in elegance than potential Natick creation.
The inspiration for this puzzle was the Disneyland version of the Dapper Dans, a barbershop quartet who perform along Main Street, U.S.A. Along with the ragtime piano player at Refreshment Corner (shout-out to Patrick, who's the best of the bunch!), the Dapper Dans are my favorite atmospheric entertainment in the park.
The impetus for this puzzle was a bizarre desire to make something interesting out of the terrible crosswordese abbreviation AT NOS. My original submission used that phrase as the revealer, thereby giving a raison d'être for abbreviating the chemical elements. To enhance the theme, I created a sparse, super-symmetric grid-art layout evocative of the Rutherford-Bohr model of an atom.
Unusually, this theme relies on two-letter entries. They break the fundamental crossword convention that all words should be at least three letters long. For reference, only six other NYT grids in the Shortz era have contained two-letter words.
Unfortunately, since the original grid only had 25 black blocks, the fill was relatively weak. Generally speaking, the more white space you have, the harder it is to find clean fill. Furthermore, by using such a spartan grid configuration, I was at the mercy of the crossword gods as to which elements got featured. Luckily, despite these flaws, Will Shortz and crew were still interested in the idea. They offered that if I could create a cleaner grid featuring more familiar elements, they'd take a look.
The current arrangement uses 12 cheater squares. They make filling easier and provide flexibility to manipulate which elements get featured. By changing how many black squares there are and where they are deployed, the two-letter slots can correspond to different clue numbers. For example, if the cheater square in the upper-left corner were removed, the first element would be Beryllium (BE) instead of Lithium (LI).
Using these cheater squares, however, muddles the grid art and eliminates the supersymmetry. Ultimately, however, a clean, interesting solve rightfully takes priority. I hope this puzzle provides that.
My originally submitted grid used the revealer FRENCH OPENS and had ETE VACATION, AMI REQUEST, OUI VOTE, and EAU BALLOON as the theme entries. To tighten the theme (and make the puzzle more approachable for non-French speakers like myself), I limited it to three-letter French words that are common in crosswords. Pop quiz: Which one of these four French words (ETE, AMI, OUI, and EAU) has appeared the most frequently in NYT non-variety crosswords edited by Will Shortz? Hint: It's the one that I didn't know when I started constructing crosswords. Answer at the end of this note.
When I heard a couple of weeks ago that I'd have a Thursday NYT puzzle published today, I didn't expect it to be this one. I pitched this puzzle to tie in with the timing of the French Open, and so when Roland-Garros came and went earlier this year I figured it wouldn't see the light of day until 2020. Likewise, when this grid was accepted it was slated for a Wednesday. So I was quite surprised when it popped up on my constructor preview at XWord Info.
Perhaps the French word substitution gimmick played more difficult than excepted for Will's test solvers — thereby bumping the puzzle into Thursday territory. Or maybe running it so far from the French Open made the theme more difficult to grok. Either way, it means that (once again) I've restored balance to the universe by having as many published Thursday grids as I have non-Thursday weekday grids. ;-)
Answer to the pop quiz: As of yesterday, ETE has been used 282 times (vs. AMI at 241, EAU at 155, and OUI at 89). However, none of them can top the most-popular word of the Shortz era, which at 582 uses is ERA (ha!).
In the aggregate, I spent more time creating this puzzle than any other I have ever made — by a significant margin. Since I first started working on it in January of 2017, I estimate I spent well over 100 hours (and probably more than 200 hours) working and re-working this idea.
As originally submitted, the puzzle had SWISS ROLL at 1-Across and DESSERT CASES in the last row. It also had a much more aggressive grid pattern, with only three blocks in the lower right corner and only nine 3-letter words along the width of the outermost spiral (as opposed to 12 such words in the final version).
The major breakthroughs that finally enabled the fill to pass muster with Will were (1) scaling back the lower-right corner (turning that corner with 6 blocks is much easier than with only 3); (2) replacing DESSERT CASES with the shorter PATISSERIE (or PATISSERIES in some incarnations); and (3) moving the thematic content to places that were easier to work with than the top and bottom. I also spent a lot of time minutely adjusting the shape of the spiral in different ways. Even moving a single block by one space often greatly changed the fill possibilities. And due to the extremely high level of interlock, replacing even a few objectionable words typically required reworking the entire puzzle.
The caliber of fill cleanliness that the NYT requires for a Friday or Saturday puzzle is extremely high, and it was quite difficult to pull off this grid shape and mini-theme to that exacting standard. During the revision process, I would sometimes put the puzzle away in frustration for months at a time before crawling back to it again. I'm not sure why, but I really wanted to get this one over the finish line.
I'm a bit surprised to see this puzzle running on a Thursday, as it was initially clued and slated for Wednesday. I suppose the gimmick was harder for the test solvers than expected. That said, minor day-of-the-week publication queue changes are not unusual in my (admittedly limited) experience.
I enjoyed reviewing the editorial revisions to the theme answer cluing. Beyond minor adjustments like "less than a trade occupation" in place of the original "less than an occupation," there were a few more substantial modifications. For example, instead of "a jerk" cluing TWITCH, I had "a Nintendo console" cluing SWITCH. In general, the edits made the theme clues easier to decipher, which is consistent with the gimmick proving harder than anticipated for solvers.
Working with 55 theme squares spread over 11 short entries puts some strain on the grid. Every vertical word goes through at least one themer. Likewise, the puzzle doesn't contain any entries longer than nine letters and only has 15 words of length five or more, which makes for a choppy solve. If instead the 55 theme squares had been contained in entries of length 10, 10, 15, 10, 10, the grid could have been more balanced.
Another unusual feature is having across entries that are longer than any thematic material. Usually, that muddles a puzzle's theme. Here, however, with so many short themers, I had to include some longer, horizontal non-thematic material to keep the puzzle from exceeding the 78-word limit. For example, breaking GAS TANKS at the T would bring the word count up to 80. Fortunately, because the theme entries are apparent from the cluing, there's no danger of confusion.
I hope deciphering the 11 theme riddles is a fun change of pace and makes up for the puzzle's other shortcomings.
Here are three other theme pairings that weren't used in the puzzle:
Likewise, crossword symmetry limited what I could pair with each "bird play." Here are a few examples more dynamic than EVANGELIZE that contain a SPREAD EAGLE. Unfortunately, their lengths didn't lend themselves to symmetric theme placement.
That said, I like how evenly the E-A-G-L-E letters are SPREAD out in EVANGELIZE and how the first and last letters are both included. It's very visually satisfying. So maybe that one's fine as is.
On a personal note, this puzzle is memorable because it completed my cycle of daily puzzle acceptances at the NYT (getting a standard crossword accepted on every day of the week). Unsurprisingly, this one came out before my earlier Friday and Saturday acceptances, since the queue times on those days are much longer than for Sundays. Hopefully, everything will get published on its slated day, and I'll be able to claim a real cycle!
I'm surprised to see this puzzle published so close to my Tuesday crossword from April 9, 2019. Both puzzles rely on the same linguistic oddity (semordnilaps), though the rest of their gimmicks are very different. Even so, spacing the two puzzles further apart might have allowed the previous theme to fade a bit more from solvers' collective memory. On the other hand, there's only one overlapping semordnilap pair: the NAME TAG/GATEMAN combination. Fortuitously, that's also the last one a solver would encounter if solving top-to-bottom.
Today's grid was made six months before the April puzzle. It's interesting to me that solvers are encountering them in an order opposite their creation. Though perhaps that fits perfectly with the semordnilaps theme. ;-)
For this puzzle, I focused on long (6+ letters) semordnilap pairs that exhibit changes in spacing. I think it's much more exciting to find TO ORDER hidden in RED ROOT than REPAID hidden in DIAPER. Of course, there aren't a lot of long semordnilaps to choose from, so my options were pretty limited. Some of the other pairs that didn't make the cut include STRESSED/DESSERTS, DELIVER/REVILED, NO TIPS/SPIT ON, NO PETS/STEP ON, and WONTON/NOT NOW.
One ding for the puzzle is that the theme answers (CUSTOMIZED, STUDENTS, etc.) are somewhat prosaic. That's due to (1) terse clues (similar to a classical definition theme); (2) limited options on the semordnilap front; and (3) symmetry and length requirements. Hopefully the fun of the puzzle isn't in the theme words themselves — it's in deciphering the clues and figuring out the backwards answers.
Clocking in at 42 letters, I believe "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" is one of the longest non-quote word strings to ever appear in a daily NYT crossword puzzle. Evenly spreading it out over the entire grid to simulate pointillism while maintaining the best fill possible required several non-standard constraints and techniques.
First, I spaced out the "letter dots" so that no two dots were orthogonally adjacent. I initially tried to avoid diagonal adjacency too, but that proved too constraining on the surrounding fill. Spacing out the dots in this way gives the grid a more uniform and aesthetically pleasing pattern.
Second, I intersected parts of the painting's name with POINTILLISM and GEORGES SEURAT, which I also had to keep away from the top, the bottom, and each other. The result: 14 dots before either word, 2 dots in POINTILLISM, 15 dots between the two, 3 dots in GEORGES SEURAT, and 8 dots afterward.
Third, I placed letter dots in positions where the fill would be least constrained. For example, the J in JATTE is placed in the lower-left corner where it is relatively isolated from other letter dots and starts a 5-letter horizontal word. In English, J is much more common at the start of words than in other positions. Based on XWord Info's word list, there are 317 valid strings with a J as the first letter of a 5-letter word, versus 27, 84, 48, and 9 valid strings when the J is in the other positions. Since the title unfolds top-to-bottom in a fixed order, I had much more control over horizontal placement than vertical placement. For example, after the J, I had to work in 4 more letters, which limits how high or low it can be positioned.
This puzzle took some back-and-forth before it was accepted for publication. The sticking point was the answer for [Three to get ready]. My original submission used APPETIZER TRIO (balanced by PAIR OF TICKETS), but the editorial team thought that phrase wasn't sufficiently common. Will and crew did, however, like the basic idea well enough to invite me to suggest alternatives for that slot. Among the others I proposed my favorite was PREQUEL TRILOGY. Unfortunately, none of my ideas worked for them.
However, in a stroke of luck for me, they counterproposed STOP DROP AND ROLL (in the sense of getting ready for an emergency) and asked if I could come up with something to balance it out. I found BROADWAY TICKETS and the rest is history.
Regarding cluing, I'm generally a big fan of the editorial team's revisions — they know their audience and the types of clues that work well. This time, however, there were a few changes I was disappointed by.
As a mathematically inclined person, I was sad to see the inspirational ADA Lovelace replaced by the Nabokov title character. I also miss my echoing clues for AREA and OCTANT (Pi r squared, for a circle & Pi/4 radians, respectively). But, I can see how those changes make for a better Wednesday solving experience. Likewise, I understand replacing Rita ORA and ANA Gasteyer to reduce the number of people in the grid.
On the other hand, I'm not a fan of the published clue for OPHELIA. Although the line is well known, it marginalizes and dismisses Ophelia and, by extension, women generally. The clue also defines Ophelia through the lens of Hamlet rather than allowing her to stand on her own as a character. I hope it doesn't engender any unpleasantness for solvers.
I'm curious to see how this puzzle will be presented in print and in the NYT app. I shaded CATERPILLAR gray in my submission, and I hope this feature will be preserved. It's visually appealing for two reasons.
First, the final grid art looks better with a head/body (in gray) to go with the wings (depicted by the connect-the-dots feature). Second, the gray CATERPILLAR also resembles a caterpillar, making its transformation into a butterfly more remarkable.
Unusually, there's almost nothing in common between my first submission and the final grid. Originally, I had CATERPILLAR in the same central vertical slot, but I used right/left symmetry for the grid, which made the pattern on the wings symmetric and much prettier. CATERPILLAR's bottom R intersected METAMORPHOSIS.
Unfortunately, a central vertical theme entry in a puzzle with left-right symmetry requires using either (1) two flanking vertical entries at least as long as the central entry (which both strains the fill and makes it unclear what's thematic and what's not); or (2) a one-letter word somewhere in the middle of the puzzle. I chose the latter.
Given the aesthetic considerations at play. I hoped for an exception to the NYT's prohibition on words less than three letters long. Unfortunately, Will and crew didn't go for:
Reluctantly, I abandoned my dreams of left-right symmetry and looked for options using standard rotational symmetry. After some brainstorming, I found the final configuration of BUTTERFLY and CHRYSALIS symmetrically intersecting CATERPILLAR. Sometimes the crossword gods are kind.
One final note: I'm super bummed that my clue for PANDEMIC didn't survive the editorial process. I clued it as the [best-selling cooperative board game]. If you're into games and looking for something new, I highly recommend it.
This puzzle was published pretty quickly. It's been less than a year since I wrote it, and only about nine months since I got the always thrilling "Crosswords — Yes" email from the editorial crew. Over time, I've noticed that puzzles that depart from common theme types often make it into print much faster than more traditional grids. So if you're looking for speedy publication, my advice is to push the boundaries of originality and novelty!
To build the grid, I started by finding and placing some "long" across entries into a promising configuration. There aren't too many valid English semordnilaps (words that have different meanings when read forwards and backward) with more than five letters, so my options were pretty limited.
Next, I slowly, painfully filled in each section while referencing two different word lists — my normal list and a special one that only contained semordnilaps. As is typical with highly constrained stunt puzzles, I frequently reached dead ends and had to tear up what I'd already created. While filling, I also had to avoid words whose reverse I'd already put somewhere else.
An unfortunate side effect of the paucity of longer semordnilaps was that I had to keep most of the across slots at five letters or fewer. I wanted to incorporate more longer semordnilaps, but it was too constraining on the rest of the fill.
I'm not sure I've ever seen a published NYT puzzle with only ten entries longer than five letters. It would be interesting to know if that's a record. Likewise, XWord Info only tracks puzzles with the longest average word length– I'd be curious to know where this one stacks up against others with a very low average word length.
The theme of this puzzle was largely hashed out over dinner at Red Robin. The most important decision was which pairs of words to include. We wanted the Spanish to be fair and recognizable to a large portion of the solving population. Luckily, only one of us speaks Spanish. Therefore, we leveraged the perspective of the non-Spanish speaker to help make that determination.
Of course, all pairs of widely-recognizable English and Spanish words that start with the same letter don't necessarily work in this type of crossword puzzle. This is especially true with 16 crossing theme entries totaling 68 of the 186 white squares.
Some of the other combinations with well-known Spanish words that didn't make the cut were: BATHROOM/BAÑO, PLEASE/POR FAVOR, and RIVER/RÍO. Ultimately, the requirements of grid symmetry and theme interlock (e.g., the shared "O" between FUEGO and HELLO) dictated which themers worked the best. We tried to get DAY/DÍA to fit in the upper-left corner so we could start with DAY and end with NIGHT, but the resulting fill options weren't good enough. Instead, we went with SUN/SOL.
We're happy to see almost all of our clues kept as-is or only slightly modified. Queena has been trying to get a "The Baby-Sitters Club" reference into one of her published crossword puzzles for a long time, so we were especially pleased to see that come to pass.
One final trivia question. Four of the eight semantically-paired Spanish words have appeared in the NYT crossword puzzle more often than their English equivalents. Which words are they? To find the answer, click on "Analyze this puzzle" at the bottom of the page.
As originally submitted, this puzzle contained two stacked revealers intersecting the final N and E of SATURNINE: ROMAN GOD and PLANET. That arrangement necessitated a couple of cheater squares under PLANET and made the fill a bit rough in the lower-right corner. Therefore, I was asked to revise the puzzle to just use the single revealer PLANETS.
At the time, that seemed like a reasonable trade-off — sacrifice the second revealer to remove four cheater squares and get better fill. Looking at the puzzle as it goes to press, however, I realize that without the additional ROMAN GOD revealer, the theme feels a bit incomplete. Although the Earth isn't named after a Roman deity like the five planets alluded to in the puzzle, it is nevertheless a planet. I wish I had added EARTHEN or EARTHLY once the ROMAN GOD angle was lost. It would have even been symmetrically balanced by MARTIAN.
Perhaps this puzzle is better suited to the Ptolemaic system where the Earth isn't a planet, you say? Alas, that arrangement doesn't quite match what I've presented either. Under a geocentric model, the observable celestial bodies are arranged in concentric spheres around the Earth: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the fixed stars, and then the Primum Mobile (which accounts for the diurnal motion caused by the Earth's rotation).
Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto weren't included because they aren't visible to the naked eye and were only discovered after the invention of the telescope. By the way, Uranus is the only planet in our solar system (besides Earth) that isn't named after a Roman god. It's named after Uranus, the primordial Greek god of the sky.
This puzzle began life as a different piece of music. And the solfège notes came at the end instead of the beginning. That iteration, however, had a problem. The solfège notes in one of the theme entries were (despite orthographic identity) pronounced differently in the base phrase. It was tough to let that version go, but the resulting consistency in pronunciation makes the theme a lot stronger. Good thing that DODO, SOSO, LALA, and SO sound the way they do!
This puzzle's revealer could also have come from "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," which shares the same first seven notes as "The Alphabet Song." Both (along with "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep") derive from the French children's song "Ah! vous dirai-je, maman."
I hope the non-thematic music-related entries, RIHANNA, ONO, BASSI, TURNTABLE, EAR, LES [Misérables], and SXSW are a nice plus for solvers. It's fun to sprinkle theme-adjacent material into a grid, but sometimes I worry that it might be a distraction. Hopefully I struck a good balance here.
I suspect Will and crew have a backlog of rebus puzzles in their Thursday inventory. This one took nearly as long to go from acceptance to publication (17 months) as my first 5 Thursday puzzles combined (3+1.5+3+5+5 = 17.5 months).
Since I created this puzzle so long ago, I see it now through a very different set of eyes. When I wrote it, I was really into creating pangrammatic grids (i.e., using all the letters of the alphabet at least once). While scrabbly letters can be great since they're generally rarer in crosswords, if I were making this puzzle today, I would prioritize smoother fill over including the last few letters of the alphabet. For example, QED, UTE, and ETRE seem like a high price to pay for the Q in the upper-left corner.
On the other hand, I still agree with my decision to deploy the Utah block (i.e., the Utah-shaped clump of 5 contiguous black squares) in the lower right. Once THIN OUT, INBOX, and OUTBOX were in place, if I hadn't deployed the Utah block (i.e., if I had put a black square where the S in SHELL is and removed the 3 black squares to the left), then there would have been only one entry into that corner (THIN OUT). To create good grid flow, you want at least two words to connect any isolated section with the rest of the grid.
Two other things I like about this puzzle: (1) the symmetry between CARPING ABOUT and RAINBOW TROUT; and (2) the image of a stacked INBOX/OUTBOX sitting on someone's desk. My original cluing for the INBOX/OUTBOX revealer was to treat them as a unit (thereby emphasizing the visual nature of the stacking), but hopefully, solvers will still get the picture (hah!) in the puzzle's current incarnation.
The inspiration for this puzzle was BEER BELLY. My original submission featured that phrase as the central revealer rather than the more prosaic BEER INGREDIENTS. I was amused by the idea of finding HOPS, WATER, MALT, and YEAST in the "bellies" of the theme phrases and imagined the ingredients mixing together to form beer, which, when imbibed in large quantities, forms a beer belly. Will and crew thought that that was a bit of a stretch (hah!), but still liked the basic idea enough to warrant another go-around with a different revealer.
I'm curious to hear what solvers think of the "find the theme" aspect of 37-Across. Since the clue doesn't include an independent reference to the phrase BEER INGREDIENTS and the hidden words aren't circled, solvers must find the four ingredients while simultaneously figuring out that they can be combined to make beer.
My proposed clue for BEER INGREDIENTS contained a semi-hint harking back to my original idea (What's found in the "bellies" of 16-, 23-, 47-, and 59-Across) and my submitted grid had circles around the relevant theme letters. I like that the edited version creates a more powerful aha moment, though I worry that it might be a bit tricky for a Tuesday.
Usually, it's best to avoid themers of length 13 since they have limited grid placement possibilities, but IOWA TERRITORY was the only cromulent phrase I could come up with to hide WATER — so 13 it was. Likewise, I only had one option for YEAST (HAPPY EASTER). Luckily, I found phrases of length 13 and 11 for MALT and HOPS, respectively, thereby appeasing the gods of crossword symmetry.
This puzzle took close to two years from conception to publication. I started brainstorming in August of 2016, submitted it to the Times in October 2016, and got an acceptance in February of 2017.
Even though this was my third accepted NYT puzzle, it's my tenth to be published. The disparity is primarily due to shorter queue times for Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday puzzles. For the past few years, Tuesday has had the longest non-themeless publication queue. I wonder whether the disparities in publication queue length among different days of the week correlate to disparities in the number of puzzles submitted that are appropriate for that day. Or is there something inherent to puzzles of particular difficulty levels that makes acceptance more or less likely?
My original theme constraint was just phrases with a three-of-a-kind and a pair. This more permissive interpretation of a FULL HOUSE allowed for lively phrases like BUSINESS SCHOOL, FOR GOODNESS SAKE, and CLASS STRUGGLE. Ultimately, however, I decided that the theme would be better served if the five letters were always in a row with the same 3-2 ordering. Although that reformulation significantly reduced my options for theme entries, it created a much tighter theme and (I hope) a stronger aha moment for the solver.
Along the way, I also changed the revealer from FULL HOUSES to the more natural-sounding FULL HOUSE, which opened up better cluing options, and aligned the three circled areas vertically to create a more ordered feeling for the grid.
Back in 2016, the TV show FULL HOUSE re-entered the national conversation when Netflix released a sequel called "Fuller House" with most of the original cast reprising their roles. That show is now filming its fourth season. We'll see if it lasts as long as the original.
Unlike most puzzles where the creative process begins with the theme and theme entries, this one started with the central grid art. Making grid art is a nice diversion from typical crossword construction activities, and every once in a while I experiment with different block configurations to try to create something puzzle worthy. Even moving just a couple of black squares by a single space can often completely change the resulting picture.
Once I had the basic smiling face in place, I went looking for appropriately happy 15-letter phrases to accompany it. Although three theme entries is a bit low for a themed puzzle these days, the constraints imposed by the grid art made that choice the most promising. Likewise, because I wanted the grid art to stand out, I chose to leave large areas of white space around the edges of the puzzle. I would have preferred to leave off even more of the black squares, but I couldn't get the grid to fill as cleanly without them.
For experienced solvers that breeze through Monday offerings, I hope they enjoyed uncovering the six non-thematic NYT crossword debuts (SCHOOL DANCE, CAPITOL DOME, SO CLOSE, POOL TOY, PALAK, and GROWL AT). I think that's the most non-thematic debut entries so far this year in a Monday puzzle.
Finally, I was particularly happy to position BREAK INTO A SMILE so that it "breaks into" the central smiling face. I hope at least a few solvers notice and appreciate this touch.
Puzzles with answers that must appear with specific clue numbers are challenging to construct because they require precise gridwork. One way to control which clue numbers correspond to which answers is to use "cheater" squares (black squares that don't change the puzzle's word count). For instance, the black square before 10-Across reduces all subsequent clue numbers by one. Without that square, the answer SEVEN would be at 25-Across instead of 24-Across.
Other cheater squares may have different effects on numbering. For example, the black square before 28-Across doesn't affect the clue numbering at all, but its symmetric counterpart after 41-Across changes what would have been 44-Down into 49-Down and decreases the clue numbering for the intervening clues by one (after 49-Down the numbering is unchanged).
Generally speaking, cheater squares in the upper-left corner of a region reduce all subsequent clue numbering by one, cheater squares in the upper right reduce the numbering of clues by one until the shortened down entry, whose clue number is increased by the number of intervening clue numbers, and cheater squares in the lower left and lower right leave clue numbering unchanged.
The unedited version of this puzzle clued the gimmick in the opposite direction. 5-Across and 41-Across were clued as "See previous answer" and 22-Across and 46-Across were clued as "See next answer." The words OVER, SEVEN, WINKS, and FIFTY were clued without any reference to their clue numbers or the combined meaning. Perhaps that cluing approach is too difficult, and many solvers wouldn't realize that reading the numbers in the grid in combination with the answers creates a new meaning (i.e., 1 OVER or 40 WINKS). I miss the elegance of the original approach, but if the change improves the solving experience, then I'm all in favor.
Unsurprisingly, there aren't too many words or phrases that (1) contain the name of an island; and (2) spell something else after removing those letters. Luckily there were enough to make a workable theme set.
Along the way, I also considered using words that can precede ISLAND such as LONG (e.g., BELONGING, ALONGSIDE, or PROLONGS) and/or islands that aren't commonly known as single words (such as the Isle of MAN). In the end, I decided to limit myself to single-word islands, which I find the most satisfying.
One somewhat unusual feature of this puzzle is that the islands are hidden within single words rather than spanning the ending/beginning of multiple words, which is the more common (and elegant) approach to hidden word themes. Hopefully the added bonus of creating new words with the remaining letters makes up for this shortcoming.
As more of my puzzles run in the NYT, it's been interesting to see the fluidity of Will's publication queue. For example, my first seven accepted Thursday puzzles have been published in a different order than the one they were accepted in. So far the progression has been 1, 4, 3, 5, 7 with the second and sixth puzzles still unpublished (today's grid was my seventh accepted Thursday). I'm only considering Thursday puzzles here because each day of the week has a different queue whose length varies depending on inventory levels.
From what I've read elsewhere Will likes to space out certain kinds of puzzles (e.g., rebuses) while also accelerating debuts and grids that particularly catch his fancy. I suspect puzzles are also more likely to get bumped around in the queue when a constructor has multiple pending grids of the same difficulty level versus a situation where a constructor only has one.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the constructor who first published a puzzle with left-right symmetry. Grid art like this is impossible with rotational symmetry.
Coming up with a good Y-shape took several iterations and a lot more agonizing than you might guess given the simplicity of the design. The parameters I varied were (1) the height of the arms; (2) the height of the base; (3) the width of the cross piece; and (4) whether or not the lower corners were squared off (i.e., adding another black block). Part of the difficulty was choosing an aesthetically pleasing shape that could be filled around smoothly, but I also struggled with the inherent tension between my Platonic ideals of "SLINGSHOT," "GOAL POSTS," "TUNING FORK," and "THE LETTER Y." I think it turned out pretty well (even if the arms are a bit short for a TUNING FORK).
I was surprised to see this run on a Thursday. I didn't get a day-of-the-week indication when the puzzle was accepted and I had assumed that the theme warranted a Wednesday (or even Tuesday) placement. Consequently, Will and crew had to dial up many of my clues. Speaking of cluing, I like the conversational tone that Will used for the theme clues. He's quite adept at making puzzles feel like a dialog.
I hope AL FRANKEN doesn't make the puzzle unpalatable for anyone. I constructed the grid back in June, months before the controversy over his treatment of women. I suspect that this will be the first and last appearance of his full name in the NYT crossword. On a more pleasant note, I'm stoked to finally see MII clued as the Nintendo avatar instead of the Roman numeral. I'm sure others have suggested that meaning before.
This puzzle was inspired by an issue of Spielbox, a magazine devoted to the German boardgaming scene. After reading about some Martin Luther-themed games released to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses, I thought, "if someone can make a board game out of this, then why not a crossword?"
Since the anniversary falls on a Tuesday, I decided that a straight-forward tribute puzzle would be appropriate (it was either that or wait until 2117 for the 600th anniversary, which falls on a Sunday).
Tribute puzzles require interesting theme entries, and I wanted to pack in as many as I could. Fortunately, MARTIN LUTHER breaks evenly into two 6-letter words, which are much easier to deal with than a 12-letter entry. Likewise, ALL SAINTS CHURCH is a constructor-friendly 15 letters long — thereby filling an entire row without forcing the placement of any black squares.
Still, after locking MARTIN and LUTHER into the corners and putting ALL SAINTS CHURCH in the 8th row (since it lacks an equal-length counterpart), I had limited flexibility in positioning the remaining theme entries (especially since PROTESTANT and REFORMATION had to be consecutive). Fill options were also somewhat constrained because more than half of the down answers had to cross multiple themers.
In my original manuscript, I clued DOOR non-thematically. Although this editorial change brings the theme square count to a hefty 73, my constructor's brain is bothered that the symmetrically placed 21-Across is not likewise thematic.
Finally, in my ideal world, the puzzle wouldn't assert that Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saint's Church on 10/31/1517 since the only thing he did for sure that day was mail them to the Archbishop of Mainz. Per recent scholarship, the church door posting likely happened sometime later.
Unlike many puzzles, I clearly recall the genesis of this one. While working on another grid, which will be appearing in a different venue next year, I came up with the clue "Mustered" for one of the entries. I found the similarity in sound between mustered and mustard amusing and contemplated using the clue "Mustard, say?" as a playful reinterpretation of the ", say" crossword cluing convention. I ultimately decided to just go with "Mustered," but I thought it would be fun to create a puzzle using that gimmick.
In my original manuscript, the across clues were all in the form "XXXX, say?," and I avoided using that cluing convention in the down direction. I hoped there would be a fun aha moment discovering that in this case "say" literally means to say the clue out loud, and I was a little disappointed that Will et al. decided to scrap that idea in favor of a note to the solver. Perhaps it would have been too frustrating as I originally designed it.
As you might guess, creating this puzzle was a very time-consuming (and manual) process. Perhaps I'm a glutton for punishment — all but one of my published NYT puzzles to date have required unusually labor-intensive construction techniques.
I started by locking in some of the longer across entries and then gradually building out the grid from there. Due to the homophonic cluing constraint, I repeatedly had to redo completed areas when I couldn't get them to work with the rest of the grid. Notably, there are only four three-letter words in the across direction. Somewhat surprisingly, these three-letter slots were the hardest to fill. It turns out that, relatively speaking, slots of length four or more are much more amenable to homophonic shenanigans.
The key to constructing this puzzle was finding workable downs for the left-hand side of the grid. Having the acrosses in alphabetical order requires that those words (ABC, CHILL, and MOSSY) monotonically increase in alphabetosity (uh, that's a thing...trust me).
With those three words chosen, I used manual trial and error to select workable alphabetically correct starts for each of the acrosses (i.e., fixing in place one to three of the starting letters for each word) while also coming up with a grid structure that supported some good fill. Similar to the left-hand side of the grid, deploying contiguous vertical blocks (i.e., the ones next to 8-Down and 60-Down) means that the neighboring letters must be in alphabetical order (i.e., the AB of ABLUSH and all of STY).
The Utah block at the top of the grid enables relative freedom for the NE corner in light of the constraint of having ABC at 1-Down. Without those two cheater squares, the neighboring down word would need to start with ABC, ACC, BBC, or BCC (if no cheater square is used) or BC or CC (with a single cheater square). Instead, I just needed a word that starts with AB (a much easier constraint to fill around). This freedom was especially important because the black square under 7-Down (REC) was fixed in place by its symmetry to the one above 60-Down (STY).
Interestingly, my first iteration of an alphabetical order puzzle had 78 words including three across answers in each row at the top and bottom of the grid, which made construction very difficult. The resulting grid strain also made the fill pretty blah. Going down to 76 words (and more importantly reducing the number of words in the top and bottom rows) made things both easier and better (a rare combination!).
This is my second crossword published in the NYT though it was actually the first one accepted. The impetus for its construction was the infelicity of having to enter the word AÑO in crosswords as ANO (for those not in the know the word ANO has a less-than-savory meaning in Spanish). I thought — let's make a crossword where the word AÑO is written properly!
I started by brainstorming words containing an ñ and experimentally intersecting them. I considered using the word EÑE as a revealer, but once I hit on having SPANISH and ESPAÑOL cross EL NIÑO there was no turning back. I expanded to 16 columns to simultaneously accommodate PIÑA COLADA (a central themer with an even number of letters) and provide just enough room for adjacent horizontal theme entries at lengths 6 and 9. Isolating each section of the grid in this manner reduced the strain created by having crossing theme entries.
Although the horizontal theme entries are symmetric, it would have been ideal to also have symmetry in the vertical themers. Unfortunately, there weren't enough options to pull that off.
As submitted, the theme clues did not use cross references. For example, SEÑOR was clued as [Man of La Mancha?] and AÑO was clued as [Year abroad?]. SPANISH and ESPAÑOL had the same clue, which alluded to but didn't explicitly mention the letter ñ. The new cluing is more solver-friendly though — especially for people without much exposure to Spanish.
Some other musings on changed cluing: As submitted, PEÑA NIETO was clued as [Obama's Mexican counterpart], which was true back in May of 2016 when the puzzle was written (how time flies!). Understandably, my original clue for COPERNICUS, which referenced young Doc Brown's dog in the movie "Back to the Future" didn't make the cut (maybe next time...). Finally, I'm not completely on board with the new clue for WOOT (to me its meaning is more hooray or yippee than wow).
I submitted this puzzle on September 3rd, 2016 and it was accepted on October 20th (a pretty quick turnaround in my experience). It's my second accepted puzzle at the Times, but the first one was pegged for a day that has a significantly larger backlog (per the most recent inventory I've seen).
My constructing program of choice is Crossword Compiler v9. I use grep/sed/awk (via Cygwin) for word list manipulation and searching. In addition to the word lists I acquired with Crossword Compiler, I also use Matt Ginsberg's list (www.otsys.com/clue) and the one curated by Jeff Chen (the latter also includes the excellent XWI word list). Thanks guys!
As you might guess from the nature of the gimmick, constructing this puzzle required extra front-end work. After laying out the themers and making a tentative grid skeleton, I created a mirror image of the grid with the themers entered backwards to facilitate construction of the portions that use reversed words. As I worked back-and-forth between the two versions of the puzzle, I used temporary black squares to create smaller regions for filling. I also had to do some manual trial-and-error since many of the vertical entries intersect both types of across answers. Likewise, differences in typical vowel and consonant layouts in each direction (forward and backward) posed an additional challenge.
In retrospect, perhaps I should have created a word list that excluded palindromes and words that make other words when reversed. Since I didn't, I had to manually avoid such words when filling the reversed areas (having reversed words that spelled something else in the forward direction felt inelegant). On the other hand, leaving those extra words in gave more options for the rest of the fill, which didn't need to be constrained in that manner.
For further thoughts on this crossword, please check out my constructor notes on the Wordplay blog.