The Puzzler Laid Bare
by Ben Tausig
Here is the dirty secret of crosswords: They are made by human beings. We stash our friends’ names in grids, allude to our lives and pull theme ideas from drunken conversations at the bar. The last has actually happened numerous times; I keep a black pen in my pocket and write reminders on my hand. Once, I thought of a puzzle about being underemployed while biking home from my then-job as a barista at a kitschy dessert café in Hell’s Kitchen, New York.
The editorial convention, however, is to make the connection between constructor and content as opaque as possible, to dress puzzles in an authoritative white coat that suggests that they are pure products of linguistic deliberation, the assumption being that no one cares about your in-jokes. No wonder so many people think crosswords are written by computers.
I am invested in these issues because I write crossword puzzles for a living. Not exclusively, anymore I am also in school full-time but it has become a lucrative job, and I have grown deeply attached to the work and the community. The syndicated feature that appears in Bay Weekly is something that I understand increasingly to be a long-term gig. The more I construct, the more I want to connect with the people who solve my puzzles. To my mind, this is the yawning gap in the world of cruciverbalism; for all our internal discussions about writing toward our audience, it often seems we hardly know you, or you hardly know us.
So let me tell you who we are, how we do it, and how I got here.
Making the Puzzle
I am staring at a laptop screen with Crossword Compiler open and the grid blank. No black squares, no letters, just 225 empty boxes. It’s mid-afternoon, about two hours before class, and my neighborhood is filled with the standard ambient noise of the city: car alarms, traffic, stereos, kids playing. I think back to three days ago, hanging out with my friends Simon and Greg, when offhandedly we talked about brand names that are synonymous with their products. The easy ones to call up are Xerox, Q-Tip, Advil. But a bit of Internet research shows some surprising current and former trademarks. Did you know Bayer patented Heroin in the early 20th century? How about Yo-yo, Dumpster, LP, Bake-off and the Seeing Eye dog?
This is a rich theme.
I get to work laying out entries so as to maximize the number that I might include, because in the business it is considered elegant to have a lot of good theme letters. For example, three theme entries of 15 letters each give a total theme count of 45. I can fit 60, well above average, including several of the most interesting examples, Like seeing-eye dog and heroin
I decide to clue this one straight that is, not to use puns or other cleverness since the theme is pretty neat just being factual.
I place the black squares around the theme entries, then take stock of the grid. It is eminently doable, so I proceed to fill in the empty spaces with the best words that fit. BARHOP is colorful; IPHONE contemporary; and V H ONE, XMen and DKNY full of unusual letter combinations.
The rest of the fill more banal stuff like OREO, EXAM and REDS will lay the groundwork for solvers to get at unique entries later. About half of the clues come from my head. BARHOP, for example, offers numerous sly possibilities, like Buy rounds all around and Get shots all over. The rest, for words like KYOTO, will come from sources including Wikipedia, the Oxford English Dictionary and the CIA World Fact Book, as well as from the database at Cruciverb.com
This is the point where my process diverges from that of most freelance crossword constructors. When my cluing is finished, the fresh puzzle goes off to my test-solver Janet, who I met on Craigslist.com and who has been solving The New York Times crossword for something like 20 years. Since syndicated clients generally do not edit crosswords, it is my responsibility to ensure correctness, and I take it seriously. Solvers need to trust that every clue is accurate and well conceived, or they might not come back. Janet is a talented copyeditor, and she typically replies with a list of 25 or 30 suggestions for each puzzle. Some correct factual mistakes; others tweak wording.
Then, as I send the puzzle off to the various papers that run it, I make special changes to each version to reflect the local culture. The answer BRIDGE will probably refer to the Golden Gate in San Francisco, for example, but to the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis. Most of my research for this kind of cluing happens on the Internet, though I will also contact friends in the area and ask them their opinion from time to time, since they are by nature experts.
There is no one place where a puzzle is written. They are made throughout the city: in my apartment, on the subway, at school, in the park anywhere that I can pull out my laptop and work for a few minutes. I once sat by the lake near my building on a temperate spring day and filled a grid. As I look to my immediate environs for inspiration, location certainly affects the mood of the puzzle.
Time is no more absolute. Sometimes I work during normal hours; other times I put the finishing touches on my clues at 3am, after coming home from the bar, or first thing in the morning before going into the city to run errands or go to class. It is a good thing for a puzzle to be imbued with the rest of one’s life, and so I try not to set aside dedicated, isolated time to work.
For me, the only aspect that is fixed is the order: theme, thematic entries, fill words, then clues.
Tyler Hinman’s winning grin and grid at 2006 American Crossword Tournament, above.
Frances Hansen, at below, the dean of crosswords, inserted her personality into her puzzles, including an original poem in her annual Christmas crossword in The New York Times.
Making the Puzzler
I began making crosswords as a hobby the summer of 2004 after solving for about a year. I was pushed to it after I joined the friendly listserv at cruciverb.com, home to frequent conversations about language. It soon proved difficult to hang out there and not want to try my hand at construction.
Less than two weeks after I joined the cruciverb list, the greatest living constructor, Frances Hansen, passed away. An outpouring of testimonials to her legacy followed, causing me to find and solve some of her best puzzles. I was amazed and inspired. Something of a rogue, Hansen had stubbornly inserted her own personality into her work, including her annual Christmas crossword in The New York Times featuring an original poem. Posthumously, she became my idol.
Meanwhile, my own work progressed slowly. Effort number one was drawn up on an Excel spreadsheet, on company time, and filled with forced, nonsensical entries like GBTA, (Great Britain Teachers Association?) It did not have a theme. Its key feature was four unchecked letters. To cruciverbalists, those are letters, nearly surrounded by blocks, that have an across word going through them, but no down word; Or vice versa (see image on page 5). By accident, these letters happened to be H, O, L and A, spelling HOLA.
This puzzle was unsellable for too many reasons to mention. But, unaware of this and perhaps unconcerned, I emailed the listserv to see if anyone felt like exchanging critiques.
The famous mentor and Times mainstay Nancy Salomon responded that she would be willing to look at my stuff. I was honored, and for the next few months, I sent her every grid I made. There were a lot, perhaps three a week, by the end.
She picked the HOLA puzzle apart without mercy. There was just one glimmer of encouragement: I had less junk in the fill than most beginners. That was more than enough to keep me going.
I sold my first puzzle to USA Today in September, 2004. The editor said it would run in October. This was an exciting moment, and I thrilled to tell my friends and family. I sold another to the L.A. Times soon after; it was scheduled to run on my birthday, November 9. My checker insisted I also try The New York Times, so I sent three puzzles to Will Shortz in November. Shortz is notoriously backlogged, and it can take months to hear back about a first submission. So I waited. Meanwhile, I was selling more and more puzzles to other outlets, including the New York Sun and Universal Syndicate. I was something like eight for eight, and feeling very confident.
By the way, Will Shortz eventually replied, after about six months. He accepted one submission and rejected two. I have published many puzzles in The New York Times since then; once Shortz knows your work, the turnaround time is significantly reduced.
Puzzling a New Generation
A lot of my friends enjoyed solving crosswords. But The New York Times puzzle isn’t exactly designed for us. A hip clue might appear from time to time, depending on the constructor, but more frequent were clues about old racehorses or puns on the names of actresses from the 1950s. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to write a puzzle for a younger crowd?
So I pitched the idea to the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Amazingly and immediately, the very hip alternative paper bit. In mid-December, 2004, I began writing a weekly puzzle for them, first on a trial basis and then permanently. The clues were West Coast-centric, and stacked with references to bands and movies that had just come out. The first theme was the landmark rap group N.W.A. not the most contemporary reference, but certainly more familiar in a nostalgic sense to my generation. I doubt that Eazy-E and Dr. Dre had ever been the subject of a crossword before.
Soon I started pitching the idea to other papers, including the Chicago Reader, Detroit Metro Times and Washington City Paper, which all signed on. My hook was geographic specificity, and that turned out to be enough of a hook to make the feature stand out.
Xword now has about 10 syndicated clients in the U.S. and Canada. I had a brief stint with the Village Voice, which ended when the paper was bought by a large conglomerate, New Times Media. Now I also edit a separate puzzle in the satiric Onion’s A.V. Club, its straight film, music, food review section.
Writing crosswords is possibly the most addictive and rewarding hobby on the planet. There is nothing like getting an e-mail from Will Shortz telling you that he’s accepted your first puzzle, a pleasure that pales in comparison to seeing your name in The New York Times Sunday magazine. Even before you get published, trying out grids and writing crosswords that your friends enjoy solving is great. For the first year or more, I couldn’t stop, and I am still happy every time I sit down to construct.
It is my hope that solvers will form a mental picture of who I am when they solve my puzzles, and conceive of their experience as a battle of wits. You can even get mad at me if you need to. Whatever. Just as long as my presence backstage is not obscured, because the heavens open up when, doing a crossword, one realizes that they are on the same wavelength as the constructor. The best compliment I ever received came from a reader who wrote, “I’ve never noticed who edits crossword puzzles until these.”
Twenty-six-year-old Ben Tausig, a PhD student in Ethnomusicology at New York University, bedevils you weekly with Bay Weekly’s Xword. As well as publishing a weekly Xword in newspapers throughout the U.S. and Canada, he is slated to publish two books in 2007: a puzzle book for kids entitled Mad Tausig vs. The Interplanetary Puzzling Peace Patrol (April) and Gonzo Crosswords from the Village Voice (October).