Some people like to solve crossword puzzles on trains; I enjoy solving them on airplanes (I fly quite a bit for my job, with Delta being my airline of choice). It would be nice to say that this habit was the inspiration for today's theme, but no such luck. Instead, the idea came from realizing that repeated mergers have reduced the number of major airlines in the U.S. to four. Aha — four is an excellent number for a crossword theme!
I like challenges. My first attempt was to place five 16-letter entries in the grid (the theme entries you see here, the revealer, plus an ...AMERICAN theme entry). Unfortunately, the theme density caused too many weaknesses in the resulting puzzle, and I compromised with a shorter ...AMERICAN entry in my first submission. Will and Joel encouraged me to go even farther; I dropped a theme answer to liven up the fill, which resulted in a stronger puzzle overall.
Sometimes puzzles don't come out exactly the way you originally intended (I wound up with only three airlines and four grid-spanners), but the process is always fun.
This puzzle has a good deal of TV nostalgia for me. As a kid, I spent many a rainy Saturday afternoon watching programming called "Creature Double Feature". Also, "Doctor Who" (11-down) and baseball games (34-down). Speaking of baseball, is there an NYT crossword jinx (like the reputed Sports Illustrated cover jinx)? When I constructed this puzzle, Pablo Sandoval was a huge free-agent signing for my Red Sox. While the puzzle was in the queue, however, his production took a big nosedive, making this entry a lot more obscure than I had hoped for.
The NE corner was originally pretty rough, so I was happy to find the TARDIS/LINDT crossing that really patched this section up. However, as is often the case in open puzzle layouts, this didn't solve the problem entirely but instead pushed the trouble elsewhere. In this case, the tradeoff is the ORM/ORY crossing in the middle (which is ugly but at least well-contained).
I hope some of you spend a nice Saturday afternoon with this puzzle. Will and Joel did an especially nice job on the clue editing, toning down some of my overly-tricky offerings and adding a nice splash of modern references.
I am trying something different with this Thursday puzzle. Usually, I start with a grid gimmick, and then I identify theme answers that work with that specific gimmick. Here, I started with a theme category, and then I found different gimmicks to express theme answers that fit the specific category. I'm hoping this results in a fun solving experience in the sense that uncovering one gimmick doesn't necessarily give the whole game away. It was fortunate that each gimmick turned out to use exactly two entries, as this gives the puzzle a slightly more uniform feel than otherwise.
I had a lot of fun with this construction method. I hope you enjoy the results!
The idea for this puzzle came while enjoying a cold beverage at a "nineteenth hole". That's golf lingo for the bar at the course. This got me thinking about similar cases, in which adding one to the typical number of items in a familiar set yields an entirely new thing.
This puzzle is a revision. My original submission lacked a revealer, and Will and Joel felt one was needed to help solvers understand the theme. That submission also had SECOND HOME, which doesn't fit the theme well, and TWELFTH MAN, which is a little boring compared to the others. I would have liked to work NINETEENTH HOLE into the puzzle, but 14 letters is a killer here. I'll have to make do with LPGA, ACE, and ELS in the NE corner.
Finally, since this puzzle has an ordinal theme, it's appropriate that it is my 10th published puzzle. I hope you enjoyed it!
I've submitted a couple of these stack puzzles in the past, and the advice that I've received from Will and Joel is to maximize the impact of the longer entries. This makes sense because the stacks restrict the entries so much in the other parts of the puzzle that it is hard to be creative. Based on that criteria, I like how both stacks in this particular puzzle came out.
GAVE IT ANOTHER GO on top of ETERNAL OPTIMIST amuses me. For 16-Across, don't blame me if you spent too long trying to remember Frodo Baggins' middle name ... well, actually, go ahead. I guess I *am* to blame :)
Nice timing for this puzzle to appear with summer just around the corner!
I always debate: shaded squares, yes or no? Such hints can substantially change the difficulty level of the puzzle by giving the game away too early. However, I think the shaded squares work well in this particular puzzle because RUN, the first "water slide" is so non-specific. It should take a little more than one theme answer for the solver to realize that each set of shaded squares represents a type of water course that flows downhill.
I enjoy constructing Thursday puzzles like this one because of the additional challenge of finding a workable grid pattern. There are a lot more constraints here than meet the eye since the theme answers cannot be placed symmetrically. Each answer also injects an extra pair of black squares, where the "water slide" starts. The insight that LAMESTREAM and WATERSLIDES can cross is actually the crux on which a workable gird pattern depends in this puzzle.
Another aspect of constructing that I enjoy is the serendipity that arises when you are building the grid. Often, there can be multiple entries that can be used as fill, but choosing among the various subtle combinations can be fun. For example, in this puzzle:
I wouldn't go out of my way to have any of these occur, but it's fun to integrate them when the possibility arises.
As a solver, I enjoy the occasional stacked puzzle. Normally, double stacks have short vertical entries crossing the beginning and end of the longer answers. So, a good strategy is to knock out a few of those shorter answers, then use the footholds to solve the grid-spanners. My idea in creating this puzzle was to make it more challenging by leaving the corners open and instead having the short crossing answers in the middle. So, solvers will need to work from the inside out.
1-Across is a fun answer for me: I have served on a large number of thesis committees and I always focus on helping students craft a crisp and accurate thesis statement for their defense. Actually, the whole puzzle is fun to see in print, because this was my first themeless submission. Plus, the grid reminds me of a big approximately equal sign, which is just happenstance but it's a neat effect.
The idea for this puzzle originally came from the observation that there are a lot of METONYMS in New York City. Mulling this around led to the idea of NEW YORK METS becoming NEW YORK METONYMS, and I was off to the races!
The race turned out to be a marathon. Most of my NYT puzzle submissions result in a direct "yes" or "no". This puzzle unusually went through four iterations before reaching the final product --the difficulty was coming up with acceptable theme answers. For the curious, here are some rejected theme answers, and why they didn't make the cut:
Two other points:
My penultimate submission had the four themers in a different order. Will and Joel pointed out that starting with two plural themers creates the expectation that all themers will be plural. So, I reworked the puzzle to alternate them singular, plural, singular, plural. Will and Joel were even willing to sacrifice a tiny bit on the fill to get this pattern.
My difficulty in coming up with theme entries means that there are only four of them in the puzzle. In retrospect, I really like how using only four themers let me open up the grid and work in some fun longer answers. This is a nice tradeoff, and I plan to try it again in future puzzles.
When submitting this puzzle I was aiming for a Thursday, but I suspect that the overall difficulty of uncovering the trick moved the puzzle later in the week. Hopefully, the shaded squares will clue solvers into the fact that there is something unusual going on.
The idea for this puzzle started with that trick, of course, and the trick itself forced a lot of the grid design. I wanted to center the mirror(s) on a diagonal. It would have been awkward to start or stop a reflected entry on a mirror square, so I could not start a mirror in the top left corner or end one in the bottom right. Using a single mirror would have required a 14x14 or 16x16 grid, so I settled on the two-mirror design in the puzzle.
Next, I wanted to embed some hints for the solver in the grid. I went through a few possibilities (e.g. NARCISSUS) but SNOW WHITE and EVIL QUEEN kind of jumped right out once I considered the MIRROR MIRROR on the diagonal. As a bonus, the convenient equal word length let the entries fit nicely in opposite corners. The grid was getting pretty constrained at that point, so DWARFS didn't make it into the final product (though SEVEN remains with a non-theme clue).
Filling the center was hard, but not for the reason you might imagine. The MIRRORs are no more constraining than fixing a particular answer in the grid. However, all the reflected answers are at least 5 letters long and they intersect with each other, making this, in effect, a pretty open section.
As a solver, I really enjoy the variety of Thursdays in the NYT puzzle. So, it's not a big shock to me that "puzzles with a twist" have become my favorite to construct. In the grid I submitted, I used a highlighter to mark the theme answers. I wonder: does marking the loop squares make this too easy? My feeling is that this puzzle would be a very tough solve without that extra help.
I learned a lot constructing this puzzle. It was surprisingly hard to place the theme answers. Each creates 3-5 triple-checked letters and also requires placing 1 or 2 extra blocks (black squares) in the grid. Even worse, for this type of theme, it's not possible to place the theme answers symmetrically (unless you like downward loops), so each extra block creates another somewhere else in the grid to preserve symmetry.
Despite having a few additional theme possibilities (e.g., DAREDEVIL), I couldn't see a way to get another such entry in the grid. Even with the current set, I was stumped for a while until I saw that I could pair the blocks at the start of PAPER AIRPLANE and ROLLER COASTER with the blocks symmetrically opposite the loop blocks of the other entry.
I find that a theme idea often has to percolate for a while and undergo many changes before it's good enough to work on. This puzzle is a great example. The seed came from reading "Bleak House" and encountering the phrase "from pillar to post" (I had to look that one up in the dictionary!).
This started me thinking about a puzzle containing interesting phrases of the form "from x to y" (of which there are certainly a lot). But, after enumerating theme possibilities, the original idea felt too loose and the most interesting entries were just a bit too obscure.
So, the idea sat for a while until I noticed that several of the phrases denoted completeness from some perspective: a much tighter theme possibility! This led to today's grid, with the "from" dropping out due to grid/symmetry constraints. However, in my submission, I clued the theme entries too literally; e.g., CRADLE TO GRAVE was "all, from a lifetime's perspective".
In editing, Will and Joel made another big improvement by introducing more wordplay; e.g., changing the above to "... for a life insurance agent". So, that's a further theme evolution I should have made. They also toned down the difficulty to Monday-level by changing a relatively large percentage of the clues (lesson learned, hopefully).
All in all, I'm happy how this one turned out. I like that it has a pair of long downs (THE SCREAM and PSYCHOTIC) that fit well together despite the need to cross a lot of theme entries. I hope it starts your puzzling week off on the right foot.
How are crossword construction and crossword solving similar?
First, they both allow for great "aha!" moments. I had one such moment when I hit on crossing UNDERPASS and ELEVATED HIGHWAY in the manner used in this puzzle. It got even better when I found another 15-letter word that fit the theme and provided reasonable crossings.
I hope solving this puzzle gives you a similar "aha!" experience. I tried to leave the clues on the theme answers vague enough to enable a mid-solve discovery of the trick underlying the puzzle.
Second, my Achilles' heel in both construction and solving is that I can't spell to save my life. My first submitted grid contained PEROGATIVE, which (I learned) should be spelled PREROGATIVE (d'oh!). Fortunately, I was given a second chance, and I was able to produce the revised grid you see here. I blame growing up in the era of auto-correct for this deficiency.
The stacked 15s constrain the fill, so I had to make some hard choices. My least favorite fill (by far) is REPEN, but it's a linchpin. I couldn't find a way to eliminate it without adding even more painful fill elsewhere. IVAN I invaded the northern part of my grid because my alternative fill required a repetition (ANOTE and TNOTES) that I found unacceptable.
It's very educational to see how editing improves your puzzle between submission and publication. I was pleased that about 60% of my clues survived without modification and that almost half of the remaining clues had only minor edits. It looks to me like most of the changes are intended to dial down the difficulty level and help solvers unfamiliar with the theme answers. This makes a lot of sense. Tribute puzzles like this one could really benefit from having an easy and a hard set of clues. That way, people who are very familiar with the theme can still get a challenge.
Unfortunately, the edits did cause many of my favorite clues to disappear. Of the remaining clues that I wrote, my favorite is 4-down. I also like 30-down as a (hopefully) fresh way to clue a common answer and 51-down as an attempt to help solvers with a relatively obscure answer.
The grid had some minor surgery in the West between submission and publication, and I can guess why. This is the least constrained area of the grid, so I was adventurous with the fill. 25-down was originally MOOC (massive online open course). Currently, MOOCs are quite a disruptive force in college education. I can why this isn't Wednesday fill, especially in a puzzle in which the difficulty notch needs to be dialed down. Don't worry MOOC — I'm sure your (crossword) day will come soon!
For the very curious, that section was originally CAGY ODOM MOOC. If Will had kicked it back to me, I probably would have gone with CCCP (nice cross with COMMIE), ORAL, and MERE. The crosses of CREPT, CAR, and PLEA would have been fine. Failing that, as a computer scientist, I would definitely have clued CERF with Vint Cerf, one of the scientists generally credited with inventing the Internet.