7-Down was the first entry in this grid, and then I built the central stack of 11s around the long crosser. This is a common approach I have when writing these stagger-stack freestyles. Other than the central stack, I don't work with a pre-set grid design; the grid will gradually build around the stack based on what I can do with the crossings. This organic approach to grid design is one of the more compelling aspects of writing freestyles from the center outward. Here the unplanned bonuses are the two additional long downs that flank TEACHABLE MOMENT.
There are drawbacks of working the grid design as you go, however, and this grid is a good example. The corners here are too dry, especially that southeast corner. The main reason for this is the glut of 3-letter words. In general, I don't think sixteen 3s is "too many" for a freestyle, but it can become tedious for the solver when every corner of the grid is so heavily reliant on 3s. What's more, bland entries like IMITATING and TSARINAS take up such valuable grid real estate, and don't add any sparkle to offset the surplus of short stuff.
If I were writing this puzzle today, I'd like to see if upping the word count to 70 would improve this situation. Specifically, I'd like to see if adding a block at the P of ICEPALACE (and its symmetrical partner) would make for a better overall fill, or at least allow for a grid design that opens up the corners a bit. It's possible that I tried these things and hit a dead end — I counted over 90 .puz files I've written since I wrote this last year, so apologies for my fuzzy memories of this one.
It's frustrating to revisit old work that doesn't quite meet your current standards, as is the case here. I do hope, however, that there is enough here for solvers to enjoy, and thanks as always to the editing team for making the clues better.
Though this is the third themeless puzzle I constructed, it is the first one where I did not begin with a set grid pattern, but instead built the grid around my initial seed entry. I started in the upper-left corner with QUEEQUEG, and after a decent number of attempts to place it at 1-Across, I realized that as my favorite literary harpooner's name is 5/8 vowels, it might fit better in the second row. When I noticed that 1-Across would most likely have to start with A, E, I or S, my proclivity toward unusual letter combinations (and contrarianism) led me to wonder if I could get it to begin with something else. Seeing the possibility of 1-Down being GQ MODEL or GQ TYPE, I looked for a solid potential 1-Across answer starting with G, and once I found GODZILLA, the rest of the corner soon fell into place.
Though the corner is a bit more partitioned off than I would prefer (and AGTS isn't the world's best entry), it still stands out to me as one of my favorites from my themeless constructions for both its Scrabbliness and sheer unexpectedness. That said, the thing I like most about the upper-left is perhaps the intersection of the consonant-free entries OUI OUI and EIEIO—how often does that happen?
UNSUNG HERO came next, as it was by far my preferred choice for 19-Across. As I worked my way through the rest of the grid, I was pleased to incorporate, among other entries, XENON GAS, TRAVEL SIZE, TZATZIKI, and YES AND NO, as well as the complementary pair of COWGIRL and ALTAR BOY.
I was pleasantly surprised to see how many of my clues survived this time around. Of my originals, I was particularly glad that 1-Across, 12-Down, 19-Across, 33-Down, 46-Down, and 51-Across made the cut. My favorite, though, has to be "He had a heel that wouldn't heal" for ACHILLES, which I had thought might be a tad too cutesy to be allowed as a part of the imposing brain-buster that is the NYT Saturday puzzle— glad I was wrong! On that note, I hope you enjoyed your solving experience (and my ACHILLES clue).
After I thought of this theme, I started looking at all pro sports teams where an "I" appears exactly once in both the first and second name. I wound up using only baseball teams because the other sports gave me very few teams to choose from. And baseball teams might be more familiar to solvers, anyway. There were six major league teams that could possibly work, but I ran out of grid space, not to mention patience, which is why PITTSBURGH PIRATES didn't make the cut.
I would best describe the birth of this puzzle as a collision between serendipity and luck. After stumbling on this quip by Sir Ken Dodds (b. 1927 d. 2018) through happenstance, my first reaction was a hearty chuckle. But then my constructor sense began to tingle when I noticed that "I HAVE" and "FOR IT" were each 5 characters long. Could the rest of the quip be symmetrical too? As luck would have it, yes!
After quickly building a grid around the central theme of "WHEN IT GETS BAD" I choose the scrabbly OJIBWA as my anchor fill entry, and the rest of the puzzle fell into place with what Joel would later describe as "lively fill." The whole effort was completed in a 24-hour window. Quite a change in experience from the years I spent crafting a different puzzle which was published last year.
Overall, I was pleased with the result, with the junk mildly limited to OSIS, ANS, and OSA. My assessment was confirmed several months after submission when the puzzle was accepted at face value and without my need to make any revisions (another first for me!).
Many thanks to Will and Joel for opting to go with a quip puzzle despite some views that this style is passé.
And lastly, to Sir Ken Dodds "Age doesn't matter... unless you're a cheese."
I got the basic kernel of this theme idea from my buddy Erik Agard, but unfortunately, I was unable to talk Erik into co-construction. He and I did collaborate on another interesting puzzle currently in the NYT queue, and I can tell you he comes up with an amazing number of ingenious ideas.
I knew from the getgo I wanted four theme drinks with at least two O's (bubbles) each. I remember worrying that COKE ZERO was changing its name to Coke Zero Sugar soon, and worrying that JOLT COLA was popular too long ago (It was re-introduced late in 2017, but still is not real well known). I was determined to come up with a revealer that had no O's, and then I had to avoid O's in the rest of the puzzle.
It's always harder for me to work with vertical themers, and I knew this would be a Thursday, so I wanted a word count less than 78.
I love this weird but intriguing theme concept, and I hope solvers find it challenging but fair.
My submitted clue for FILL (at 53-Across) was not "Crossword constructor's pride" or some such thing, but still, I found it hilarious when the first draft of clues from the editors changed it to "Contents of a trash heap." I was a little disappointed that the final draft upgraded my FILL to "Dirt in a dump truck, perhaps" — too funny!
This puzzle was constructed in September 2017 and accepted for publication in January 2018. It's had an unusual history. The original version was constructed in September 2016, but was rejected because there were too many problems with the triple stacks. That effort, however, established the central fill. Over the next year or so several versions were produced using that same central fill, but they all fell short in the triple stacks or their crossings.
Last September I decided to give it one last attempt. I did some work supplementing the 15-letter answers in my word list. I also decided to change the last two letters of CEREMONIAL STAFF to RT, because it offered more possibilities for the bottom stack. I took more time to produce this version, and it is the best one of the bunch. I was elated when it was accepted.
A fair number of my clues survived the final edit. Two of my favorites are SUPER GLUE (34A — Stuff used in some nasty pranks) and REROOTS (37D — Gets accustomed to a transplant).
Thanks to Will and his team for their patience with me on this one, and for their work on the clues.
The idea for this puzzle came to me while driving on the highway, en route home from NYC. I saw a billboard with a weight/wait pun, and it sent me searching for some fun puns of my own. There were plenty, so I was able to make a Sunday puzzle and still have some puns left over. If you take the train home after happy hour, for example, do you BOARD SILLY? Or if you had a few too many, do you BOARD OUT OF YOUR MIND?
Then, it was an appropriate fluke that I received the acceptance email from Will and his team while waiting for a connecting train in Newark. Apparently, this theme was meant to be! It has been decades since I left the job that required a daily commute, so now I make my CITY HAUL less regularly and for more casual reasons. And nothing perks up a train trip like a puzzle acceptance email!
I'm thrilled, as always, to have another Sunday puzzle in the beautiful, glossy pages of the Times Magazine! It makes my day, and I hope that it brightened yours a bit, too.
Coming up with a worthy idea is one thing. Pulling it off is quite another. "DRINKS ARE ON ME" was the catalyst. Now if I could come up with four popular cocktails whose titles each had another meaning, then place them over words with an ME in the middle, then place the reveal in the center, I might be on to something.
I think I got all of this one, and it was fun to construct.
SAM: I came across the phrase JUST FOR KICKS and thought it would be a great name for a shoe store. That's when the theme idea for this puzzle hit. I had wanted to collaborate with Tracy for some time, so I sent her a set of proposed theme entries and asked if she wanted to join in the fun. Happily, she agreed.
TRACY: I tackled the initial challenge of the 12-14-14-12 grid. Together, we went through several iterations of the grid, opening up 4- and 31-down for some colorful long down entries, but having to deal with some frustrating fill constraints in two areas.
SAM: I really admired Tracy's construction. As she says, a grid built around two 12s and two 14s imposes significant constraints. She made it look easy.
TRACY: With the exception of EDDA, I think we were both happy with the finished puzzle and were thrilled when we got the yes this past February.
SAM: Here's hoping the next royal baby is named Edda!
We're not hitting the stairs again today, though it may look that way at first glance. The lengthiness of the theme entries limited my options, so I settled on this grid shape which provided the most bonus fill and kept everything else clean.
The theme entries are arranged to create a narrative about a fashion mishap which is sewn up in the end with an emergency fix. Don't leave home without your mini sewing kit!
Anyone who solved my NYT puzzle from Sunday 1/18/2015 knows that I like to add new features to traditional constructs like word ladders. Curiously, though, the current puzzle idea came about when I wasn't actively seeking candidates for a word ladder; the concept 1-A + 44-A + 78-A was mentioned on the news one day, and the daydreaming half of my brain immediately noticed how easily 1-A could transform to 44-A. Suddenly, the analytical half of my brain engaged itself with the challenge of getting from 44-A to 78-A. No real difficulties there except for avoiding repeat words and proper nouns. (Meanwhile … I sometimes wonder what vital information I might be missing all the time when daydreaming along with the news).
The puzzle construction challenge was to lay out eleven four-letter words on successively lower rows of a 15x15 grid. I added the constraint of forbidding any non-thematic Across entries from being four letters long. The thematic content was spread out left-center-right to minimize the impact on the Down entries. So, the grid layout alone offered good chances of acquiring lively surrounding fill. In the end, I was especially happy that the longest entries were lively … and mostly unused before.
A few months after this puzzle was accepted, David Kahn had an NYT puzzle published (on 8/30/2017) involving a similar theme: a word ladder consisting of nine five-letter words with a thematic element at the halfway point. I was happy for David's success, but I thought it meant that my own puzzle would probably stay on hold for about a decade. Fortunately, that wasn't the case. I'm guessing that stylistic differences — including the absence of clues for the ladder words — provided enough freshness to receive a normal publication date.
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!
I'll sometimes hear a phrase and know I'm going to build a grid around it. That's what happened with NETFLIX ORIGINAL — how fortuitous that it's a 15! I built the NE stack around it first (having also been meaning to use "Hercules"-inspired ZERO TO HERO for some time) and then expanded from there.
I like the grid overall. I actively chose this version with LENO'S over others with cleaner SW sections because it allowed me to get five entries down there which I love (ON FLEEK / VIA VENETO / ANTIDOTES / FAT ELVIS / RING TOSS), whereas the fully clean versions could only get around 3.5. This will be a mixed bag, I'm sure, especially since ON FLEEK will be utter nonsense to a lot of people, but I think it was worth it. To the ON FLEEK haters: I look forward to your blog comments about the eventual debut of YAS QUEEN.
AMANDA AND KARL: We are from the San Francisco Bay Area and enjoy many shared hobbies, one of which is crossword puzzles. Amanda renewed her interest in crosswords a few years ago and introduced them to Karl when we first met. After a few attempts at constructing, we got more serious last year after a chance encounter with Erik Agard at ACPT 2017. Erik mentored and guided us as aspiring constructors through several puzzles and is a constant inspiration for us. We are delighted to have one of our collaborations with Erik as our debut NY Times puzzle. We would also like to express gratitude to Will, Sam, Joel, and the rest of the NY Times team for their kind encouragement and invaluable advice.
ERIK: With crossword tournaments, it's more about the people than the puzzles. The 2017 ACPT was fairly painful for me on the competitive front, but I met these two, so on balance, it was a fantastic weekend. I'm grateful to A & K for regularly blowing my mind with fresh ideas, fills, and clues, and for allowing me to be the third banana in this cruciverbal trio.
AMANDA AND KARL: We originally had LASTMANSTANDING as the revealer but realized after brainstorming that there were trios we liked with a non-"man" as the last one listed. Erik came up with LASTONESTANDING which nicely solved this problem. While creating the grid, we struggled with how many theme entries to include and how to "hide" the "standing" names. After many iterations, we decided to go with quality over quantity, and this turned out to be a very good decision, as it made for an open grid that lent itself to better fill for the "standing" names. Erik did an incredible job finding those long downs that cross three(!) theme entries. We shared the rest of the fill and cluing duties and are very happy with the result.
Working with a collaborator like Erik is a joy, with both sides being open-minded and motivated to make the best puzzle we can.
We are also very pleased to be debuting WAITITI and FURIOSA!
The original clues for this puzzle tried to be clever, e.g.: Get London on the line? (PHONE JACK), Raise the set of a parody sitcom? (DIAL SOAP). But looking at it with fresh eyes, I think I like it even more as a straight-ahead Monday. The word count is low for an early week puzzle, but EOS is the only answer that would have given me pause as a novice.
This puzzle uses a tried-and-true gimmick: removing one letter of a two-letter set (here, removing the O from OU) to create a new word. When submitting a puzzle like this, the constructor risks rejection by not offering an utterly fresh concept. It then becomes a matter of whether the editor thinks the transformations in the theme entries are clear, clever and, of course, funny. That latter quality is the hardest to attain.
In this puzzle, the first three theme answers provide, I think, the most humor (FUR ON THE FLOOR is my favorite). They also were able to elicit terse, natural-sounding clues, which makes the overall experience more satisfying. The last two are, in my opinion, perfectly fine but a bit more standard.
I was interested to see that the editorial process set the cluing at a rather easy level; for the New York Times, it seems like a Monday or Tuesday puzzle to me. Perhaps the gimmick itself was deemed not appropriate for early-week crosswords. Anyhow, I hope solvers enjoy it.
MILO: What a difference a few years makes! I originally submitted this puzzle for Flag Day 2012 (also a Thursday), and it was rejected on the grounds that it was too political to run in The New York Times at the time. I tried again in 2015, after Obergefell v. Hodges, figuring the conversation had shifted enough and got a thumbs-up on the theme but a thumbs-down on the fill. (Looking back at it, just one section had ULLA, OBLA, and OOLA... ouch).
DAVID: I had so much fun working with Milo! I've been a big fan of his puzzles ever since he debuted in The New York Times as another young constructor. Anyway, Milo came up with this idea and many of the theme entries; my suggestion was switching from a 15x15 to a 17x13, which looks more like a flag. We were also able to space out the stripes more evenly that way.
The fill was a nightmare, given the constraints of all the theme entries. Milo and I went back and forth many times before settling on something close to what you see—the only difference is that (RED) PANDA is now the more familiar (RED) BARON, which I think was a nice suggestion from Will/Joel. The short fill still has more trade-offs than usual, but we hope the theme makes up for them.
Happy Pride Month!
This puzzle went through two other iterations. Ironically, the seed entry LHOOQ (the Marcel Duchamp work of Mona Lisa with a mustache) got the first puzzle rejected. As themeless revisions often go, I had to scrap the entire puzzle. Well, not the entire puzzle. I kept HOMOEROTIC. You can't kill all your darlings.
Speaking of darlings, Boswords is back! Last year, John Lieb and I ran a Boston crossword tournament to great success, and we're gearing up for round two this year. So, if you are around on July 29, come on down. All the tournament information can be found at boswords.org. Hope to see some of you there! And if you can't attend, you can also order all of the tournament puzzles from the website and enjoy from home.
I usually don't start a themeless having a grid in mind, but every once in a while, I'll try to push myself with a hard one. This grid is a Manny grid (1/10/03), so it's like treading on hallowed ground for me. I like giving solvers lots of connectivity, but it definitely takes a lot of patience and sweat trying to find a way to make everything fit together. This one was hard enough that I'm gonna stay far away from the Manny grids that had even fewer black squares.
The CELEBRITY CHEF entry/clue combo is one of my all-time favorites. I'm always on the lookout for clues that have two misdirecting parts. Here, I especially like that the first part of the clue points to the second part of the entry, and vice versa. On top of that, it uses the old hidden capital trick as well. Happening on this clue was like finding a four-leaf clover.
The quote in the CYNIC clue was cut for space. The full version is: "a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be." Mister, we could use a man like Ambrose Bierce again.
When I researched the phrase ADD TO CART, I was surprised that it had not been used, as far as I know, as a reveal. The easy part was choosing which four carts to use. The hard part was picking the phrases that included those carts. I went for the "freshness factor" when selecting the themers.
Hopefully, you enjoyed my puzzle as much as I did creating it for you. Now I'm off to shop online...ADD TO CART.
I originally thought of using the grid-spanning MALALA YOUSAFZAI and ROYAL ALBERT HALL, but the latter has an extra AL, so I went with the current set. Was very happy when the intersection worked, as I had very limited theme entry choices.
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.
I admit it, I like CHICK(EN TER)IYAKI. I know, my Taiwanese grandmother would smack me if she knew. No one say anything!
I also have a huge man-crush on Jean-Luc Picard, and I grew up on Star Trek and the USS (ENTER)PRISE.
Therefore, this puzzle concept?
I had to make it so.
(Apologies to the good captain.)
BADA BING BADA BOOM! Of all the entries I've seeded into my themelesses over the years, this has to be my favorite. Optimizing the top stack involved locking a lot of black squares into specific places, so I initially worried that I wouldn't be able to find a bottom. Fortunately, CRISTIANO RONALDO came to the rescue with his friendly letter pattern (i.e., plenty of alternating vowels and consonants). I'm also proud of the short fill. Big stacks always require trade-offs, but the only entries here I wouldn't normally use are OENO and N TEST. Hope you enjoy!
I was happy to see that most of my clues made the cut on this one. Some of my favorites were [Bar food?] for GRANOLA and [Churro ingredient?] for ROLLED R. My favorite clue that didn't make the cut was [Coke machines, for example?] for DRUG CARTELS.
While I'm here, I'll plug the JASA (Jewish Association Serving the Aging) Crossword Course I co-teach with Natan Last. Natan and I teach the fundamentals of crossword construction by constructing a puzzle from start to finish with the class. We're teaching a five-week summer session starting July 12th, which you can find more information about here.