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4 puzzles by Debbie Ellerin
with Jeff Chen comments

TotalDebutLatestCollabs
43/9/201511/15/20190
SunMonTueWedThuFriSat
0100012
ScrabbleRebusCirclePangram
1.57000
Debbie Ellerin
Fri 11/15/2019
ELCHAPOSCROLL
LALALANDARABIA
BRASILIADETEST
ADDSLOTTWHALE
LEONARDCOHEN
RATEDRSEOUL
EXISTICANTEVEN
NEESNITSAKA
OLDSCORESJAPES
CROONGANESH
ISTHATATHING
MAIMSDIONROLF
IMPISHSUSHIBAR
NOIDEATRUELOVE
GANTRYSPRYEST

IS THAT A THING? — ooh, what a fantastic entry! I use that notion so often in my critiques (attention Byron Walden!); why haven't I ever added it to our list? If someone had given me a list of potential seed entries to build a themeless around, it would have jumped right out.

DATA SCIENTIST is also a snappy entry, although on a list of potential seed entries, I'd have passed over it in favor of phrases like I CAN'T EVEN and SUSHI BAR. I do like that it has the potential for clever cluing, which I CAN'T EVEN doesn't have. The quotation marks around "miner" in the clue gave away the game, unfortunately.

Tough way to open up a themeless, with EL CHAPO headlining. No doubt he has a colorful name, but yikes, the violence still ongoing to the Sinaloa Cartel … not something I want to be reminded of in my day's travel to LALA LAND, escaping the ills of the world. I wouldn't have thought twice about it, except for it being the 1-Across entry and the echo in DONS.

It's usually a good idea to avoid giant corners like the SW and NE. Roughly 5x6 area? All right, break it up! Amp up the difficulty even more with long entries like LEONARD COHEN and I CAN'T EVEN, and you're begging for tough and/or gloopy fill. In the NE, OBEAH, LISLE, LATEN make for an undesirable trio. Any one of them is probably fine, but all three lined up makes for an unsatisfying effect. Not worth the strong entries in CREWCUT, RATHOLE, SCROLL and ARABIA.

Solid craftsmanship from Debbie, along with some fantastic marquee entries. Next time, avoiding such big corners, along with one or two more long feature entries, and I predict she enters POW! territory.

Sat 4/13/2019
BADGEALLURBAN
OPERASEABREEZE
OGLESKOREANAIR
SATEENIVANUZO
TRANSYLVANIA
GITABUSHWA
ADDONDREAMTEAM
HERBALONGARIA
EVILQUEENPROFS
MOBIUSUGLI
NOTORIOUSRBG
IRKRENOONBAIL
MEASUREUPGONZO
DELIMEATSERTES
BLESSLEISNOTS

It was just a couple of years ago that Debbie wrote to me, asking for advice on creating NYT-quality crosswords. Look how far she's come! Great to see her second Saturday puzzle – it's so rare for women to land that Saturday slot these days, given 1.) the intense competition, and 2.) the sheer number of men submitting themelesses. Well done!

I loved so many entries in this one; so colorful. TRANSYLVANIA as a place where you might go out to get a bite. The NOTORIOUS RBG. (She's a serious badass!) A refreshing-sounding drink called a SEA BREEZE. And literal color in the GREEN GOBLIN. I don't know that I'd call him Spider-man's archenemy – I'd go with Doc Ock myself – but there's no doubt that Gobby is right up there.

I appreciated the care Debbie took in avoiding crossword glue. AMAS was the only one that I noticed, and even that is becoming more recognized — Reddit seems to do a ton of Ask Me Anythings these days. (Cluing it to the Latin seems so Maleskan, unfortunately.)

The one area that made me hesitate was proper nouns. It's fine to use a couple, but let's count up the tough ones:

UZO GITA ERTES APGAR AZIZ BIZET

That's starting to feel more like a trivia contest than a crossword. I'd have favored a bit more crossword glue, maybe a partial or something, in order to reduce this count. The AZIZ / UZO crossing was particularly tough. Not sure it's 100% fair; too easily setting up the solver for failure.

But overall, a solid and entertaining Saturday offering, with even some extra bonuses in quality shorties like GONZO, BUSHWA, and ENNUI.

POW Sat 7/23/2016
ACROBATSTIFFS
FRENEMIESELLIE
FAMILYGUYLIANE
ENACTHRSLAMAS
CINESTACKDELT
TADKOWTOWSWBA
TUBASAUPAIR
SLIMMEDINNARDS
KITCARANZIO
IVSRUFFIANBUM
LEANPARTARAMA
LASIKGOICARPS
SLICEIPADMINIS
EIGHTNOTSOSURE
TENETPETNAMES

★ Even knowing all the answers beforehand, I really enjoyed the solve. Debbie got in touch with me a while back, and I worked with her to complete her first themeless. Will thought it was very good, but given the huge competition in themelesses, it didn't have enough snazzy material to cross his high threshold. I really liked that this feedback drove Debbie to develop another one, which you see today. Hard work + careful adherence to feedback = success!

Debbie saved 18 versions of this puzzle, and I thought I'd list out some feedback I gave her through the different stages, in case that helps out aspiring themeless constructors:

  • Version 6: This one didn't have enough fresh, eye-catching material. And one corner in particular seemed problematic. It had SVENGALI, and HAVE AN IN was pretty nice, but ELIAN / ERNS / INES / SANER felt like it really weakened that corner. The grid also had SROS and ESALEN — too much glue in all.
  • Version 10: ONESIDED / ONE AM dupe. Also, THE MONEY felt too much like a partial to me.
  • Version 13: Introducing FLAME WAR added a lot of spice. She had TV REMOTE next to it, but SEASONED was the third in the triple — that one wasn't nearly as strong. Also, the bottom left corner contained CLARITIN and HOME BASE. They're both fine answers, but neither wowed me. I suggested she ought to redo that, trying to work in stronger answers, in order to show Will she was listening to his advice.
  • Version 15: Getting IT'S A SIGN felt like it added a lot to the bottom left corner, along with LIVE A LIE. Debbie hadn't filled out the bottom right, but this partial grid felt like it could be NYT-worthy if she could get a really nice triplet of answers to finish it out.
  • Version 17: TRADE NAME / SETH ROGEN / DEAD WOOD in that bottom right corner was a really nice result. However, it required DHA, and Will doesn't like tough acronyms that aren't widely known. He has a valid point — to many, DHA will look like three random, ungettable letters.
  • Version 17.1: The grid as shown. I didn't care for GO I, but that and DST allowed for IPAD MINIS, AFROPOP, PET NAMES, BARNUM (I was plus/minus on NOT SO SURE).

Revision has to stop at some point, and I think Debbie did really well to call it only when she felt like her profile of assets and liabilities was very strong. I love seeing that work ethic.

Such a great combination of colorful assets — 15 by my count — along with just a smattering of HRS, WBA, GOI, DST made for such an enjoyable solve.

Mon 3/9/2015
BETASAPSSHAPE
OVENBREACOBRA
RISKTAKERHOBOS
ECLAIRLIFERAFT
STAARMUMA
TROUBLEAHEAD
ALOHANEALLIE
LIMESIRSSWANK
AMAACRENOLTE
SORRYCHARLIE
EENSIPACT
CLUEMEINBETTOR
AISLEBOARDGAME
PREENATRAIRAN
SARDIREFSFIST

Debut! Debbie and I worked together on a puzzle that will be published in the LA Times next week, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. It's always great to collaborate with someone who keeps the solvers' experience first and foremost in mind, and who is willing to tear apart work-in-progress over and over again. I gave her some advice on a themeless recently, and I was really impressed at how many times she rebooted and tried, tried, tried again. Hard worker, this one.

I can't remember the last time I saw six theme answers in a debut. Debbie's themer layout is spot-on, using a slight overlap in order to make the skeleton smoother. It's a perfect example of how in a high theme density puzzle, squishing themers together often (counterintuitively) makes the grid design much easier.

Take a look at RISK TAKER / LIFE RAFT. They're right atop each other, which goes against the rule of thumb of "the more space between themers the better." Just as long as the overlapping letters are friendly, this squishing allows the constructor to treat the puzzle more as a four-themer than a sx-themer. MUCH more freedom in how you deploy black squares.

Supposedly Sardi's is where the Tony Award was first thought up?

I had a good laugh at BORES, as I've sat through countless Powerpoint presentations while "carefully taking notes." (I'm usually brainstorming crossword ideas while pretending to listen.)

Generally, the grid is impressively smooth. I'll give it a HOORAH! The lone spot I thought could use a little more finesse was the SARDI / LIRA crossing. Given that LIRA/LIRE tend to get confused, it makes both SERDI and SARDI look reasonable. I hold Mondays to a very high standard — my personal desire is that they're accessible even for near beginners — but it could be argued that more people ought to know SARDI. And given that this is the NYT and Sardi's is in NYC, maybe it's perfectly fine.

Very nice debut.