A 62-answer debut?
In the words of Bob Seger, "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then..."
My original theme set had two CON*PRO* phrases and two PRO*CON*, which for some reason felt like the "natural" or "balanced" choice to me, and PROS AND CONS was broken up into three slots along the middle row. However, the editors pointed out that PROXY CONFLICT was of questionable idiomaticity, and as one might guess, that grid had poorer fill and very little to nothing in the way of long bonus entries. (We're talking 67 theme squares compared to 53). They suggested the current lineup, adding CONCLUSIVE PROOF, as well as the revealer placement.
I'm glad I was able to work in a few fun long downs, and it's nice to debut SANSA not long after the GOT finale. I can sort of see how her name has the potential to eventually become serious crosswordese, with those friendly letters.
I had been wanting to do a puzzle about SEVEN WONDERS for quite a while. I just couldn't figure out how to squeeze "Mausoleum at Halicarnassus" and "Hanging Gardens of Babylon" into a puzzle. It wasn't until I finally accepted that I couldn't fit the wonders into a grid, that this idea was born.
All credit for the cluing goes to the NYT staff. Some of my original clues were a bit trickier (e.g. [Flag holder in Congress] for LAPEL, [England's Rose, to Elton John] for LADYDI), and some of my thematic clues were harder to unravel without the reveal (e.g. [Amazon heroine] and [Where to find a magic mushroom] for (WONDER)WOMAN and (WONDER)LAND, respectively).
The calculation appears to be that the difficulty of the theme + day of the week + low word count = easier cluing = a more enjoyable solve! I particularly liked [Subdivision of a subdivision].
Not much to say here. I got this idea and completed the grid before it even dawned on me that the 75th anniversary of D-Day was coming up!
The grid required a bit of surgery to fit D-DAY in (it wasn't in the original grid) because the puzzle would have otherwise needed a title to tip the theme.
This is by far my most resubmitted puzzle. The editors rejected my first try due to BSMETER which was "not usable, amusing as it is." (Constructor Sam Trabucco and I will have a legitimate complaint if someone snags it as a debut ahead of us.) The second attempt received an "Almost yes!" designation which requested that I scrub the "slightly dated term BRIDEZILLA." out of the top half of the grid. I emailed back a rewrite a few weeks later. After a couple of months of hearing nothing back, I reworked it again featuring a more interesting pair of answers in the top but a tough RZA/OROZCO cross. They suggested a tweak to a more solver-friendly cross which resulted in the final grid you see here.
Many of my clues were lost in the edit, but they kept my favorite at 20-Across: "They fall apart when the stakes are raised" so I can't complain.
Typically, when I have an idea for a Sunday puzzle, I'll put the puzzle together and then have to wrack my brain for a good title. Here, it was the other way around: the title came first, and the theme idea came second. I thought it would be cool to make a puzzle of famous movie and TV lines that were never actually said, even though we're all familiar with them. Google revealed that there are many such lines firmly cemented in our psyches despite having never been uttered.
Back in the early 2000s when I started making puzzles, Will would accept the occasional theme query for a Sunday puzzle, since it takes so much more work to make one. I emailed him about this idea in 2007, and he politely informed me that he could no longer accept theme queries due to the huge volume of email he was receiving. He added that, having said that, this idea was a "maybe." That "maybe" was all it took to keep the idea alive over the years, and I would return to it every so often, but could never get it just right.
The problem was that there were too many good entries I wanted to include, which always resulted in a puzzle with sub-par fill. Eventually, I came to terms with having to kill off more than a few entries to get everything to work, and left many memorable unspoken "lines" on the cutting room floor: "Luke, I am your father" (Darth Vader), "No more wire hangers!" (Joan Crawford), and "I want to suck your blood" (Count Dracula), to name a few. I hope you enjoy the result.
When my employment status changed last year, another crossword venue generously invited me to take over a regular Monday slot relinquished by someone scaling back on their constructing. Looking to me for the gentlest possible puzzles was a bit of a risk. I'm not exactly known for them, right? Mental rewiring was required.
Anyway, this puzzle theme had a covert element inappropriate for that Monday gig, but I liked the idea enough that I worked it up and sent it into the Times. I was thrilled to have a "yes" on it, with the assessment that it was "almost the ideal easy puzzle." So maybe I'm learning the right things?
Shout out to Doug Peterson for tinkering with the grid design and thinking of having the revealer cross the last theme entry instead of running parallel. (For those keeping track, this is not only my first Monday appearance but my first solo themed puzzle of any kind for the Times.)
I wrote this puzzle a while ago after hearing that the Broadway show had been running for 20 years. This is an especially good time to run the puzzle since this month marks the 25th anniversary of the original animated movie. There's also a photorealistic computer animated remake due out in July, which I'm looking forward to.
I wrote the puzzle when I saw that the long answers could be interlocked, freeing up the center of the grid for the four circles.
NANCY: Remember me? I'm the co-constructor of the March 14, 2019, NYT "Black Hat" puzzle, created with the very talented, versatile and delightful-to-work-with Will Nediger — cruciverbalist extraordinaire. We're back together again for this latest collaboration — with him once again entirely in charge of the always-challenging and difficult grid-making and with me happy to have been able to come up a theme that inspired him to want to do so.
Last time I, tennis player that I am, compared myself to Peter Fleming playing doubles with the great John McEnroe ("The best doubles team in the world? McEnroe and anyone," said Fleming.) Since that went over the heads of many readers unfamiliar with tennis, I'm choosing a different analogy: Creating a puzzle with Will Nediger is like dancing with the great Fred Astaire. Never mind Ginger and Cyd; Fred could make the broom look good.
As for me: I'm a former editor of the Literary Guild; the author of "Upward Nobility", a corporate satire published in 1979 under the pseudonym "Addison Steele"; an alum of the Advanced BMI Composers and Lyricists Workshop, and a lyricist whose songs have been performed in NYC cabarets but not, alas, on a Broadway stage near you. Some of my theater songs are online on the composer David Delaney's website. Put in him + me + DOWAGER HEIGHTS, and you just might find it. :)
This is my second puzzle to be published in the NYT. Will has many, many more.
WILL: Last time, I was one of the people who didn't know enough about tennis to appreciate Nancy's McEnroe/Fleming analogy. I'm glad she chose a Fred Astaire analogy this time, because it's much more in my wheelhouse, but also because it gives me an opportunity to remind her that Ginger Rogers did everything Astaire did, but backward and in high heels.
MICHAEL: Funny to be submitting a comment to Jeff Chen about this, but I had an idea for a puzzle and needed help with the grid, and everyone told me I should ask ... Jeff Chen! That was good advice. Jeff was able to design a fillable grid and we did it all through email in a few days.
Our only disagreement was over whether the words under the hidden HAND should have a surface sense of their own. I thought they should, although that greatly limited the number of choices. Jeff thought it was fine to have nonsense words in those entries, I conceded the point, and Will liked the puzzle. Okay, Jeff — you were right!
JEFF: It can be tough for any two constructors to see eye to eye on any given project. When Michael approached me with this concept, my immediate thought was that it would be interesting to see IWORK or YMEN in one's puzzle; mystifying, flipping into hopefully a solid a-ha moment.
Turns out Michael had a very different idea, wanting only regular-seeming words that simply didn't seem to work with their clues (think: LED clued as HANDLED). He felt strongly that this would produce a better a-ha moment, whereas I worried that solvers would gloss over them, potentially finishing without understanding the concept. That would be impossible with something kooky like ICAPS taunting you.
How to resolve the logjam? My secret weapon is Jim, who gives great second opinions. And if I don't like his input, I simply ignore it and tell people he said something different.
Seriously though, I hope we came to the right decision. It's always so difficult to predict what will produce the best a-ha moment possible.
I am thrilled and humbled to have my first NYT themeless published! The quality of themelesses here sometimes seems like an impossibly high standard to meet, and indeed the first iteration of this puzzle wasn't up to snuff! But after reading the encouraging notes from the editing team, I was tempted to revive this puzzle into what you see today.
The crossword gods smiled upon me — I was able to find another (much livelier) entry at 33-Across that enabled me to keep the top half of the puzzle relatively unchanged and fill the bottom portion with a lot more fun stuff. I'm also pleasantly surprised to see many of my clues passed muster (my favorites probably being 18- and 33-Across and 35-Down).
I hope you enjoy the solve!
I spent several years and many failed attempts to try and get this grid design to work. It's in my mind the quintessential "gaping maw" puzzle, with what are essentially intersecting septuple stacks in that wide open middle. Anchoring the middle is BIT-O-HONEY crossing with BEEHIVE, which was a fun pairing and came by chance after playing around with several different (and ultimately disappointing) options.
The editing team nixed most of my "?" clues - no big surprise, given the tough grid design. They also changed my OUST/LUO to OAST/LAO (sorry Luo Guanzhong.) I'll be the first to admit that having both OAST and IRR in that corner is pretty cringeworthy, but hopefully not too much! The rest of the grid I'm pretty satisfied with, though undoubtedly it'll play a bit differently from your standard themeless. I was happy to fit in the color trio BLUE, GREEN, and RED in the middle. Also glad that some of the more obscure answers were composed of common words that made them more inferable (ARM BAR, FLOUR BOMB, SIN BIN, GREEN TAPE.)
This is also apparently the NYT debut of LESBIAN? Very surprising. Happy Pride!
YACOB: I found Erik after he mentioned the Facebook group he created (Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory) in the XWord Info notes for one of his puzzles in 2018. I reached out to ask him for ideas on how to improve a theme idea I had in mind. He responded fifteen minutes later with a bunch of useful feedback. Two months later, he checked back in to see if that theme idea had materialized and asked if I was interested in co-constructing a puzzle. I said yes, and this is the puzzle we produced! Since making this puzzle, we worked together on another one that ran as a part of the Lollapuzzoola tournament last summer.
Just wanted to shout out Erik for being an awesome mentor! And also, if you're interested in learning how to construct, the Facebook group is a great place to start and look around for resources and potential mentors.
ERIK: If memory serves, this is the lowest proportion of clues I've ever had changed by editors from submission to publication, which seems like a strong argument either for collaboration in general or for working with Yacob in particular (I highly recommend both).
I find it curious that oftentimes my seed entry ends up out of the puzzle when it's all done. Either I find better entries or there's no symmetrical partner for the seed. The seed for this particular puzzle was RAISING McCAIN ("Parenting a future Arizona senator?"), which couldn't find a partner. Another casualty of the puzzle occurred when I realized via a Google search that Nanny McPhee wasn't spelled Nanny McFee (giving me a LATE McFEE). Oops.
As an ardent fan of "Back to the Future" I was sorry to have to SACRIFICE McFLY (sorry, Marty!) but BAR McFLY and FIRE McFLY weren't quite hitting the mark lengthwise, plus they were chopping up the words barfly and firefly rather than having the first word be standalone as in other entries. And DANCING McQUEEN was an early favorite (makes for an amusing mental picture), but it was one 14-letter entry too many.
I was particularly pleased that this one was accepted on its first submission (though I see a few entries were tweaked). Makes me feel like I'm getting better as a constructor. Then again, I also got a couple of rejections this past week, so there's always room for improvement!
I nearly went with a more Pride-appropriate revealer like GAY WEDDING or GAY COUPLES, but decided against for two reasons. First, nothing of that nature feels like a tight, in-the-language phrase at this point — any wedding I ever have will just be called a WEDDING, not a GAY WEDDING. Second, a gender-specific revealer addresses the fact that all the themers are pairs of traditional men's names — pairs of women's names proved a lot harder to find.
Happy Pride anyway!
Back when I first starting solving the Times crossword, I discovered that different constructors actually write these things, and thought, "Hey, that could be my name in tiny print in the corner!" One of my earliest theme ideas was to have theme entries that consisted entirely of consonants. Like most of my early ideas, it never left the drawing (constructing?) board, as it became clear that the theme entries would have to be rather short, meaning that they wouldn't stand out. The idea of starting every entry with a consonant came much later—perhaps it was having written a vowelless puzzle that eventually gave me the subconscious inspiration for this one.
I chose this grid pattern as it allowed for some longer entries, with its stacks in the upper-left and lower-right, while still being doable; the stair-step pattern in the middle definitely facilitated connecting the two stacks cleanly. Overall, I think the puzzle turned out well, with some nice long fill, some Scrabbly letters, and not too many compromises—I particularly like the four long Across entries stacked in the upper left. I think it's fun to have SMTWTFS at 1-Across, with the numbers 1 through 7 in the corresponding boxes, as it resembles the first row of a calendar for a month beginning on Sunday (too bad this wasn't published this September).
When I submitted this, I honestly had no idea which day of the week it would end up on. It seemed a little difficult for a Wednesday, and it didn't really feel like a Friday (though I went down to 72 words to allow for the possibility), so in hindsight, I think Thursday is a good fit. This perhaps isn't as tricky of a theme as might be expected on a Thursday, but to me, that's okay. I don't think every Thursday puzzle necessarily has to feel the same—I think there are enough Thursdays on the calendar for a quirky quasi-themeless puzzle every now and then, and I hope you agree.
First of all, despite both MARRY ME and TIED THE KNOT appearing in the grid, this is not one of those hidden proposal puzzles (or are those just an URBAN LEGEND?). That said, if anyone does decide to use this puzzle for such an occasion, please let me know!
A lot of my "clever" clues ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, so I might have gotten too cute with my misdirection this time around. "Something relatively complicated?" for FAMILY TREE and "Big shot?" for GROUP PHOTO are both smart and succinct and vast improvements over the strained clues I submitted. Though for TIED THE KNOT I had "Unionized?"; "Wed" seems unexpectedly easy, so I am curious about that choice — perhaps the phrase isn't as ubiquitous as I think it is? In any event, I'm in the process of cluing a new puzzle right now, and I'll try to incorporate the lessons learned here today.
I'm pumped to have another puzzle published in the Times!
Glad to see my clues for 40-Across and 15-Down survived. I was amused to see how 29-Across and 53-Across were linked in the final version — I wish I'd thought of that.
Having 45-Across and 46-Across have the same clue comes at the price of 43-Down being AGENAS. 45-Across could have been TAR, making 43-Down ARENAS. I do like the fun of the repeated clue, but if I had this to do over again, I'd probably go with TAR/ARENAS/TORTA over SAG/AGENAS/SORTA.
VICTOR: I thought that I'd give a little history on the puzzle since especially new constructors might be interested in the timeline. The first communication I can find between David and me on this was from June 22, 2017, and it involved the idea of putting a word (such as BASE) in the puzzle twice, with a clue elsewhere like "Player positioned to the left of X-Across," with the answer SHORTSTOP, since the shortstop plays to the left of second base." Then there was some back and forth about possible "second ___" combinations. It took us over a year to get to something we liked, and it went to Will in late August 2018.
In December, we got a tentative acceptance from Will but with a request to remove the cross-reference clues and just clue the second word as (SECOND) ___. So, the second BASE became "It's halfway around the diamond." Of course, that meant writing a new puzzle, but after we'd come as far as we had, rewriting the puzzle was small potatoes. We got a new version done in about two weeks and shipped it off. Will sent back a few quibbles, and then we put together the final version in early January 2019.
It's still not flawless (I wrote in one e-mail that "no one is going to have a party about BEIGES"), but it came out reasonably well. All told, almost 16 months of constructing, three to four months in review, and five months in the queue make right around two years from conception to publication. I hope that people enjoyed solving the puzzle as much as we enjoyed making it.
DAVID: I feel like the experience of filling a puzzle is all about tradeoffs — some version of "is using entry X worth the cost of having to use entry Y?" asked over and over. One of the things that I appreciate about collaboration with Victor (in addition to his persistent generosity and good humor) is that, first, we both try to maintain high standards in the fill, and that, second, the hypothetical entries that I hate are quite different from the ones that he hates.
I know of myself that I tend to overweight the benefit of a long entry that I find lively and fun, even if it means several of the kind of short entries that Victor calls "crud" (the less good three-letter acronyms, partial phrases, ...). Meanwhile, Victor happens to be a serious Latinist who knows a great deal more about pop culture than I do (not a high bar!), so he's happy to use proper names and Latin words that are both like foreign languages to me.
Neither of us wants to end up with something that we hate, so a lot of our back and forth is about each of us trying to excise some personally hated entry from a corner. The grid did not (and never does) end up being perfect, but at least this version includes none of RERISEN, IRING ("Do you want me to knock, or should ___ the bell?"; IRE was also in that version of the puzzle), and MANOLO, all of which were seriously considered at some stage in this construction process. (And all of which might still be worth it sometimes, but not this time.) I'll echo Victor's wishes: this puzzle was great fun to put together over its long journey, and I hope that it was a fun puzzle to solve!
Today I launched an indie puzzle website, rosswordpuzzles.com. Come by for fresh #rosswords every other week!
The original version of this puzzle included the revealer INSANITY DEFENSE, so BEATLEMANIA, e.g., was clued "35-Across for someone who stole an "Abbey Road" album?" In fact, I generated all the themers first, and the revealer came to me afterward on my way home from work, whereupon I reflexively yelled "Insanity defense!" in the middle of a packed subway car. And mom wonders why I'm still single.
Also, if you're looking to get into crossword constructing, and especially if you identify as non-male and/or LGBT and/or POC, I'd be thrilled to offer whatever assistance I can to help you get your puzzles published. Contact me via Instagram (@rosstrudeau) or Twitter (@trudeauross).
Clocking in at 42 letters, I believe "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" is one of the longest non-quote word strings to ever appear in a daily NYT crossword puzzle. Evenly spreading it out over the entire grid to simulate pointillism while maintaining the best fill possible required several non-standard constraints and techniques.
First, I spaced out the "letter dots" so that no two dots were orthogonally adjacent. I initially tried to avoid diagonal adjacency too, but that proved too constraining on the surrounding fill. Spacing out the dots in this way gives the grid a more uniform and aesthetically pleasing pattern.
Second, I intersected parts of the painting's name with POINTILLISM and GEORGES SEURAT, which I also had to keep away from the top, the bottom, and each other. The result: 14 dots before either word, 2 dots in POINTILLISM, 15 dots between the two, 3 dots in GEORGES SEURAT, and 8 dots afterward.
Third, I placed letter dots in positions where the fill would be least constrained. For example, the J in JATTE is placed in the lower-left corner where it is relatively isolated from other letter dots and starts a 5-letter horizontal word. In English, J is much more common at the start of words than in other positions. Based on XWord Info's word list, there are 317 valid strings with a J as the first letter of a 5-letter word, versus 27, 84, 48, and 9 valid strings when the J is in the other positions. Since the title unfolds top-to-bottom in a fixed order, I had much more control over horizontal placement than vertical placement. For example, after the J, I had to work in 4 more letters, which limits how high or low it can be positioned.
So excited to be making my NYT debut! I love a good rebus puzzle, so it's a pleasure that my debut is one that I've been working on for almost a year and a half. In brainstorming phrases that involve "box" or "square" and which involved a rebus/symbol that translates for both analog and digital solvers, the checkmark and "check all the boxes" theme rose to the top.
This puzzle went through several iterations, including a fundamental grid restructuring that ended up losing one of the checkboxes which sat near the center of the grid. There were also several additional fun "check" phrases that just didn't fit into a good fill that therefore went unused. But I'm happy with the result, which retains a relative symmetry to the checkboxes and keeps my favored long clues (CHECKS AND BALANCES, and CHECKPOINT CHARLIE).
Hope to see you all again soon!
BRUCE: I submitted a BATS puzzle to Will back in about 2015. He liked the grid art, but I couldn't come up with two solid 15 letter theme entries. I threw about a dozen of them at him, including CHOKE UP ON THE BAT — that's how desperate I was. I eventually sent the idea to David, since he did an amazing job of coming up with a second theme entry for our HATS puzzle of 11/24/17. David suggested SPREAD ONE'S WINGS, and the project took off from there. It would have been nice to run it on Halloween, but the next Friday Halloween is 2025.
It's always a pleasure working with David - he recently graduated from Stanford (congrats David!) and part of their commencement ceremony is a "Wacky Walk" into the stadium in costume. Here is David making the CrossWorld proud!
DAVID: Always fun to co-construct with Bruce! Squeezing in enough zippy nonthematic fill for a Friday was a challenge, given the constraints of the grid art and theme entries, but fortunately, it didn't drive us batty. I'm especially fond of Bruce's LEFT JAB/I SURE DO stack in the northwest corner.
My post-graduation plan is to continue editing the Universal Crossword, which I'll be doing in-house at Andrews McMeel Universal as their Puzzles and Games Editor starting in September. "The kid" of crosswords is now officially grown up!
My idea for this puzzle started as a 15x15 with all clothing-themed homophone swaps — Bowtie Tae Bo, Loafer Furlough, and T-shirt Surety and the revealer Refashioned. But, since Surety has three syllables (as much as I tried to convince myself I could pronounce it in two), I was sent back to the drawing board and encouraged to try to expand it into a 21x21. Glad it worked out in the end and very excited to be making my Sunday debut!