Looking at the finished version of this puzzle, I think what I'm most impressed by is the mix of difficult (actually, evil) clues with easy clues. Maybe just as a Wednesday should be: a blend of tough and tender. Thanks Will (and Sam and Joel) for this.
I loved making this puzzle, taking familiar "____ in the ____" phrases and looking for synonyms or descriptors that enclosed a synonym for the first word in some way. It's one of my favorites — appropriate as my 25th for the NYT. Hope you enjoy(ed) it.
You may have read I'm principally a writer of novels and scripts, with crosswords as a second line of defense. I'm pleased to announce the recent publication of my sixth novel, BILLY BUCK, available on Amazon.com and my website, nedwhitebooks.com, print or ebook. It's a story of a nearly broken man driving his teenage kids cross-country and their strange encounters along the way. Here's the blurb:
Maybe it started with his trip to Devils Tower ten years earlier, or maybe it was connected to his life-threatening surgery a few years later. But for Billy Buck, something is seriously askew, seeming to distort the very fabric of reality around him.
Now he's on a cross-country road trip with his two teenage kids to deliver them to their mother in Southern California as part of their custody agreement. In a decrepit old van, one can expect misadventures over three thousand miles. But what happens en route lurches sharply off the highway into the realm of the nearly impossible, challenging their view of themselves and the world they inhabit.
Something out there - powerful and invasive - has its sights trained on them.
SNUFFLEUPAGUS was the "seed" entry, originally in the top stack where it just wouldn't work, so down to the bottom stack it went, and happily so. It arose in a conversation with my brother over how to pronounce it, but just as much it's here as a nod to my kids, who grew up with Sesame Street (and my daughter was a Sesame Street intern one summer, working as their "muppet wrangler").
This puzzle is a major redo of a previous effort that had a ho-hum top stack with some resulting fairly sketchy fill - a near-miss with Will, with too many "dings." I opted to go with a three-part series of monologue bits from the same speaker in the top stack and to clue them contextually. They depend on each other to be sussed out, and I enjoyed the chance to test it with Will and company as a relatively fresh way to build a themeless puzzle, with three sequential conversational pieces to start the puzzle off.
But it all started with SNUFFY, Big Bird's imaginary friend who later appears as a very real woolly mammoth - to the chagrin (and delight) of the other characters. SNUFFY lives, and I'm glad he's (she's?) making his/her puzzle debut here.
I could have sworn Sean Parker, in "The Social Network," advised Mark Zuckerberg to LOSE THE THE, and so it was with my original submission. But the editors (who accepted the puzzle conditionally) and checking crew knew better, advised me as such, and in pretty quick time I lost the LOSE and dropped in the DROP — which in fact improved the fill. Good thing they're both four letters long.
I'm a fan of Chevy Chase and Kevin Bacon, and also a part-time physics nut, so three of the four themers felt in my wheelhouse. "What's matter?" is an enormous question, and still eludes me. And the revealer? Jesse Eisenberg (who played Zuckerberg) is flat-out brilliant as an actor, author, and humorist for The New Yorker, so it was with pleasure I could obliquely tip my hat his way.
9-Down and the first half of 10-Down... sheer happenstance. Unforeseen. They just fell into place. Good — it's done, no need to squeeze WHITENED into a future puzzle.
I started with SMACKDOWN, cluing it as a verbal broadside that might elicit an "oh, snap." But the wrestling reference seems more mainstream. Glad to see Will (and Joel and Sam) cluing TOTES as it's now sometimes used. Like WHATEVS in a puzzle from last week. Is OBVS very far behind? I do check with some of my kids now and again for fresh words and phrases they view as legit. Oh, and 28-Across is a debut for me, either singular or plural, finally breaking my commitment-to-self never to use it.
I do attempt to mix spoken phrases and sentences (AM I TO BLAME, et al.) into the grid, minimize abbreviations (3 here, I think), and allow one partial max per grid (WALLA). I've been to both my place names: WALLA Walla twice — beautiful town, orchard country, with a colorful display of murals; OPORTO also (for ten days or so), where you can cruise through samples of vintage Quinta Do Noval, about the finest thing ever to emerge from a grape.
Fun note: SECRET WORD was originally MADE-UP WORD, which I loved (like nearly anything from "Jabberwocky"), but it was nixed in a previous draft as a, you guessed it, "made-up word." Minds may change about that down the road.
An earlier version of this puzzle went over the word limit, so was essentially DOA with the Times. It also crammed far too much theme material into the grid, forcing some pretty ugly fill in places. In short, it was a bucket of bolts. Solution? Rethink it, keep the same theme idea, but scale back on the theme material and keep things as clean as possible.
The main challenge, of course, was stacking good theme answers — and the central HEAD OVER HEELS revealer provided extra challenge since it doubled as a pair of theme entries in its own right, and needed its own set of accompanying head and heel. DIRTY RAT dovetailed nicely, but I struggled with 36-Across until I kept digging and chanced upon BIG WHEEL.
62-Across was originally POTOK, and I loved the curiosity that both author Potok and 47-Across actor TOPOL shared the same first name — CHAIM. But it forced some unwieldy and convoluted cluing, so I'm glad Will and company changed Potok to NOT OK, which was very OK to me. Another one: 31-Across was RUMI in my version (a debut), with MIR at 32-Down, but I noted to Will they could choose RUDI and the abbreviation DIR if they wanted. And they did. But RUMI, an oft-quoted 13th-century Sufi mystic (and a favorite of my wife), has to be acceptable in future puzzles. You think?
The main idea behind this puzzle was to create something kinetic — a continuous flow of sports action proceeding from top to bottom the way most solvers approach a puzzle of midweek difficulty. A single rally in a game of badminton seemed ideal to me because of the various kinds of 4-letter birdies that could be arranged on either side of the net, all six of them easily clued "off-theme." (I wanted very much to get architect Christopher WREN in, but couldn't make him fit.) A player SERVES, and the birdie zigzags across the net till IT'S OUT.
The 12-letter BADMINTON NET forced 16 rows for symmetry, which gave me just a little extra wiggle room for optimizing theme placement. Birdies kept moving around from one slot to another until they seemed to make the best fit. But the big job was the non-theme staggered fill in the center of the grid — from ION BEAMS to POLITICO — which pretty much defined (and confined) how good my short "glue" would be. Mixed results: OSE, ONA, ENC, IDI and PES are words I'd like to ban from my future efforts.
I loved making this puzzle and would like to try more where things can "move around" through some sort of landscape.
Somewhere along the line, PRAIRIE OYS got into me head as a funny phrase that might work in a puzzle, but I had two concerns: first, would it be funny to editors and solvers (funny to me isn't funny to everyone)? And what was the glue — the revealer — that would justify omitting TER at the ends of familiar phrases? Soon enough, LETTER DROP (read as three words) became the obvious solution. (BTW, I had prairie oysters for lunch once, back in the early 1970s in Montana at an A&W that sold them as "Blazing Bull Nuggets." Wow! Tasty and spicy!) GIMME SHEL also struck me as funny, though the base phrase — the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" — is anything but.
I was committed to making a six-theme puzzle, knowing full well that the theme answers (if going across) would all be separated by a single row, and there would be extra pressure on the non-theme fill — with 25- and 27-Down cutting through three theme entries. So I moved things around until everything seemed to work pretty well. And a tip o' the hat to OSAKA for just existing — and anchoring the most challenging section of the grid.
Off-topic note: some of you know that, like several other constructors, my entire career has been as a full-time writer (television, plays, novels). If you're curious, please visit my website — nedwhitebooks.com — and have a look. Thanks!
My goal here was to make something very simple with five theme answers and no revealer, and I was lucky that this particular theme hadn't been tried before. Who knew?
Will, Joel and I had a bit of back-and-forth over TORCH BEARER, because of its similarity to the theme answers, at least in appearance. I submitted a few alternatives for the SW, but in the end they decided to keep it. In hindsight, I wonder if GUT WRENCHER at 38-Across would've been a better choice, since CHEST BEATER is the only answer where the person is "acting on their own body part." (Note the singular "their" here! It's now legit!) With all the others, this isn't the case.
Thanks to Will et al. for a fresh clue for D'ANGELO. For me, it'll always been Beverly of the Lampoon's "Vacation" franchise, but that's a bit musty with age and now I know otherwise. I also think there may have been a way to avoid the TEE UP and UPTILTS clash, but darned if I could find it. Tried, failed.
NW: A while back I told my wife Carla I wanted to do a Sunday about one of my favorite things. She said, "Napping?" and I said, "Close enough." So began a puzzle that I wanted to design as a hybrid — part picture puzzle with positionally relevant theme answers, part wordplay answers about various layers of bedding that were partly stagger-stacked. When I first submitted it, MONSTER was under the bed along with DUST BUNNIES, sevens Z's in the bed and SOUND ASLEEP over it — along with other entries like DRIFT OFF, 'NIGHT ALL, NYTOL, and (White) NOISE. Will liked the concept but there were problems with the fill, and unfortunately the bed image had four black squares touching its four corners and wasn't quite "bed-like" enough. That's when I sent out a call for help.
GB: Along with several other friends, I had test solved earlier iterations of Ned's original highly ambitious concept for this puzzle, and was delighted to see my alma mater STUYVESANT going down to the right of the bed. Imagine my surprise when Ned came back to me, asking for help revising the puzzle; you would be surprised too if you were in the middle of a NAP like I was. Long story made exceedingly short, we dialed back on the ambition, changed several of the theme entries and their locations, and started from scratch on the grid — all told, we probably went through two dozen significant variations before coming up with something that the two of us, along with Will and his team, were all satisfied with. Lights out, and back to Ned.
NW: When I first saw Will's clues for the five "bedding" entries, I was sorry to see the loss of the wordplay clues (example: COVER STORY: "How did I get this quilt? Therein lies a tale..."?), but soon realized straight cluing was a much stronger approach, with more "ahas" for solvers, since the theme entries don't shout out — they need to be discovered. Very cool. Thanks to the whole gang — with a special nod to David Steinberg — for their contributions. This was my first collaboration, a great experience, and a team effort all around.
This puzzle germinated with a failed theme entry, THE BIG DIGIT ("What was often extended by angry motorists during Boston's Artery/Tunnel Project?"), which I knew to be phonetically inconsistent, but tried submitting anyway. No go! But Will liked the theme and other entries, so I kept at it, aiming more for "chuckle value" in the theme answers than complexity.
I see that this puzzle has an appallingly low "freshness factor," (I think a record low for me) so it should play fairly easily. Will redid the NE and bits and pieces on the West side (MERCH at 5-Across — a debut — is also his). My original had SSNS at 19-Across, and I know better than that now: don't pluralize abbreviations if you can at all avoid it! I'm also becoming much more averse to partials and abbreviations in general.
One note about what I've seen evolve with themed puzzles in the last few years: the grid should feature at least 2, if not 4, lengthy non-theme Down entries (10 or 11 letters) crossing through two or three themers to keep the word count down and spice up the fill. That's a good standard, if sometimes challenging, and I believe it really boosts the quality of the solving experience.
I was drawn to a supersymmetric grid largely because it's fun to look at. But I also knew I'd be dealing with 36 7-letter words and 12 5's — pretty cramped space for snippets of conversation and snappy phrasings. And so there are none! Still, it was a keen exercise in mining for energy in a highly restrictive environment.
13 D AGOUTIS... years ago, on a nature trip to Belize, our group adopted a wild agouti, named him "Rudy," fed him, and smuggled him home inside the leader's shirt in coach class. Great pet, very affectionate animal.
20-Across, ON POINT, is actually one of my favorites, and I sought to clue it cowboy-style (being a fan of Lonesome Dove), as the lead flank position for cowboys on a cattle drive. I'm also glad to get 55 -Down GARO Yepremian in here — I remember him as a kicker playing with no helmet (!) and also, at one point, famously trying to throw the ball for a touchdown, with no success.
Lastly, 44-Down ANYMORE is an absolute monster to clue. "These days" is as fair and accurate a synonym as you'll ever see. Special thanks to Will and Joel for terrific cluing throughout the puzzle, especially for 50-Down (CHIDE, cross-referenced to TUT), which never would've occurred to me.
First, let's get one apology over with: the highly constricting 4x4 southeast corner. I slaved to avoid OMRI at 57-Down, figuring I'd need to clue it as a young actor (Katz) now long retired. To me, OMRI is akin to golfer ISAO Aoki (now age 73) and ESAI Morales (a fine actor, still working) for providing us with some elbow room for confined spaces, but I know constructors hate dipping that deeply into the crosswordese bucket. Me too. Fortunately, Omri was a historically important King of Israel, and that's how he appears today. Apology over.
The "seed entry" for this puzzle was THICK / PUPPY — including the clue, which Will has left intact (thanks!). That's where it started — with me laughing a little too enthusiastically at my own wordplay. But when my wife heard it, she was also in stitches, so I felt a surge of confidence that others would laugh too, and that I could carry the theme through with four more entries.
20-Across came to me pretty quickly (another hearty self-satisfied laugh, imagining turkey legs as life-sustaining), 38-Across was next (mild chuckle), and 53-Across was dead last for the longer ones (tiny chortle, wrinkled brow).
1- / 68-Across was the final touch, and Will and I actually went back and forth a couple of times to find the best pun. I had, earlier, THAW LOGS and also THAW FISH, but neither was very funny and couldn't hold a candle to the outrageous silliness of releasing a philosopher from cryonic suspension.
You'll see that the three long themers all have the letter "s" in them, so obviously this is not a strict letter substitution puzzle. Good thing — otherwise it would be undoable. I also hasten to add that I now have some software help, and I'm striving for much longer (and more interesting) down-crossers. Stand by. Thanks.
This theme seemed fairly straightforward to me, and it gave me my chance at last to allude to Ward Cleaver, perhaps frustrating younger solvers who may have only a vague awareness of who he was and how he helped guide my generation.
I'm one of those 6% in Patrick Merrell's recent survey who does puzzles by hand, so I poked around and found a preexisting Times grid with the right letter count in theme answers going across, then flipped it 90 degrees, tweaked it a bit, and slapped DOWNWARDS in the center. Darn the luck, I couldn't make it work! So I split it into DOWN and WARD with a central block, and other words started to fill in very nicely.
At 27-Across, with N _ P_ _ W _ locked in from three theme answers, NEPHEWS is the only possible fill (according to databases), interestingly enough. I think it's a pretty cool word here, and I love Will's only slightly misdirective clue for it. I'm much less proud of 31-Across RECUE and the 52-Down partial E FOR, and will labor in the future to keep these wince-able words at bay. Patience!
This is my first themed puzzle for the Times, and I honestly believed it was Tuesday-ish, but no, Will figured it better for today, with the advantage that it was time for a Thursday puzzle without rebuses.
There's been some chatter about which puzzles are harder to make — themed or themeless — and I can say from experience that a publishable themed puzzle is much harder for me. But I hope to keep at it, with focus on early to mid-week theme ideas. Thanks, all.
These are my first notes, so by way of introduction: my wife Carla and I live cozily on a small cove in midcoast Maine, and, having lived in far too many places before this, we're not going anywhere.
Confession: I got the idea for this puzzle from Paula Gamache's puzzle of 1/9/2009 — one of my favorites ever in the Times. Inspired by her bottom stack of three rhyming "couplets" (CULTURE VULTURES, GEORGIE PORGIE, GREEN SCREEN), I decided to go for a series of triplets, which worked fine for 12-, 14-, and 34-Across, but that's where it stopped. I would've loved to have used TRIPLE BOGEY(ED) to extend the threeness, but couldn't work it, so had to settle for just two over par. One minor concern I had: once solvers saw a kind of subtheme with repeating words, would these three answers all become GIMMEs? Maybe.
BEGS THE QUESTION has been used twice before (drat the luck!) but I still wanted it because of its widespread misuse. Digging into it, I never came across "petitio principii," so thanks to Will for cluing it this way and making 57-Across a real monster to solve (without cheating).
Like some of the puzzles Will has accepted, this one went through some revisions. My first submission split 34-Across into two entries with a block in the middle, the entries weren't so interesting, and though he liked the top and bottom stacks the puzzle was at risk because of some ho-hum fill. I repaired the grid by removing the center block, found USA USA USA to be a perfect fit, which also created an opportunity for HO GAUGE at 25-Down, really my favorite entry here. It's the only time I've removed a block to improve the fill.
This is (at last) my 10th Times puzzle, and I've seen my construction style shifting away from attempts at virtuosity toward having more fun.