Sunday, 1/6/13 & "Behind the Puzzle"

Add your times here.

Today's New York Times crossword, "Puzzle Envy", is the first and only Sunday-size puzzle I've ever constructed. Below is the backstory of the creation and collaboration with Andrea Carla Michaels; I apologize that I can't easily hide it behind a "Read More" link!

As with my first NYT publication, I may go into more detail than a run-of-the-mill Sunday puzzle would require. I'm always interested in constructors' notes, because it's an insight into the crossword world that the general public doesn't get enough of. People have such different styles and methods of puzzlemaking that it's almost always educational to hear about the process. I'm mostly writing this for myself, for posterity, but I'd gladly read something like this every day!

(Here's the tl;dr version of what's below: Andrea did the theme, I did the grid, she did the clues.)

There will be some little spoilers, so I'll leave space here...

keep scrolling...

some more...

and more...

I know it's annoying...

okay, let's do it...


"But Dan, didn't you insist that you weren't going to construct any more puzzles?" Well, this one wasn't my idea. Blame Andrea!

As I said at Wordplay, last June I helped put on the Napa Valley Puzzle Challenge, and wrote a group puzzle for the occasion, inspired of course by Will Shortz's radio and convention brainteasers. You know: "In honor of Napa Valley, each answer is a two-word phrase with the initial letters N.V."

Andrea was there as an "expert panelist" along with Tyler Hinman and Jeremy Horwitz, and co-constructed an exclusive puzzle for the tournament. The very next day (I went back and checked the email), she wrote with the idea to make a Sunday-sized "NV" theme, and asked if I wanted to collaborate, since the idea came from my game.

So I said why not? I mightn't have thought this a Times-worthy theme if this puzzle hadn't run quite recently, and I thought our theme set was even better (no offense, A.V.!). That (and, later, this open letter) convinced me to risk my 1.000 batting average with Mr. Shortz. Andrea quickly finished developing the possible theme answers, and we each tried our hand at making a grid.

I think I remember Merl Reagle saying in an interview (with Ryan and Brian, probably) that he often tries to overlap theme entries, because if it works out, it looks cool and gives you more wiggle room in the rest of the grid. Since NO VACANCY had to be placed in the center, I checked what a quasi-triple-stack would look like, and lucked out with some friendly letter combinations. The biggest "problem crossings" were "NW-", which could only be NWT or NWA, and "-LCR-", which doesn't have a lot of options. But overall it seemed workable, and once I hit on the central stack, I had to see if I could pull it off. I spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to engineer that middle section, then slowly built out the rest of the grid and filled it in.

That took about six weeks of intermittent work (I tend to work intermittently). Once I had a fill that Andrea and I were both happy with, she wrote a whole set of clues, and since I was back in San Francisco for a few days, we were able to sit down and talk over the cluing in person. (Also that day, Andrea gave me over 100 unsolved GAMES magazines that were cluttering up her living room. Bonus!)

We submitted the puzzle in late August, and received notice of acceptance and publication simultaneously, two weeks ago. I wasn't totally confident that the theme and fill would both pass muster. I didn't think any one entry was over the line of acceptability, but knew that the accumulation of marginal stuff like UNSUB, DECIR, PLAXICO (crossing XFL), COME AS, SENESCES, KINER, etc. could conceivably disqualify it.

Will did change the far southwest corner: we had WATER and HOOKA at 107- and 108-Down. That would be a fun juxtaposition... except that we're getting into "Var." territory because HOOKAH should have another H.  I also counted the clue edits: out of 140 clues, 47 were changed entirely (six of those due to the grid fix), and 29 were changed slightly or cosmetically. So that's right around 50%, as is typical.

Some other notes:
  • I was all excited about SKYFALL (as fresh fill -- I haven't seen a Bond film since The Living Daylights, believe it or not), but we were beaten to the punch. JEJUNE hadn't appeared in the NYT since 1998... until last week.
  • Along with HOOKA, Andrea and I put a disproportionate number of drug references into the clues. No particular reason, except for a bit of San Francisco flavor! Can't blame Will for editing most of them out, including [Disposable cell phone, slangily] for BURNER; [Ecstasy experience] for TRIP; [Used a Breathalyzer] for BLEW; "Stoned Soul Picnic" in the NYRO clue; and most egregiously, inspired by my favorite TV show: [Produce, as methamphetamine] for COOK. Fortunately, Andrea's Beatles reference (she tries to get one in every puzzle) survived.
  • The only clue I was a little sad to lose: [Includes with an email] for ATTACHES. The published clue is cleverer, of course, but I liked using the modern sense of the verb instead of the noun.
  • My mother's middle name (not NEE) is in the grid, but I didn't put it there on purpose -- Andrea changed a letter to avoid a minor duplication that I'd missed. STERLING is a shout-out to one of my employers.
  • I kinda wanted to do a whole web of cross-reference clues among ABE, TAD, DAD, and SON, but Andrea talked me down.
  • This won't be my last published puzzle, so I'm not even gonna pretend.


andrea carla michaels said...

This is really interesting! it brought back all the fun memories of creating with you (you are a great partner) and reminded me how smooth and easy it was overall to work with you... I had forgotten about the druggy refs, which I don't remember doing (maybe we were stoned at the time!) I do remember talking you down from the Lincoln chain, but how funny that it should come out at the height of that movie, with Skyfall already a dim memory! And damn about JEJUNE! Your triple stack really was the heart of the puzzle and coup de grace (is that the right way to use that?!) and I can't wait to do another with you...maybe we'll cook something up at this year's Napa Valley extravaganza! :) Love you! And really happy I talked you into risking your perfect streak!

e.a. said...

great puzzle. thanks for the notes and looking forward to your next one!