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Evan Birnholz author page

8 puzzles by Evan Birnholz
with constructor comments

Evan Birnholz
Fri 10/23/2015

I'm a fan of themeless grids that make use of the staircase pattern in the middle, with multiple five-letter words crossing one another. It's a good feeling when every one of those words in the middle comes out cleanly and, as a side benefit, this grid pattern often helps me keep the three-letter word count low.

My original submission looked like this, with the changed letters highlighted. At 53-Across, Keyser SOZE is the villain from "The Usual Suspects." At 11-Across, there's the former NBA guard Craig EHLO, a Cavaliers' fan favorite who guarded Michael Jordan when he hit "The Shot" in 1989 — maybe not the most well-known name if you're not a hardcore NBA fan like I am. They fit PELS in at 14-Down in the final puzzle; the fan in me approves.

So, Will and Joel changed 15 letters changed from the original submission, but I'm especially glad they agreed to leave F-BOMB untouched. I know Will once nixed that word from a previous puzzle, and it would have been a very, very easy change in this grid to A-BOMB. Hey, F-BOMB has been in the NYT itself, so I guess it's fair game.

Sat 8/29/2015

I'm a major proponent of the OXFORD COMMA, so I built a puzzle around it. I submitted two clues for that one: [It comes right before the last step of "stop, drop, and roll"] and [2008 Vampire Weekend song whose title is an oft-misunderstood piece of grammar]. Neither made the final cut, obviously. I also had a pseudo-paired set of clues for WEIRD AL ["Do I Creep You Out" rocker] and AXL ROSE ["You're Crazy" rocker], but maybe those songs would've been too obscure for the NYT.

In general, I like how this one turned out, but I wish I had spent a little more time revising it if only to get rid of RED DOT, which isn't my favorite answer. That northeast corner gave me fits when I tried to refill it, though. I submitted a revision of the puzzle with a redone right side of the puzzle and HATERADE where HAT CHECK is. Will said he liked the HAT CHECK version better, though to his credit he gave me the choice of which fill option I wanted. But being the procrastinator that I am, I never wrote clues for the alternate version. So while I didn't get HATERADE in the New York Times, I put it in a recent Devil Cross puzzle instead. That's where having my own site comes in handy.

Speaking of which: I've seen many heartfelt tributes for the late great Merl Reagle lately. My upcoming Devil Cross puzzle (Puzzle #61) is my way of adding to that conversation.

Fri 12/12/2014

Original grid

This puzzle went through a strange evolution. I submitted the initial draft (to right) in August 2013, but Will nixed it because he didn't think PASTAFARIAN would be a well-known enough term for Times solvers (naturally, I threw down that word in my very first Devil Cross puzzle). He said it was a close call, which I interpreted as, "Refill that part of the grid and try again." I went back to work, and after a few attempts to make a close switch with PASTA FAZOOL proved unsuccessful, I settled on another grid, which Will accepted in March 2014.

Second grid

It was a pretty clean grid (see left), but a month ago I took another look and cringed that I left in a couple of not-so-great entries like OATER, MSEC, and PBA. Because I had some creaky fill in my last Times puzzle that I still wish I had excised, I decided to go back and give this one another revision.

The final version is about two-thirds different from the original acceptance, but I think it's the best one. I'm just glad Will agreed and ran it so soon afterwards. For me, being able to fit in one of the best bands ever and one of the best TV shows ever at 46- and 48-Across was icing on the cake.

Interestingly, I'm responsible for the last two instances of both AEROS and WILCO in the Times puzzle. Both times I submitted similar clues to refer to the old Houston-based A.H.L. team and the Chicago-based band. Both times Will instead chose clues to refer to a quaint term for airplanes and a radio reply. He may be trying to tell me something.

On another note: listen up, new crossword constructors! The five of us behind the Indie 500 crossword tournament are accepting submissions for a sixth tournament puzzle. The deadline is January 15.

Finally, happy birthday to my Dad, who got me into this whole puzzle thing.

Sat 10/18/2014

This is one of the last puzzles of mine that the NYT accepted before I began my own crossword website. There are at least a few short answers that I probably would not use in my puzzles now, though I'm pleased with many of the longer entries I worked in. It's also a bizarrely "masculine" grid in that most of the proper nouns in the puzzle refer to men, and there's MAN and DAD in each corner. Go figure.

My favorite clues that Will kept were for AGE LIMIT, ROLEO, SLEEP, and LASERDISCS. I like Will's clever clues for MESS KITS, SEA, DESERT, POE, and CHAD, but there are a couple of original clues that I wish had made the cut. Partial phrases are a pet peeve of mine, so I admit I winced when I saw 34-Across had become A MIN (I clued that as the dictator AMIN). I would have loved to have seen in print my saucy, connected clues for CROTCH [Privates' section] and AUTOCORRECT [Modern tool for turning a couch into a 9-Across], though I expected they wouldn't survive the final edit. Will also changed a couple of letters — I had former Knick All-Star STEPHON Marbury (a.k.a. "Starbury") instead of STEPHEN, and TUTOR/POR (the latter clued as [Favor preceder]) — but that's a minor change and POR isn't a great answer, so no big deal.

Special announcement time!

1) I'm in the last week of my funding drive for Devil Cross. Those who donate before October 25 will receive two Sunday-sized bonus puzzles by yours truly: one themeless, and one variety Something Different grid. If you've never tried the latter, it's a fun type of crossword where most of the longer entries are completely made up phrases, but you can still figure them out if you solve the shorter answers first.

2) Mark your calendars, because the new Indie 500 Crossword Tournament — run by Erik Agard, Andy Kravis, Peter Broda, Neville Fogarty, and myself — will be held on Saturday, May 30, 2015 at the Marvin Center of George Washington University.

POW Sat 4/26/2014

I built this puzzle in June 2013. I'm glad with how relatively clean it turned out, though I've found that as I've built more puzzles in the last year, I've developed a pretty nasty aversion to partial phrases. A WAR is hardly the worst answer one can have in a puzzle, but I look at it now and I wish I could swap that out with something else. Constructors, take note: I asked Will if he would accept SNES (the initialism for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System), which would take the place of SNIT and thus make A WAR unnecessary (as shown in this fill), but he said that SNES would be a "near puzzle-killer." Me, I like the Super Nintendo, though I can see why it might not fly well for the Times. Diff'rent strokes, and all that.

I'm thrilled to get another Saturday slot, but due to a little bad luck, this puzzle's appearance in the Times is actually slightly bittersweet for me. I enjoyed solving Ian Livengood's excellent puzzle from December 27 of last year, but look at 8-Down from that grid. My wife can confirm that I blurted out "Oh, son of a b****!" when I cracked that answer — he beat me to debuting CALVIN AND HOBBES in the Times (it's only the best comic strip of all time, and I won't hear any other suggestions otherwise). That little hissy fit wasn't directed at Ian — he didn't do anything wrong, of course. Nor, should I add, did Will or Barry C. Silk, who scooped me on ANYONE ELSE on August 2, 2013. But the long wait time between acceptance and publication means that sometimes other constructors can beat you to the punch on marquee answers or themes while you wait. It's just part of the business, and it's partly what motivated me to go independent with my own crossword website, where I can publish my work right away.

Still, I don't think solvers will mind having seen CALVIN AND HOBBES recently in the Times, and besides, other publications have used it as a marquee answer as well. For all I know, there's some constructor out there who got a puzzle accepted with HOW DARE YOU in it, and now they're gnashing their teeth about that!

Finally, for various reasons, I usually hate it when people say "Gosh, why did so-and-so have to play the RACE CARD" in normal conversation. It's always struck me as a term that allows those who use it to ignore the very real impact of racism in the present day. But as a crossword entry, I love it — it's a contemporary and somewhat edgy phrase.

Wed 3/5/2014

When I built the original version of this puzzle in late July of 2012, I was only a couple of weeks away from getting married and starting grad school. I figured that I would be too busy during the school year to keep building puzzles, so I tried to finish it as soon as I could. Unfortunately, I was not satisfied with the resulting fill by the time September rolled around, and I put the puzzle away for nearly a year before revising and submitting it. I highly advise against that, since there are so many talented constructors out there and there's always a risk that one of them will swoop in and take that idea from you before you get the chance.

I'm glad that no one beat me to the punch on this one. To me, the phrase I HAVE NO CLUE is a really good mantra for the entire concept of crosswords. Anyone who has ever tried solving a puzzle has probably uttered or thought those words after getting stumped by a tricky clue, so I wanted to build a literal theme on that idea. And to my knowledge, this is the first time that phrase appears as an answer in a major crossword — to say nothing of the phrase HELL IF I KNOW, which I thought would be just sassy enough that the Times might change it to HECK IF I KNOW.

One other note: Will changed a few of my letters in the space between 34- and 45-Across. I did not agree with the revision. You can see my original fill in that section — I'm biased because I'm a big basketball fan and think that Carmelo Anthony's nickname 'MELO is a fun entry, though now I wish I had submitted this fill in the first place. Regardless, I do have a lot of respect for Will as an editor and I'm very appreciative that he decided to run one of my puzzles so soon after my last one. He and I had a good conversation via e-mail about that small section and I'm glad that he has always been receptive to hearing constructor feedback. In the end, it's a small section of the grid and I'm still very excited to see my work in the Times.

Sat 2/22/2014

It's probably a blessing and a curse to have to follow Patrick Berry, but someone has to do it, so today it might as well be me.

I wrote this puzzle in March 2013 and it was just my fourth attempt at a themeless grid. At the time I hadn't been having much success with themed puzzles, so I turned to themeless construction. Now, I enjoy creating themeless grids the most since they give you the freedom to experiment with fresh, fun phrases in a way that themed puzzles don't.

DOMINATRIX was my seed entry and I built upwards. I like many of the long phrases I got in there, but this puzzle shows my impatience to submit it since it has more short, less-than-stellar entries than I would normally prefer today (things like RESOW, AREAR, SALMI, DE ORO, I SHOT, and SNEE). If I could rework the grid now I might try putting DOMINATRIX in a different position just to see if the fill would be cleaner. It's probably a little strange seeing her on the bottom rather than on top, no?

The gentleman whose puzzle will appear in tomorrow's Sunday Times (Victor Fleming) was my mentor on themeless construction. He was critical of my first couple of attempts, but his criticism ended up helping me a lot. It gave me the focus to keep striving to create the best grid possible. So while I have my own qualms about this puzzle, I still think it's good, and my themeless grids have gotten progressively better since I made it.

I'd also like to take a second to plug my brand new, independent crossword website Devil Cross. I release a new puzzle every other Saturday, and though I ran one last week, I decided to drop a new one on Friday, and it's a contest puzzle! (Fair warning: Devil Cross puzzles may contain some R-rated language that you won't see in a Times puzzle)

Thu 10/3/2013

I was delighted when I finally got some NYT acceptance letters this summer after four years of rejections. So you can imagine my shock when, only a few days before my 30th birthday, Will asked me if he could use this grid as the playoff puzzle for the Westchester Crossword Puzzle Tournament. My debut in the New York Times, AND I got to see many puzzle enthusiasts all in the same room solving it in real time — I couldn't ask for a better birthday present.

I originally submitted the clue for (TO BE) OR NOT (TO BE) as a revealer: [Famous dramatic words ... and a hint for this puzzle's theme], which I thought would be a good way of showing that some theme answers are TO BE, others are not, and you have to figure out what the OR NOT element is. I would have preferred that the revealer had been there, but it can be fun to let solvers interpret an answer as a revealer without being explicit about it (like Jeff Chen's STIR FRIES puzzle).

There were several other TO BE entries I considered using, like TO BE CONTINUED, HIP TO BE SQUARE, IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN, and the Weird Al song DARE TO BE STUPID. I actually built two different grids for this puzzle. The first one had some really great long fill entries, but I scrapped it because a) I thought there were too many short, crappy answers, and b) I didn't think an entry like CRABB would fly, especially since those B's held down a theme square. The lesson, as always, is don't hesitate to tear your puzzle down and start over if you think you can do better. The second version that you see here is much cleaner, so that's what I submitted.

I don't know if any individual puzzle inspired me to create this one, but I think the closest analogue might be Joel Fagliano's DOUBLE U puzzle from July 2012, which I thought was remarkably clever.

One last note: I think it's fitting that the NYT would run my puzzle on October 3, 2013, since that happens to be my late grandmother Edna's 100th birthday, and there's a funny crossword story about her too. When my mother Elaine was young, my grandmother came home and found that her daughter had completely filled in the answers to the crosswords in one of their puzzle books. My grandmother was astounded. "How did you do that?" she asked, stunned that her daughter might be a crossword-solving ace. "Oh," my mother said, flipping the pages to the end of the book, "they have all of the answers right here in the back. See?" Thus the legacy of puzzle-related deviousness in my family was born.