Crossword puzzle brain cramping

Election over. Back to fun and games

I’m pretty beat after this year’s election. My wife and I were both active in some campaigns and I’m still taking deep breaths. Hence the need for this utterly off-topic foodless post as a long exhale…


I think I wrote months ago that I wouldn’t write about this hobby, but I have to take that back. So sorry.

You will see in my mini-bio in the upper right corner that I am a “crossword puzzle constructor,” as well as novelist and writer, which means every so often my brain is abuzz with ideas for fun puzzle themes, many of them sadly too lame to pursue, thinking “Will (as in Shortz) won’t go for this, or maybe he will but not quite enough,” so the idea gets shelved and I move on to other ideas. Sometimes the themes are stupefyingly simple, like a Monday puzzle I did last year (the easiest day of the week) whose five theme entries were HAIR RAISER, NECK SNAPPER, CHEST BEATER, KNEE SLAPPER, and ANKLE BITER arranged from top to bottom.

Will and his crew liked this enough to accept it and publish it – my only Monday puzzle so far for the New York Times – and so my publishing total has edged past 50 puzzles in print or online, for the Times, the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and a scattering of other markets – mostly Friday and Saturday puzzles that don’t have themes and are very hard. That makes me a bit of a veteran in this business, though I started in this CRAZY-MAKING  (1-Across in a published puzzle) enterprise just eight years ago. Why? Because I thought I could do it, and do it pretty well at least some of the time. I wanted a challenge, to see if I could bring order to this weirdness.

You don’t want to know all the rules…

… but I’ll throw a few at you anyway to see how long I can get away with this. A daily puzzle is usually 15 by 15 squares with a max word count of 78, and a typical max block count (blocks are the back squares) of about 40. Themed puzzles (Mondays through Thursdays) generally need to have at least four theme answers, but five and six are more the norm these days. A Sunday NY Times puzzle is 21 by 21 (I’ve done one Sunday, 9/11/16) and it needs to be really cool. Many other rules and guidelines apply, but the biggest hurdle these days is the competition — dozens of superstar constructors and new talent cranking out terrific, ingenious puzzles that ask you to face-palm yourself and mutter “I wish I’d thought of that.”

Focus, pocus.

When I’m hard at work puzzle-constructing, nothing intrudes on my thought processes. Honey, I’m pregnant… Honey, the boiler’s on fire in the basement… Honey, I’m going to my Mom’s house for a week or so… all of these slide by as swiftly innocuously as Honey, I’m going to pick up the mail, and my response is always “Okay. That’s nice.” Lesson: don’t mess with constructors’ brains when they’re creating a masterpiece. Just don’t. Other lesson: my wife never calls me “Honey,” so these things were never said to me, although other things were said that flew right past me. Plus, the neighbor’s dog is in the driveway again.

Is it fun yet?

I don’t strive to bamboozle puzzle solvers. I want them to have fun, enjoy an “aha!” moment or two, and smile at some fun phrases that they haven’t seen before. When the neighbor’s dog appears in our driveway to desecrate it, like right now, I wonder if I can get away with ARCHED BACK DOG as a fun answer. Not likely, because it’s a bit too crude – just like the dog that does this. Most editors like positive, uplifting things in their puzzles, so it wasn’t too shocking to have my CRAZY-MAKING puzzle initially rejected because it included in the lower right —

— which (along with EGOMANIACAL, above) moves it a little too close to the Psych Ward’s main entrance. (A later, published version used TOMATO PASTE, INCREMENTAL, and REVERSE DUNK. Much safer).

All this said, other NY Times constructors have flirted with the boundaries of taste, with words like SEX KITTEN, SEX TOY, JAIL BAIT, EDIBLE UNDERWEAR, and the notorious, never-to-appear-again SCUMBAG. That last one caused quite a stir, back in 2008. No further comment.

Badminton, anyone?

Here’s a screenshot (the grid from my crossword-making software) of one of my favorite Times puzzles meant to simulate a point in a badminton game. The theme answers are in magenta. All the “birdies” were clued as non-birds (like “Brag” for CROW) and they’re flying over the central BADMINTON NET six times until the last shot is called out. I wanted to do something a) fun, b) kinetic, c) with lots of theme words (11 total). The word was, solvers had a fine old time with this one.

Stunts and Slogs…

Some constructors like to break records, like puzzles with the fewest words, the fewest blocks, stacking four or even five 15-letter words (we call these “spanners”) on top of each other. One fellow, in a 15X15 grid, used every letter of the alphabet five times – a quintuple “pangram” including five each of Q, Z, J and X – a feat never before accomplished and unlikely to be repeated. As often as not, these are called “stunt” puzzles because the constructor is telling us, “Look what I did!!” Not for me. I’m not that diligent, and the solver’s not enjoying it.

“Slogs” are puzzles where solvers get the theme idea right away and just have to keep plowing through the end of the puzzle to finish it, without much pleasure. Slogs are no fun. Again, not for me.

I’ve seen puzzles in local papers here, and I have yet to find one that has some sort of theme or clever idea at work. They’re just a sprawl of words (mostly 4 and 5 letters long) that just sit there, saying nothing. These, to me, are not crossword puzzles, but a garbage dump of dull, lifeless blather. But for many, it’s good brain exercise just to fill in all those squares with that junky clutter with no nutritional value. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong…)

Inside the mind…

My understanding is I’m the only person from Maine to be a regular contributor to the Times and other papers. Woo-hoo! All the rest of you are freed from the solitary cell of intense focus, unless you’re a software developer or bond trader or carpenter or some such. Now there are deer on our path to the water, and our cat is agasp with intrigue and I’m researching NBA LOGO as an entry to see if the logo really is a silhouette of Jerry West, and my mind wanders to Bob COUSY (in a 1996 puzzle) and yes, it is Jerry West’s silhouette.

I want to get COUSY in again. And maybe Bill SHARMAN. Or LARRY BIRD, but I’ve done my bird puzzle already, so no dice.

There it is until my brain uncramps.


Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.