I developed a very different version of this puzzle as a 15x15, but along the way I came to the sinking realization that though maybe the gimmick was technically interesting, it didn't seem like it would be especially enjoyable for solvers. I scrapped that approach, and asked myself how I might inject some fun into the idea... and, as often happens in life, posing the question in the right way was all it took to find a path forward.
My thanks to Will and Joel for their improvements, and I hope this provides an entertaining start to your puzzling year.
My aging memory is a bit hazy on what went into making this puzzle or how it even came about. I blame the fact that the grid lay completed for a few years before I finally got to cluing it. Looking at the final product, I'm glad to see the majority of my clues survived Will's editorial touches. And those that didn't were significantly improved. I mean, how can you not like a fresh clue for HOAX referencing the current (and troubling) rise in fake news? Or the juicy medical details concerning the final minutes of our old papal standby LEO VII? Talk about being in seventh heaven and going to heaven at the same time.
This is my sixth Tuesday overall and the first in almost fifteen years (been over ten years since I had a Monday). Easy crosswords are paradoxically very hard to make and I tip my hat to those who can consistently create top-notch puzzles with vocabulary accessible to all levels of solvers (Lynn Lempel, Zhouqin Burnikel and Andrea Carla Michaels come to mind, to name a few). So even after all this time in the biz, I still have a lot to learn.
Happy New Year and happy solving!
This puzzle was constructed in November 2015, and accepted for publication in March 2016. This is one of a trio of themeless grids of similar design that I constructed in 2015, where the starting point for the fill was a central 9-letter idiomatic remark. All three puzzles were picked up, two of them here.
This fill started with ARE WE GOOD. I think idiomatic expressions make good crossword entries, especially those uttered in private or unguarded moments. To those who say WHO WAS IT is perhaps too much of a good thing, I say SPARE ME. ;-)
I like pangrams — they're fun to solve and to construct. When I solve a puzzle that's shaping up to be a pangram, I root for it to happen. The challenge in constructing a pangram is to accommodate the high Scrabble value letters without using answers that otherwise wouldn't be allowed in the grid. I think this effort was successful in that regard.
I would like to thank Will and Joel for their work on the clues. I particularly like their clues for MASSEUR (1D - One pressing the flesh) and MEAT RUB (1A — Barbecue chef's coat). As for a clue that survived the final edit, I like the one for SOFA BED (28A — All-weather convertible?).
erik: it's always a pleasure to collaborate with peter (an indie crossword legend + one of the most brilliant people i have the good fortune of knowing) and this puzzle was no exception.
i'm happy we were able to sneak a shoutout to another indie puzzling titan into the grid. did you spot it?
also, a tough bonus puzzler: what's a 2-word, 10-letter phrase that consists of two names "downsized" like the ones in this theme? hint: the names are both actresses, one from the ‘60s and one contemporary.
When I set out to write a themed crossword, I'll often start with the revealer entry, like this puzzle's BED HEAD. But somehow, that was the last bit of the theme that came together for me. When I finally came up with it, I was especially happy to cross it in the center with UNSHORN, playing off of the idea of an unruly mop-top in the morning.
Here's an extra puzzler: an earlier draft of this puzzle featured the clue [Supporter of women's athletics?], but its corresponding answer was changed ever so slightly to improve the grid's fill. Can you figure out the answer to this "cutting room floor" clue and the answer it turned into?
This puzzle grew out of a failed attempt to construct a different puzzle. Beginning with the not-exactly-earth-shattering observation that BLACK and WHITE have the same number of letters, I spent some time trying to create a "Schrödinger puzzle" in which the central 5-letter entry could be either BLACK or WHITE with the crosses using the same clues either way. It didn't take too long for me to realize that my constructing chops aren't good enough to pull this off.
So Plan B: construct a puzzle around a word ladder BLACK -> WHITE. There are lots of possible ladders for this, but I settled on the one I used in today's puzzle. However, the puzzle still seemed to be lacking a raison d'être, something that changes from black to white. The discs in the game Othello! OK, now we're getting somewhere but just sticking OTHELLO into the grid as a revealer of sorts seemed inelegant. Then the crossword gods smiled on me: the game Reversi, on which OthelloTM is based, also has seven letters! So I could put both OTHELLO and REVERSI into the grid symmetrically.
On to construction. With a ladder of nine 5-letter words needing to be placed in a particular order, along with OTHELLO and REVERSI, there are some serious constraints on the grid. I had wanted the ladder to flow downwards, for example with SLACK at 15-Across and WHILE at 63-Across. However, I couldn't get decent fill with this placement. So I settled for the grid you now see and, all in all, I'm pretty happy with it.
Will and Joel tweaked some of the clues to make the puzzle Tuesday-friendly but, for the most part, they either kept the spirit of my original clues or improved upon them. For example, at 15-Across, I had [Actress Melanie's actress mom] for TIPPI which is now [Hedren of "The Birds"]. I like that change for a Tuesday puzzle. I'd say the only changed clue that I don't like is for 60-Down: MII [The year 1002]. I had [Personal avatar in Super Mario Galaxy]. Maybe that's not a good for a Tuesday, but I have an aversion to random Roman numeral clues. Minor quibble. I have to say that Will and Joel did such a good job with the clues that I had to go back and look at my original puzzle to know which clues they changed. Thanks!
I hope the solving experience is enjoyable.
I'm sure a few people out there will look at my D-N-As winding down the grid and say "Hey, that's a single helix, not a DOUBLE/HELIX!". To them, I'd like to respond with a quote from The Dude in "The Big Lebowski".
"Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man."
My defense is that the two sides of the squares containing the Ds, Ns, and As form the double helix. Convinced? Yeah, I didn't think so.
Actually, a few years ago Joe Krozel and I tried to build a grid with intertwining D-N-As working their way down the grid, but soon gave up. If I recall correctly, the fill around that column got way too tortured.
A belated Happy New Year to one and all!
Today's crossword originated with a study of rebus setups involving word fragments in some relative position. It just so happened that the first three examples I generated involved two side-by-side words rather than word fragments, so those words could be clued independently. Next, it occurred to me that each rebus needed added words to complete — or reveal — the rebus thought, and it turned out to be rather convenient to tag on these revealers immediately after the rebus words. So, the three-consecutive-entry layout was shaping up nicely from the start. Not long after that, I realized that the revealer words themselves were synonyms suggesting a rift — well, duh! — so I imposed that long rift of black squares upon the grid as an additional novelty.
For a while, I pondered whether any further theme embellishments were possible. Clearly TED, ANA and KEN have the name connection, but nothing elegant emerged from that observation. I also noticed that BUS and BAN could act as imperative verb forms, and I might have pursued that if BRO were the same … but alas, that was another potential connection which didn't pan out. In the end, not all ideas could be exploited, but those that were, made for a pretty decent theme on their own.
Finally, some solvers may know the "Rebus" category of crosswords and will recognize that this puzzle is not within that classification; I generally cannot solve crosswords requiring more than one letter per square, so — after 84 crossword contributions — I still refuse to construct anything like that. Instead, I decided I would produce an "anti-Rebus" rebus.
My partner introduced me to the term WEEKENDER when I mistakenly called his bag a satchel. My error and/or his sartorial expertise led to the puzzle you see before you. Well, that and RETROCHIC, a word that has fascinated me ever since Muffy from the kid's show "Arthur" told her friend her shoes were "fabulously retro-chic." My pre-adolescent mind was already collecting 1-acrosses, I suppose.
My early grid architectures had been a bit haphazard, so I decided to go for a tried-and-true style, one used extensively by my teacher, David Quarfoot. It fell into place quickly and wasn't as constrained in the NW and SE as I had anticipated. No wonder David had such luck with them. The other two corners, unfortunately, feel thin by comparison, but so be it. The clue for SEX was enough to leave me smiling.
There were two inspirations for this theme. A while back, I saw an ad in the Economist for a magazine subscription that read "Present tense? Future perfect." I thought "Huh, that's a pretty cool wordplay find," and then promptly forgot all about it. Recently, I got a Gchat from Brendan Emmett Quigley, who wanted to run a clue for the answer FAKE NEWS by me — "Indefinite article?". Again, I thought that was a really nice find. Later that day, some long-dormant synapse in my brain connected the two of those and I realized there might be good Sunday crossword theme there.
As for the fill, the one thing that gave me pause was the inclusion of ANN COULTER as an answer. In light of the recent controversies over Eric Trump and Betsy DeVos references in the Times crossword, I worried that some solvers would be upset by this clue/answer. On the one hand, I strongly disagree with just about everything she's ever written or said, and giving her book free press in the crossword brings me little joy. On the other hand, she's undeniably an interesting and fresh crossword answer — she's well-known by most Americans, and her full name has never appeared.
Overall, my general feeling is that the crosswords should reflect modern life, positive and negative. Prominent supporters of the new administration are just as puzzle-worthy as prominent critics. That being said, I'll try not go out of my way to include politically charged fill like this, knowing how it makes some people feel.
When I told my wife that I was going to attempt to construct a puzzle for publication in the New York Times newspaper, I'm sure she thought "No WAY." But I was determined and even after some rejections, I tried every WAY I could think of to come up with a creative and original theme. Can you believe that I submitted a puzzle that incorporated a haiku about poison ivy? It was rejected (rightfully so) with a note that read: "We thought the idea was interesting and different, but we ultimately felt that having a whole theme based on a malady like poison ivy would be a little too unpleasant."
It was time to try a new WAY of thinking. I got the idea for this theme when a game of cards ended in a THREE-WAY TIE. It seemed like it would be a good seed word to build a theme around. First, I checked the database on XWord Info to see if it had ever appeared in a New York Times puzzle before. It had not, although THREE-WAY TIE does appear on Jeff Chen's supplemental word list.
Looking through the same database turned up TWO-WAY RADIO and I knew a bunch of ONE WAY phrases so now I needed to find an interesting 4-WAY word. The only option seemed to be FOUR WAY STOP SIGN. Then an "aha" moment occurred, and I realized that 1 + 2 + 3 = SIX WAYS TO SUNDAY would work and also act as a revealer.
I hope that everyone is able to find a WAY to enjoy this puzzle!
This became a pangram by accident: I had something different in the bottom-middle, but while writing the clues I noticed a minor duplication with another answer in the grid. Argh! The best fix brought in a Q, and there it was.
I appreciate Will and Joel's improvements to this puzzle, as well as the contributions of the test-solvers and the others involved in producing the final product.
Of all the puzzles I've sent to the New York Times, today's may have had the shortest time to publication: submitted in July 2016, returned for revision in October, and accepted later that month. A tip of the hat to Will for lending a current-events angle to MICHAEL and ROBBY, which were originally clued as "‘Peter Pan' character" and "Steinhardt of Kansas." (Had I constructed this puzzle slightly later, my clue for HBO might well have been "‘The Young 24-Across' airer.")
A couple of years ago I decided to try my hand at themeless puzzles because I have such a hard time thinking up themes. Unfortunately, I have my issues with themelesses too. Namely, cluing. So I asked Erik Agard if he would write some clues for me and he told me to do it myself. (His response was actually more like, "You are totally capable and would feel so proud if you did it yourself, but of course I'm happy to help.") So I try Kevin Der. He might be willing, right? He tells me basically the same thing. So there's my answer. It's time for me to start learning how to write difficult clues.
The grid sat around for four months. I wondered if a solo themeless was just too ambitious for someone at my level. I kept putting it off. But I finally sat down and did it. It was excruciating. So, so hard. I got some great feedback from a few friends, tweaked some clues, sent it off to Will, and crossed my fingers.
When I got the acceptance notice, I couldn't believe it. I felt like I had taken a major step in my constructing career. A solo themeless! The puzzle with all those hard clues I wrote was accepted! The funny part, of course, is that Will changed just about every clue. I'm not complaining! I know from experience that Will knows what he's doing and every change he's ever made to a puzzle of mine has been for the better. To be honest, I'm not sure what the lesson is for me. Should I not stress over the clues? Am I really bad at cluing? Was I just "off" on the difficulty level? These are questions I'll ponder while working on my next themeless grid.
I made this puzzle way back in December 2014, so I don't remember too much about the construction process. I do remember building out the upper-left corner and beginning pretty appalled by the Tetris-style arrangement of black squares, but going with it because I thought the fill was worth it.
I actually had some back and forth with Will and Joel about KIND EYES in the bottom-right. I had seeded the corner with that entry, but they initially asked me to rework things to eliminate it. I wrote an impassioned, 300-word email to defend the answer, and they agreed to run it. I'm glad they did... I hope solvers agree!
I hope solvers like this wordplay theme—my recollection is that I came up with it while watching the Olympics last summer and wondering if any of the divers might experience a flip flop. The puzzle retains more of my clues as written than most I've published—probably two-thirds of the clues are either exactly the same or very close to what I submitted. Sadly, my proposed clue for CHEN at 53-Across ("noted crossword critic Jeff") was among the minority that got the axe. Sorry, Jeff: I tried!
I am also pleased to include a shout out at 4-Down to Sandie Gitchell (the mother of two of my closest friends), better known as "Madre" to me and many others. A warm, fun-loving person, Madre has been a friend and a supportive presence in my life for almost 40 years. Coincidentally, tomorrow happens to be her birthday, so I'm glad to be able to send her this 21 x 21 card via the crossword blogs. I'm doubly pleased (as Madre will be, as well) that the puzzle includes WINE—one of her favorite words—at 54-Across.
My first version of this puzzle had RUMP ROAST RECIPE at the top and RUMPELSTILTSKIN at the bottom. I considered myself quite lucky that the revealer was exactly 15 letters, but I was disappointed there were not any decent 15 letter entries starting with RUMP. There is something called a "rump legislature"- some might say humorously close to a Trump legislature - but in the end I couldn't get behind that.
Will and Joel wrote back that they did not think my top entry was crossworthy and it would have been better to have something like FAIRY TALE as a revealer to make it a bit less obvious. I felt sorry for myself for a few days and then it occurred to me that RUMP ROAST and FAIRY TALE were both nine letters!
When I sent this puzzle to my 87-year-old Mom - my main puzzle tester- she wrote back that she could not figure out the theme even after filling the whole puzzle in, so I will be anxious to see if this proves to be a little tricky for early week solvers.
One of my favorite things to do in cluing is to clue an outside entry on theme, but subtly so solvers wouldn't notice until they were done with the puzzle. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, I've often found it hard to get editors to go along with this! Here, Will and Joel went along with cluing AHA (at 10-Down) as "So THAT'S the story here!", as a small bit of Easter egg humor for observant solvers.
That's the theme of my puzzle — well, actually faux curses — which are often used in tv shows and cartoons to allow characters to appear to be swearing, while not upsetting the censors. Each theme entry is clued as a grawlix (a string of typographical symbols used to represent an obscenity or swear word) with the name of the actor or cartoon character most associated with uttering it.
The inspiration for the puzzle came from watching reruns of M*A*S*H and "Everybody Loves Raymond" and hearing Colonel Potter and Frank Barone, respectively, yell out their many faux profanities. I researched lists of minced oaths used in movies, tv shows, comics, cartoons, and books; watched and listened to clips of cartoons of Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, and others; and googled scripts from several tv show episodes to verify the spelling of the curse word(s).
Many thanks to Will and Joel for working with me through several theme entries to make sure that even the fake cuss words would not be bleeped by the NYT crossword censors!
I'm thrilled to see my first published puzzle on my favorite day of the puzzle week — the Times Thursday!
First, I'd like to thank Joel and Will for their encouragement through a significant rewrite and several revisions — I'm happy with the final product, but all that really matters is whether or not solvers enjoy it!
My goal was to provide that "aha!" moment in a playful way, to create the type of Thursday I'd like to solve myself. I have been fascinated by the idea of a rebus ever since I was first stumped by one, but for a long time, I struggled to think of a rebus concept that felt different, and that would allow me to express myself. Then it hit — the original inspiration for this puzzle was one of my favorite songs, Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds."
The birds would be "little" in the sense of each one having to fit in a single square, and I would use all 4-letter birds for consistency — that seemed like the sweet spot between not interesting enough (3 letters) and too difficult to hide inside longer answers (5 letters).
My initial attempt was rejected for an awkwardly broken-up revealer (THREE and LITTLEBIRDS), but Joel had the idea that the revealer could be changed to ALITTLEBIRDIE. The new revealer worked much better because its 13 letters allowed for central placement in the grid — this flexibility and the removal of the song reference meant I could also include a fourth bird.
After much experimentation with the grid design, I opted for the "four corners" structure you see here. I felt it set the rebus squares apart nicely, and allowed me to maintain a uniform length for the themers of 10 letters for the Across answers and 7 letters for the Down answers.
I mailed this June 2015, and it was rejected for a single three-letter word (VBS = Vacation Bible School). I guess it just shows how high the bar has become for themeless puzzles, and I'm thankful when I can occasionally sneak one through.
I was able to fix that word by changing two letters, and the puzzle was accepted in January 2016. The seeds were 17-Across and 25-Down. Other than that, I just tried to keep it interesting and clean.
I had no idea until I saw the preview puzzle that the spelling of 8-Down was the dreaded "var." I have since shooed it away from the pasture of my database.
I couldn't decide between FUZZY MATH and JAZZ HANDS for a seed answer at 19-Across, so I made two puzzles with similar grids using one in each. The FUZZY MATH puzzle was rejected, and the JAZZ HANDS puzzle… was also rejected. But it was rejected encouragingly, so I reworked the offensive section (which wasn't actually offensive — just boring), resubmitted it, and here we are.
Looking over it with fresh eyes, it looks fine to me. It's got a handful of nice entries (my personal favorites are JOHN HENRY and BANG UP JOB), and hopefully just A FEW not-so-nice entries. Nothing earth-shattering; nothing awful. Overall, I'd say it's a solid Saturday offering.
One thing I've been interested in with my more recently published puzzles is the clues. When I first started constructing, my clues were all over the place and roughly 90% of them were changed substantially to better fit with the style of the New York Times puzzle. Over time, as I became more familiar with the databases at XWordInfo and Cruciverb, I drastically reduced that number by, in effect, mimicking clues appearing in previous NYT puzzles. So now the challenge is to write completely original clues that survive the editing process. It's not feasible to do this with every answer (the "new clue reservoir" for, say, ORE is pretty much tapped out at this point), so I just pick and choose several answers to try this on each puzzle.
Two of my clues I like that survived:
Two I like that didn't survive:
Too clever by half? Not clever at all, just awkward? Either one is entirely possible.
For extended constructor notes visit scrabbledamon.blogspot.com.
JIM: I contacted David after solving his superb "Out of this World" puzzle last year. I enjoy solving and constructing game-related crosswords and thought he might like to collaborate on a blackjack-themed puzzle. I had been fumbling with a few ideas for several months (years?), but they were generally straightforward and most likely would have been rejected. Fortunately, David was receptive to the idea and proposed several theme concepts. We finally settled on creating a puzzle simulating a blackjack game between player and dealer. The puzzle layout lent itself perfectly to left-right symmetry, which was coincidentally used for "Out of this World" as well. I think the final puzzle turned out well, and I hope everyone enjoyed solving it!
On a personal note, this puzzle completes the "cycle" for me, in fact, David and I considered naming the puzzle "Hitting for the Cycle," but the joke was too "inside" for sure. Sadly, my dad wasn't able to see this puzzle in print, as he passed away late last year. He was an avid Times crossword solver for many years and was my inspiration to begin constructing crosswords several years back. I'd like to think he's smiling down on the puzzle today, sipping on a very dry martini.
DAVID: It was a pleasure working with Jim on this puzzle! As he mentioned, we discussed numerous other spins on a blackjack theme before settling on this one. In fact, we even thought of doing something with JACK BLACK/BLACKJACK (along the lines of Ed Sessa's masterpiece from earlier this month!). Once we decided on simulating a blackjack game, the next challenge was filling the grid. The theme proved very constraining, so we ultimately picked a slightly smoother/zippier 142-worder over our original 140-worder. Jim is an excellent clue writer, so we were ready to submit soon after settling on a fill. We hope you enjoy our puzzle! And who knows, we might just be back with more game-themed crosswords in the future :).
I don't normally stack themers when there are five or more overlapping letters, afraid of iffy crossing fill. But sometimes this setup seems to work better than unstacked grid, especially when there is a central spanner.
I submitted my first puzzle to the NYT over a decade ago in college. It was soundly rejected. Importantly, Will Shortz hand-wrote a response explaining why, and I thought that was just THE coolest thing — and I still have that letter today!
The first version of this one was rejected too. The revealer was simply BOTTLE in the bottom right corner, and it had too much crosswordese. I went through about six versions (including an attempt to have INABOTTLE vertically with all four themers crossing it, and another attempt at shaping a bottle out of the black squares) before hitting on this one.
Now that I am starting to develop some chops, I can better critique the puzzle. First, I never did like SIRBARTON as an entry, but I was so nervous about not having a wide enough "range of knowledge" that I opted to include it. I also regret that SIRBARTON crosses with BOZ, RCA, and ASTIN. This was avoidable. Ditto for EXETER crossing LEOX and ERNO.
I also regret disallowing a single plural "S." (LENS doesn't count!) One of my pet peeves as a solver is seeing lots of plural entries, especially two that meet at the "S." I should learn to break this rule on occasion, such as changing REPIN (13D) to SEPIA (and hence ACER to ACES).
That said! I like this theme — it is strict and tight. I had a blast writing the clues (my favorites being 22A, 38A, 58A, and 19D, the gist of which survived the edits). And I learned quite a bit from the process. Even though I just had a themeless puzzle rejected the other day (d'oh! — it's a tough market), I am confident my puzzles will improve with experience!