A standout themeless is so tough to make nowadays. Increased diversity in constructors has brought more to the table in terms of interesting fill, and word lists continue to be expanded and optimized. There are so many weekend-level puzzles I review and set aside, noting something along the lines of: "This is a well-made puzzle that I'd probably enjoy solving ... but is there room for it in our files?" We simply can't accept them all.
Lately, I'm thinking more than ever about cluing, which I genuinely believe can add just as much to the solving experience as the grid itself. A constructor's ability to write clues might serve as the tiebreaking factor for my final vote, though I'm also talking about "cluability" — can these answers get fun, imaginative clues in the first place?
This sort of mindset has gotten me more interested in mid-length stuff like THRILLER, SYMMETRY, TROPHY, TRENDS, ANIMAL, CLENCH, etc. along with a short fill buildup like HIM / SOLE / CULT / SCAN. It's not that I'm anti-name in any way — look, I started this puzzle with TYREKE, and as a solver, I love when I can resonate with a puzzle's references — but I believe that a preponderance of names leads to cluing inflexibility. The same for crossword-y mainstays like VIE and RNA; perfectly cromulent, sure, but there's only so much you can do with them. I'd place ON A (partial phrase) and HUD (abbreviation) in a slightly higher tier, as they can at least get fresh angles in their clues.
The art of making crosswords is one giant balance. I find my philosophies behind it to be ever-evolving, so I'm eager to engage in these discussions with solvers and constructors alike. Hope you enjoyed the puzzle, and thanks for hearing my thoughts!
P.S.: In case you haven't heard, you can now submit your own Times crosswords digitally. Find out more here.
Several years ago, before joining Will and Joel at The Times, I had one of my own puzzle submissions rejected, whose theme presentation just wouldn't offer up a strong enough click with the majority of our solving audience. It involved puns around interesting names for groups of animals: "Group of rhinos on Wall Street?" for STOCK MARKET CRASH, "Group of crows in Egypt?" for MURDER ON THE NILE, etc. Perhaps this would amuse those familiar with "crash" as the term for a group of rhinos, but to the many solvers discovering it mid-solve, the puzzle probably would elicit more "Oh, fun fact, I guess" than that smile-inducing "Aha!" we strive for.
I thought about that puzzle a lot while agonizing over how to present the theme idea in today's. It seemed too cool to me that various English words were spelled the exact same way as written-out numbers in foreign languages. How could I get solvers to appreciate these finds in crossword form while (most likely) showing them something new?
I hope this puzzle provides that smile-inducing "Aha!" on your end, and isn't just indulging my soft spot for constructor-y wordplay. There's a lot going on in the grid, and I'd like to thank the crossword gods for some serious luck with the theme symmetry.
P.S.: Yes, there were other possible fills for that southeast corner ... but I like keeping my grids on the wacky side.
In my most recent puzzle's constructor notes, I outlined that I start with a feature entry or two and arrange the black squares as I go, so that I can have the greatest amount of flexibility possible.
This here is what happens when that style of puzzle making runs off the rails.
I'm a sucker for eye-popping letter patterns, and love a good constructing challenge, so I began by placing TECH-SAVVY in the bottom of the grid and immediately stacking HEIST FILM on top of it. The terminal bigrams formed for the crossing Downs (HT, EE, IC, etc) all presented interesting possibilities, with LV adding the greatest constraint (CTRL-V? SUPER BOWL LV?).
Thus, I swore I was going to do absolutely anything in my power to get this to work. And I especially wouldn't budge once I saw GIBRALTAR could stack atop the other two to lock in the crazy CAPITAL V and WOOKIEE. So although I had yet to truly fix a single black square anywhere in the grid — this stack might have worked in the lower right after all — I developed some serious constructing tunnel vision, convincing myself that I could let my mind run wild with all sorts of options for the surrounding slots in order to preserve the sparkly stuff I wanted.
Fortunately for me, as you see now, I was able to pull it off. But it required:
My self-criticism aside, I really do love how this thing turned out in the end, even if I know the puzzle won't be well-received by everybody. It is a very on-brand themeless from me after all, with its tacky letter blends, creative fill (perhaps overly so) and some diabolical clues. In fact, the pairing of CROP CIRCLE with [Unbelievable discovery in one's field] might just be my all-time favorite.
I mean this in two senses: I first created the grid while sitting in a packed bus, unable to connect to its alleged "complimentary internet" ... and that NW corner, where I began, originally had FREE WIFI in place of FREEMIUM.
Flexibility is key to balancing liveliness and smoothness in themelesses. When I construct these puzzles, I place the black squares as I go, and let their constraints trickle down to flesh out the eventual skeleton. In the grid to the right, my top stack is basically finished, and already clears my bar for enjoyment, but I've left myself a whole bunch of fun options for 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-Down since their lengths aren't yet fixed. I generally try to cram in as much cool stuff as I possibly can when I get started, and if there's even one thing that makes me scowl, I peel back.
That said, for this puzzle, in particular, I took a completely different approach than usual: dropping that black square right below THREE the moment I saw it would facilitate AREN'T WE ALL and WHAT'S NEXT with still zero junk (gird to the left). There's something to be said for a truly eye-popping, low-word-count grid, and maybe some time (read: "never") I'd love to see if I could've pulled off, say, a quad stack of 9s in those Downs. But I was super pumped about what I had going for me here, so I did what I did and moved on to make sure I could pack as much juice into the symmetrically opposite corner.
You'll notice that I tacked on four more black squares to form those T-shape configurations, which still feels inelegant to the constructor in me ... but zippy stuff like HIT JOB, Y SHAPE, BRO HUG, COACH K and SPRINKLE wouldn't be there without them.
As always, hope you enjoyed!
I hid a Horcrux in the NW corner of this puzzle. Can't you tell?
Yes, my name's there at 37-Down by coincidence, but I built the whole grid around the NW; with those eye-popping letter combos, it should offer a glimpse into my twisted cruciverbal soul.
Today's puzzle is hereby dedicated to my housemate, Nick. The revealer was all his idea; I just happened to flesh out the exact wordplay and build the whole thing myself instead of seeing through on a collaborative effort. Sorry, Nick!
Note to aspiring puzzle makers: Be wary of interlocking theme answers. They. Will. RUIN. You. Really, though, crossing ADD TO QUEUE with CALLING IN (T)STION adds so much more of a constraint to the rest of the grid. Then there's crossing SAFE ZONES with the symmetrically placed revealer, and having to connect BOOK O(F) RA at the F. Don't forget that CY(B)HICS / BERETTA still needs to find its way into the grid somewhere ... and now we're up to three theme answers being accounted for.
TL;DR: I played a giant game of Tetris in order to fit all the thematic pieces into one 21x21 puzzle, while still holding myself to my usual high fill standards. Thus, this took tons of reworking, but the time and effort to produce a particularly enjoyable grid versus one that just fit the bill felt worth it. As I outlined in my latest article on crosswords, keeping the solver in mind is what matters most.
Now ... grab yourself a print copy of The Times, and enjoy this year's Puzzle Mania!
Welp, this is about everything Constructor Sam could have wanted:
But Constructor Sam is just one solver. Editor Sam certainly knows that this puzzle isn't for everyone, and promises to make sure Constructor Sam chills on those sick, twisted puzzles he creates ... it's been quite the stretch as of late! That said, Editor Sam is at least put at ease by the fact that there's still universally fun fill in TWIST TOP, ROOM TEMP, ACTED BIG and HIP-HOP, as well as a nice theme set he hopes any solver can appreciate.
This idea might seem original, but I know it as more of a rehash. Technically, I'd fleshed out a similar grid years ago; I was ho-hum on my execution even then, but resolved to post it to my old puzzle website regardless, and lay any lingering thoughts to rest.
Upon recently realizing I hadn't constructed a Thursday crossword since 2012, the above popped in my mind again, accompanied by that same nagging feeling. Suffice it to say, I dug it all out of my theme graveyard, and after a stretch of brainstorming: BOOM.
My favorite aspect of the final result is definitely the phantom 53-Across clue in print. Since GUAC begins at that intersecting G, there needs to be a number in the first box ... but GSECTION is really the continuation of STRING SECTION rather than its own eight-letter answer. The quirk is more unintentional than diabolical, but I hope it caused a few double takes.
NO SIR. IMS. PRELIM. ASAP. SAND PILE. WIN. The clues for these answers are all Will's; I can't take any credit for them outside of giving my thumbs-up to the guy while editing together. They're much better than my originals.
AERIE. DOYLE. MY FAIR LADY. IVIE. The clues for these are my own, but after coming up with replacements per Will's thoughts:
All the remaining clues are either entirely my own or were slightly tweaked for style/clarity (like adding "in the 1960s" to the NEODADAIST clue, changing "sweet, spicy" to "sweet-and-spicy" for BBQ WINGS, etc). I'll call it all a major constructing 59-Down!
This is all to say, I've learned by now how rewarding a concerted cluing effort can be ... and how much the results can elevate the puzzle no matter which day of the week it falls on. While lively, fresh vocabulary is what makes a grid sing on its own, sometimes clues can come in and turn otherwise normal entries into highlights for the solver.
Perhaps the EAU clue elicits a memorable "aha" moment, or native New Yorkers enjoy the fresh take on METS. Those "Coiner of the word ___" clues, like the one for CARROLL, tend to be interesting. Notice how none of these involve question marks, either; fresh, smoothly executed puns are a welcome sight, in my book, but they're just one way to enliven the solving experience.
I'll hop off my soapbox now. Here's hoping you solvers aren't a tough crowd!
SAM: Unbeknownst to Byron, I've wanted to get a theme like this published for years. I submitted a 19x19 grid with OUTSTANDING DEBT to the Indie 500's inaugural guest constructor contest, though there were clearly superior puzzles in the pool. I had another 15x15 construction with DOPE SHEET, SICK DAY, COOL BREEZE, etc., but I just wasn't in love with the theme set enough; how could I refine this idea more?
It wasn't until recently that I realized my flaw in execution: the DEBT in OUTSTANDING DEBT didn't really change meaning from its base phrase. OUTSTANDING BALANCE came to mind, and I liked that I could interpret the phrase as a completely different lexical chunk: an asset for a gymnast. It wasn't long after that I thought of RADICAL MOVEMENT, and noticed that these could be clued quite crisply ... as "compliments"!
I was so sure this time around that my puzzle idea could work out ... until my theme well went dry. AND I still had to get everything to lay out symmetrically. Enter Byron, who, after hearing my pitch, quickly came up with SMASHING PUMPKINS and SWEET TALK, much to my amazement. OUTSTANDING BALANCE would have to become OUTSTANDING BILLS, but that was OK by me. I not only had a full theme set now but an opportunity for another Sam and Byron collab, which was such a blast the first time.
So we happily set off to make an easy, friendly 140-word Sunday ... LOL, you thought.
"Let's shoot for 124 [words]!," I chatted Byron, adding a laughing emoji so I could pretend I was totally joking about trying to break records and not insane. Fortunately for me, Byron is, in fact, insane, too. As you can see, we ended up "settling" for 128, though that's probably for the best.
BYRON: Collaborating with Sam is fairly predictable: it's not going to be easy, but it's going to be fun. We both like wide-open grids that are a challenge to fill at all, and then require many iterations to fill well. We ended up with some great chunks that we didn't use just because they didn't work with other parts — the downside of having lots of connectivity and maintaining symmetry. The BARBADOS section ended up being the linchpin — credit to Sam for figuring out that bit out. Hope you enjoy solving it as much as we enjoyed making it.
I'm always intrigued by themeless constructors that refer to a single "seed entry" they use to kick off each grid. For me, I guess that was DOOMSDAY CLOCK, which I had recently written down with intent to build a puzzle around it. But really, the "seed" for this puzzle was the promising overlap that MAD MAGAZINE and DOOMSDAY CLOCK showed when stacked in this particular arrangement. Except for the *GC* pattern, every last bigram felt like it could yield a ton of results, which meant that I would then have great flexibility to find some snazzy long entries for the middle region. Two 9s and another 11 later, it appeared my reasoning did "check out" (my original, overly diabolical clue for ADD UP).
As for the rest of the puzzle, I'm happy with pretty much everything except for those black squares in the NE / SW corners. I think I had other fills that worked without them, but being able to pack in KYLO REN, OTC STOCK, PRINT RUNS, DNA BANK, SPORTS BAR, and even DOLLOPS felt worth it. Some might not know LA LIGA, and many will squint at both ION GUN and SCARLET A, but sometimes a little surprising crunch in a weekend offering is fun! Hope nothing gets too stuck in your teeth, now.
The single feature of this puzzle I'm most proud of? That fresh clue for ARR! I know, it's super cheesy, but figured this would add a bit more excitement to your solve than [Flight board abbr.]. It's the first time we've ever used such a cluing angle for ARR in our daily puzzles.
This is my 25th puzzle in the Times, which feels like a milestone. I may now be working full-time for The New York Times Crossword, though every time I have a puzzle published, it feels just as exciting as my 2012 debut. Thanks to all my family, friends and fans for continuing to make this dream possible!
DAVID: Sam and I often joke about how my themelesses are always Fridays while his are always Saturdays. Since this puzzle ended up on a Friday, my style *clearly* dominated! Just kidding—as with most of our collaborations, the effort was very much 50/50. I don't remember much about the construction process, but I think we started with Sam's zippy SPIN A WEB/SMALL OJ/PTA MEETINGS corner. Once we had the upper left in place, we knew we were onto something. Overall, I'm happy with the balance between smoothness and lively fill in this one. Hope you enjoy!
SAM: Always an honor to work with one of the #GOATs of the cross-world. David is now a full-time puzzle editor while still swamped with schoolwork at Stanford ... I really don't know how he does it. And, of course, let's not forget that every last puzzle he makes is top-notch!
This puzzle collected a bit of dust, as David and I both have enough on file individually that this needed to be staggered out. I believe we made it around the same time as our LIFE OF PABLO themeless, which ran the weekend of the 2017 A.C.P.T.! David is correct that I anchored the grid with SPIN A WEB ... but that was only after he gave my original NW corner a beautiful makeover to what you see now. You can tell that the SE corner is his as well, since it's silky smooth and still quite lively.
Lately, I've grown to realize how much a good clue can elevate an otherwise normal answer. Take David's clues for ROADWAY and STIFFED; just like that, those answers now feel like highlights in a grid. I think our clue for I HEAR YA (one of my personal favorites ever, might I add) makes that whole corner feel zippier. Even the "Jarhead" reference in the GULF WAR clue provides nice variety without seeming too arcane, as not everything needs to be wordplay-dependent. Would love to hear solvers' ideas on this.
As David said, enjoy our latest published collab! Hope none of you fell for JELLY BEAN with that ????Y BEA? pattern ...
Second puzzle in a fortnight! If you weren't sick of me after my April Fool's offering, then perhaps you'll be sick of me now ... my seeds for this were indeed the ridiculous-looking MICRO-USB and the even-more-ridiculous-looking DOT CO DOT UK.
For those of you that like your Saturdays on the crazy side, I hope I've hit the sweet spot with that crossing from hell. For everyone else that found themselves muttering certain four-letter words at myself or the puzzle, perhaps there was at least a bit to enjoy in the remaining 66 answers.
If you don't see my byline in the next two weeks (you shouldn't), it's because I've gone into hiding. I have no need for RIOT GEAR.
P.S.: The word "web" was originally omitted from the clue for 3-Down. Consider yourselves lucky.
No April fooling; one week after my A.C.P.T. playoff puzzle, I actually have a Sunday publication in the Times! This achievement has eluded me for years, so I'm super stoked to finally "hit for the cycle" on being published throughout the week.
Funny enough, I originally built the 15x16 grid below (shown at left), intending the puzzle for a Thursday. I didn't want a single rebus-ized letter to be repeated anywhere else, and figured the special squares should always appear at the ends of answers. My only hitch was whether or not the last example, THERE'S NOT A LOT I CAN DO, was an unfair inconsistency or a fun final twist.
When I showed it all to Joel on a Subway ride, he not only thought the former was true, but that my other restrictions were unnecessary. He wondered if the idea would be best in Sunday form altogether, and it took me maybe a half-second to excitedly agree.
If I may say, I'm super thrilled with how this thing turned out. These theme answers seem like a fun set in themselves, and I'm glad to have worked in four sets of triple-stacked 8s as well as fun bonuses in YEAH MAN, BAR SOAP and NICE DAY. The clues for TOBACCO and OLES feel like some of my best work, and even the angles for OMAN, ALABAMA and AVE MARIA have a fresh feel. Did anyone catch the "It's lit" and "Totally, bro" one-two punch? That was — *sigh* — very intentional.
Curious to see how people feel about RIGHT FIT. I could've easily made this RIGHTFUL, but I thought the former was a interesting, lexical phrase. You hope that a new setting is the right fit for someone, no? Or, as I clued it, that your clothing has the right fit on you? Two certain people that I work with closely seem to feel otherwise ... so I guess I should brace myself for an earful in the comments :)
Happy solving, and may this puzzle not fool you as much as yesterday's early surprise!
SAM: Talk about goals: Once upon a time, I was an avid solver, obsessed with Byron's work. His grids were always loaded with interesting answers; how was he able to fill such wide-open areas so smoothly ... and with such a unique touch? After meeting him at the ACPT a few years ago, we realized how similar our approaches to themeless puzzles were, and last spring, I got the green light I'd been looking over Facebook chat: "We should collab sometime on a themeless — would be fun to see what we could come up with."
After briefly fainting, I set out to make the craziest, most wide-open grid I could, just so I could compare with Byron's normal wavelength. Beginning with PIBB XTRA crossing LGBT ___, I designed the grid skeleton you see now, filling in the NW corner all the way down to AREA CODE MAP / SON OF ADAM (sorry about EYE-HAND!). I passed it off to Byron, and with several grid constraints already in play, was worried that he'd have trouble with what remained. Well, not only did he prove that something was possible ... he made a freaking MINI-THEME out of the SE stack. Unbelievable!
The swath of white space leading into the NE corner was by far the hardest to fill, but it ended up being the most fun. We bounced around various possible fills — Byron had SAW GERRERA work at one point! — but nothing was quite satisfying enough. Finally, the non-database-discoverable GO ASK ANYONE came to mind, and that proved to be the breakthrough.
We're thrilled with the final result and hope it kicked off well with Byron's brilliant HALL PASS clue. Huge thanks to Byron for working with me on an unforgettable puzzle-making experience. Whew! It may be a bit before I wade back into 64-word waters ... we'll see.
Byron: When Sam sent me that corner, I almost sent it back saying this was too good to share, but I'm not that noble. It already had plenty of good stuff in the fill. The main thing, I thought, was to round the corner heading SE in a reasonable way that maintained the openness into the smaller corners. My general goal when constructing, especially themelesses, is to find one bottleneck in the grid that is hard to eliminate and find a way to eliminate it. In this case that meant maintaining the AREA CODE MAP / SON OF ADAM combo and running something long through them. My self-indulgence was trying to do that with KAZAKHS and DANZA, the former for the crazy consonant mashup and the latter as a hat tip since my wife has very fond memories of working with him in her former career in film production.
It was so much fun working with Sam. Hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it.
Yep, that's my byline above a Monday puzzle. *Rubs eyes* Is this real life?
The theme I came up with was friendly enough for beginner solvers?
There's nothing too crazy in the fill?
The clues are ... easy?!
I started where most constructors don't, and shouldn't: telling myself that I really needed to make a Monday puzzle with no ideas for it whatsoever. I decided to poke around XWord Info for past themes I enjoyed, and came across this Lynn Lempel gem, which contained eight phrases that all rhymed despite having different spellings. I thought the idea was so clever and wondered if I could vary it somehow but still introduce a novel concept.
I figured the long "A" sound was worth pursuing and noticed that MILO O'SHEA and ANCHORS AWEIGH stacked nicely together in a grid. From there, I refined the long "A" answers to have the "short-short-short long" cadence of the two above: CHINESE BUFFET, SO NOT OKAY, etc. But I still wasn't satisfied yet.
That's when CAFE AU LAIT emerged from the cobwebs to make a grand entrance: AU LAIT double-rhymed with both OKAY and O'SHEA, their associated phrases followed the same rhythm, and they were all spelled differently. What an "aha" moment that was! With OBEY and OJ proving viable as well, I realized that this was the grid I had to make.
As far as fill goes, I obsessively focused on keeping proper nouns to a minimum, unless they were truly zippy and worth knowing (TY COBB, ST. CLAIR). After watching my friends develop from novices into regular solvers, I now know that normally fine answers such as LETO and TULL may be tough early in the week.
Hope you enjoyed! Have you signed up for the ACPT yet?
"THE VOICE" is my all-time favorite song, but alas, a clue referencing a #15 Billboard hit from the early '80s will never fly when there's a modern hit show with an identical name. To my fellow Moody Blues fans: I apologize wholeheartedly and feel your pain, but I knew what I had to do. At least there's still Frank ZAPPA's "Sheik Yerbouti" and George Harrison's "I ME MINE."
Can I just say that I've come a lo-o-ong way with cluing in the last few months? Will and Joel absolutely went to town marking up this puzzle's manuscript; I think a graffitied city wall would look barer in comparison. REAL TALK, I'm pretty sure that yesterday's puzzle, which I helped edit, had more of my own clues than today's!
Hope you enjoyed.
SAM: I ride the train to and from Will's house with Joel twice a week, and it's not uncommon for us to be building grids individually during the commute. Joel is, of course, an incredible constructor, so I can't help but glance over at what he's cooking up; besides, I'd never gotten a live look-in at another constructor's style.
One day, I saw Joel playing around with APOSTATES in a grid, to be parsed as A-P-O STATES. I thought for a few minutes and then threw D-I-A TRIBES and P-A-S SPORTS his way. Joel noted the interlock these three answers could have in a grid, and we were off to the races!
We shot for a low word count (70) right off the bat, not only to challenge ourselves, but because we felt there could be many fill bonuses with longer non-theme answers — LPGA TOUR, DAD ROCK and DON'T BE are my personal favorites.
I really liked working with Joel as he kept me honest in pushing myself to my limits. We must have gone through several fill iterations where I settled for an iffy answer (COP CAR was once LOW BET ... *yawn*), yet Joel seemed to know every time that something better was possible, whether the final fill was his or my own.
Consider this to be the first of many collabs from us. We hope you enjoyed it!
JOEL: Always a joy to have another constructor carry a half-baked idea like this over the finish line. As Sam said, hopefully this is the first of many train ride puzzles, it was a blast to work on.
While it may not necessarily be my magnum opus, this is my favorite puzzle I've ever created.
That's because the puzzle is me*. I'll shamelessly admit that I've listened to "TRAP QUEEN" at least 1,738 times. I'm equally obsessed with Pink Floyd, and "US AND THEM" is a classic. I graduated from UVA's engineering school this past May, though I was an ECON MAJOR as well. CHOCO TACO as a crossword entry feels animated yet quirky, and that about sums me up. LEFT BRAIN? My right brain doesn't exist. LOGARITHM? I'm a numbers guy. ATTIC DOOR? Eh, I'm weird and have my flaws, I suppose.
I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed making this thing, but like talking about myself, it just feels awkward. I guess it's worth noting that on top of everything else, this is my first true crossword publication since I became the Times' new assistant puzzles editor!
Thanks to Will for letting me edit this with him, to Joel for checking this out over a text conversation two years ago, to you solvers for dealing with me in grid form...and to just everybody in general for giving me a shot.
*With the exception of EGOMANIAC, I hope! Also prefer a mojito to a PINA COLADA any day.
SAM: My first of many collaborations with David! We talk a bunch outside of crossword meetups--we're on the same wavelength solving each other's puzzles--so it was only in due time that we'd take up themeless construction together.
It's so interesting to see different strategies constructors follow for filling an open grid; in my case, I usually stack/interlock 2-3 seed answers and build the black squares around them as I go. David, on the other hand, created a rough skeleton for the entire grid after slotting LIFE OF PABLO (our seed) at 1A. He designed the top half of the grid, including the aforementioned black square layout, and I pieced together the bottom beginning with NOBODY CARES as a fresh and constructor-friendly entry.
I fought for MAJORDOMO / BIZARRO / ?????JOB (now JACKED UP) to avoid the proper noun buildup near the southwest, but nothing would budge. Still overall pleased with how this turned out, especially with my clues for ROE V WADE and ABOUT ME staying intact, among others.
For those of you competing at the ACPT with me, I hope this puzzle serves as a nice morning warmup—good luck to all! Thanks to David for showing me some masterful techniques, and to Will and Joel, with whom I'm excited to work alongside after graduating from UVA in May!
DAVID: Always a pleasure to work with Sam! Collaborating is often a tricky process because constructors have such different styles, but with Sam, things work smoothly since we have the same tastes in fill, clues, etc. In fact, Sam was the one who suggested building a puzzle around LIFE OF PABLO in the first place, and I was quick to jump on the idea!
I'll be back in Pleasantville this summer working with Will and Joel for the few weeks before Sam takes over full-time. I'm so excited for him!!! Anyway, I hope you enjoy our puzzle, and I look forward to seeing many of you at the ACPT!
First of all, a big shout-out to my father and stepmother, who are huge David Bowie fans, and thus indirectly inspired this puzzle by turning me on to such excellent music at an early age. When Bowie passed away on 1/10/16, all I could do to honor his legacy was play my favorite hits nonstop. His early "Ashes to Ashes." His late "Lazarus." And, of course, his timeless "Space Oddity."
Well, naturally, I had noticed during this time that DAVID/BOWIE could be a symmetric pair in a crossword, and I whipped up a quick mini** around the entries. But the idea of making a larger tribute puzzle began to eat at me … so I experienced quite the "aha" moment upon hearing the opening lyrics of the last song mentioned above. Construction fell simply, as I had flexibility with pretty much all of the answers, although I really wanted TOMFOOLERY since it didn't employ the name "Tom" in the same sense as the song. As far as the fill goes, I didn't design my grid for many longer non-theme answers, so I tried to make the most out of the 6s, 7s, and 8s available: NUM LOCK, BLU-RAY, ST. LUCIA, IPOD NANO, etc.
To me, this puzzle alone was dear enough to my heart, and I was *this* close to cluing it up indie-style and posting it on my site. However, just for the heck of it, I shot Joel Fagliano—who I was already in contact with regarding mini** puzzles—a quick email that displayed the unclued grid, asking if he and Will wouldn't by chance have any interest in running the timely puzzle. To my surprise, I received a "Yes!" response from both individually, and excitedly reversed course. You know the rest!
Who knew that my 10th puzzle in the Times, a personal goal in itself, could be such an adventure? So. Incredibly. Grateful. :)
**Shameless plug: Joel has recently brought me on board with writing some of the 5x5 and 9x9 puzzle packs for the New York Times crossword app! If you're a relatively new solver, or are looking for some quick, fun puzzles, check ‘em out; they're meant to be super smooth and timely, and can be enjoyed by many different audiences. Happy solving!
This puzzle was constructed just over a year ago, inspired by the interesting intersection of BABA GHANOUJ and JEDI MIND TRICK at the J. I believe I wanted to do something similar with a Q, X, or Z in the 56A square, but that clearly didn't work out. In all honesty, I don't know what I was thinking, going with the black square pattern that you see here. Yes, it was practically built around the BABA GHANOUJ / GLOW IN THE DARK / JEDI MIND TRICK seed entries, but whoa, I still can't get over how weird it looks.
As with many of my puzzle successes, I can't believe how lucky I got with some of the fill. Sure, let's just try KLONDIKE BAR at 56A and hope something nice comes out of it (LOFGREN / AM I RIGHT). Let's spend hours monkeying around with the top-left and stumble upon the lovely SPELLING BEE and TYSON GAY, both never before seen in a NYT puzzle. Oh look, IDIOT right next to SMART at 25 & 26D. A Scrabble average of 1.98 without anything terribly forced! It's almost as if I know what I'm doing!
One more thing: My apologies to all the solvers that combed this grid looking for an Independence Day mini-theme, and were left disappointed … I must appear so unpatriotic. Truth is, I was quite surprised to see that Will had slotted this for today, though I'm stoked for its appearance on a nice, memorable date! If you are looking for something July Fourthy, however, perhaps today's offering on my website may interest you :)
Happy solving, everyone!
ALEX: Our original version of this puzzle had a very different theme arrangement: it was not NAME CALLING but CALLING TIME, and the revealer was not PAIRS OF CARDS but HOUSE OF CARDS. Moreover, the revealer was not positioned well, as it was the second of the six themers. Eventually, I realized that the revealer basically had to be moved to the end, and I was a little daunted by that because of it being 12 letters. Still, I set my mind to it, and Sam seemed to like it a lot when I showed it to him.
After filling and cluing this new version and running it by some friends, we sent it to Will in June 2013. He replied just one month later, saying he liked the theme but HOUSE OF CARDS did not really explain it. Additionally, he asked us to rework some of the fill, and we tried to go above and beyond his instructions to make the puzzle better before sending him our revisions on August 21 of that year. Indeed, he said it "turned out pretty nicely" when he replied on August 29.
Thank you, Sam, for being such a great friend. We can't thank you enough, Will, for everything you've done for this and all our puzzles … and we hope you enjoy our puzzle!
SAM: I would not be writing NYT-caliber puzzles if it wasn't for Alex. This is more than just a compliment to him, his kindness, and his constructing abilities … it's the honest truth. Here I was, a naive 16-year-old, eager to get involved in my newfound passion of crossword construction. I had prowled the Cruciverb-L mailing list for months at this point, wondering what it would take for me to finally step up and take puzzling to the next level. Sure enough, Alex, whose name I recognized from his delightful June debut, posted a thread asking for construction help on an ambitious puzzle he was designing. I hastily wrote him an email, addressing him as "Mr. Vratsanos," feeling inferior … and he responded almost immediately, welcoming me into the so-called "Crossworld," and praising a few of my ideas. I was given a shot like never before, and it meant the world to me.
Although that particular construction effort rapidly failed, the rest is history. Alex introduced me to my future mentor, Vic Fleming, and between the both of them, I learned to stand on two legs, which was an unfamiliar feeling to me at my age. This is my eighth puzzle in the NYT, and I currently publish a new puzzle every week on my blog, The Grid Kid. This whole puzzling nature has become a regular thing for me, but what you've solved today is different than any other puzzle I've ever made. This was more than just a puzzle; this was an opportunity.
From a constructor's standpoint, it's always interesting to look at a puzzle that you haven't touched in seemingly forever. The one published today was constructed over 2 years ago, when I was in my novice stages of puzzlemaking...and as happy as I am with its acceptance and publication, I can see parts of the fill that I know I would have reworked, had I constructed this puzzle more recently.
For instance, the top-right doesn't feel like my normal work, with ELUL / VALS / ENL right next to each other, and nothing in the stack of 9's really sparkling. But hey, Will accepted this, so I must have done something right! The more fascinating part about looking at this puzzle now is noticing the development of clues over time. When I sent this puzzle in, I had SKYY VODKA clued as [Liquor with the slogan "Passion for perfection"]. Well, not only did another constructor debut this entry before me in a 2012 NYT puzzle (grr!), but the slogan in the clue was updated to "West of Expected," which I assume happened because the original one became outdated. Hence, as time flies, clue tweaks become necessary! Unless, of course, I had the slogan all wrong to begin with ...
Enough with my lamenting and scrutiny. What'd I like about this puzzle? Well, I like MOZZARELLA STICK, my seed entry. I like BRAIN GAME (for which Will made a nice clue). And I like the way this puzzle "talks" to the solver, with "OH, I FORGOT" and "SAYS ME" and "HOLD ON A SEC." Coming up with LIVE RADAR while constructing helped me out of a real bind in the bottom-right. Pleased with all the clue saves Will made for crosswordese-y bits. Most of all, I'm just grateful to be constructing for the Times, and I can promise many more puzzle in the future! Thank you all, and enjoy!
P.S.: If you're interested in solving more of my work, feel free to check out my "indie" blog, The Grid Kid. New puzzle every Monday with some zippy stuff!
The first time I ever saw the entry EZER in a grid, my mind was blown. I had no idea who this Israeli figure was, but all I knew was that his name, combined with SKY, made my last name. I liked that I could hide my last name amid two crossword entries. "Ezersky" doesn't exactly rhyme with anything, and Microsoft Word always wants to correct it to some random word like "deerskin" (?)…so this was kinda cool. Over three years ago, I monkeyed with themeless grids with adjacent entries SAMUEL/EZER/SKY and the like…but having short entries as seeds just wasn't exciting, especially when the middle bit was hardcore crosswordese. This latter realization led me to create a grid based around what you now see as 67-across. Two Z's! An entry never before seen in a mainstream crossword! A full name that isn't just the crosswordese portion ... I love it when constructors do that! So I was pretty happy this all pulled together, and I hope it doesn't cause too much trouble for solvers that don't know the guy! Enjoy, folks.
Some additional constructing notes:
Finally, I want to use this as an early opportunity for a promo, and say that I am in the process of creating a blog, where I will present a self-constructed weekly crossword much like several of the other indie websites out there. I'm still working on some of the basic setup procedures, but I have an arsenal of puzzles already created, mostly themelesses, that I am excited to share with the public—they may be a bit racy for NYT standards, and have some college-kid flair thrown in the mix. Anyway, look for me in the coming weeks as I move this blog forward; thanks in advance for the support!
Sam: So, Vic, do you recall how we came up with this ANAKIN SKYWALKER puzzle?
Vic: Uh ... Anakin was a classmate of yours. He friended you on Facebook. And I said, "We should totally put him in a puzzle! I loved him in that Ewok movie."
Sam: Precisely! BTW, Anakin did well in Econ last semester. So, yeah, we designed this grid with as much lively fill as possible, garnished it with some Scrabbly flair. I even learned a word; when you suggested DEMIJOHN, I Googled for a tabloid name between stars Moore and Cusack ... since when are they an item?
Vic: When you told me that story about finding an ENERGY BAR in a SEWER LINE and thinking, "I bet that TASTES BAD!", who'd a-thunk you could jam those phrases into a crossword?! You use lots of multi-unit answers. In a themeless you did in May, there were, like, 50! Where'd you learn that?
Sam: I'll never tell. [wink] But it's not like I was working alone.
Vic: How cool is it that Will kept several of our clues! Like yours for PEEN, "Part for a whackjob?"
Sam: "What Kramer often called Seinfeld" was yours for JER.
Vic: "They might like your comments" — your clue for FACEBOOK FRIENDS.
Sam: My clue for BUTTS — "Moon units?" — was changed only slightly, to "Moon views?"
Vic: Close enough! I'll give it to you.
Sam: Loved your clue for TE AMO, "Phrase cooed en español."
Vic: And I loved yours for AREA CODES, "409 and 410, but not 411."
Sam: All in all, a good effort. I hope everyone likes what they see. It's been a pleasure working with you.
Vic! Here's to many more collaborations!
Vic: As they say in the clue for IT'D BE ... my pleasure!
Sam: That wasn't in our puzzle.
Vic: No, but it coulda been.
Sam: BARCA was the better choice.
Vic: Especially with your clue, "Spanish soccer club, to fans."
One of my favorite parts of crossword construction is being able to express my interests through juicy fill. This is especially why I most enjoy creating themeless puzzles, as there are so many possibilities for fresh entries that I can squeeze into each grid. A classic rocker at heart, I chose BABA O'RILEY to be the seed for this puzzle, and packed the grid with several other answers I felt connected to me: the SAY HEY KID of my favorite sport, the TOP HONORS I'm currently striving for as a first year at UVA, the modern-day "ABOUT THAT" I know I use a bit too often, and more!
I submitted this original grid back in early 2013, but Will replied that I needed to get rid of the ugly abbreviation ENER. (8D) in order for the puzzle to be reconsidered for acceptance. After several hours of revision, including another struck-down attempt, I stumbled across the very lucky pairing of OPERA MUSIC and BOY SOPRANO that fit nicely with my current 1A as well as preserved most of the original grid's fill ... perfect! Sure enough, Will acknowledged that the newest revision "turned out great," and wrote some pretty killer clues for me; I cannot claim the cluing brilliance behind 1A, 17A, the 19A/22A combo, 50A, 24D, 36D, 37D (evil!), and the saves made to the otherwise poorer entries 31D and 52D. Really glad he left mine in for 35A though :)
Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed solving this puzzle as much as I enjoyed making it! Thanks to everyone involved for continuing to make this dream possible!
To my knowledge, this is the first puzzle I'd ever had accepted by the New York Times, so it has a special place in my heart. I fell upon this kid-friendly theme after multiple attempts of trying to satisfy Vic with good theme ideas; even though I was merely a newbie at this point, I had a good feeling about this one's development. Sure enough, my mentor gave me a thumbs-up, and we proceeded with construction. Vic was excellent at explaining grid design, and guided me through creating an initial grid, fill, and clues to submit to Will. Months later, Will requested a revision, so Vic designed a new grid with fill and sent it over to me. I tweaked the fill (especially in the bottom right) and clued the puzzle. Vic revised my clues, and the rest is history! It's been a pleasure working with Vic and I can't thank him enough for his mentorship.
Sam's right — and he's talented and has been a joy to work with. He was 16 when he made this puzzle. I'd been mentoring him for a few weeks. He developed the theme. I helped a bit on construction and fill. We submitted it Feb. 17, 2012. At that time FANCY PANTS was in the theme rather than BOSSYPANTS.
On June 26, 2012, Will told us the theme needed a "revealer of some sort." We went back to the drawing board and emerged with NICKELODEON across the center of the revised product. On March 25, 2012, Sam had a solo-byline Sunday puzzle in the Los Angeles Times. Also, while we were revising SPONGEBOB, we were at work on a themeless that appeared in the Times on July 28, 2012.
SAM: There wasn't really much that "inspired" this puzzle, except for the fact that I wanted to be accepted by the Times. I also wanted to learn how to make a good themeless. Vic, who'd been mentoring me for some time, said we needed to come up with two backbone entries to build a grid around. He chose PHOTOBUCKET, as it was fresh and modern. I came up with GOOGLE EARTH. He designed the grid.
VIC: We split the task of filling the grid, almost literally, down the middle. As always, I was pushing for multiple ILSAs (in-the-language-standalones), and Sam delivered in spades, pushing our count to over 20.
SAM: I clued it all up. Vic tweaked my cluing. Will asked for a slight revision. Vic revised it. I revised his revision. We got accepted. And boom!
VIC: As we write this note (Dec. 2013), Sam has now had eight more puzzles accepted by the Times, including a terrific rebus that was published on 12/13/2012!