Saturday, January 15, 2011

CONFESSIONS OF A FAILED CRUCIVERBALIST


     When I retired last spring, I added to my bucket list the goal of creating a crossword puzzle that would be accepted and published by The New York Times. I thought I could do it: I’m pretty good with words; I like to solve puzzles both verbal (crosswords, acrostics) and mathematical (Sudoku and, especially, KenKen); I’m good at following rules; I’m not uncreative.
      I have since created three Sunday puzzles and one weekday puzzle that, in theory, meet the basic puzzle criteria of the Times: 15 X 15 (daily) or 21 X 21 (Sunday) squares in size, axial symmetry, a mix of high-culture (opera, medieval tapestry) and low-culture (baseball, rap) answers, not too many blacked-in squares, not too many crosswordish clues or answers (Konrad Adenauer’s nickname, Irish airline).
      I thought my puzzles were pretty good. I sent one of my Sunday ones to the Times, waited three months, and finally heard back from them. It was a nice rejection from Will Shortz’s assistant, complimenting me on the puzzle but saying it wasn’t right for them. If you don’t know who Will Shortz is, then you’re not really a crossword fan.
     I then sent my second Sunday puzzle to the L.A. Times, one of the two other newspapers that accept unsolicited crossword puzzles. The puzzle editor there also complimented my puzzle (in a rather perfunctory way, but nicely). He said he had already used my theme in a previous puzzle. I think it was his way of saying (nicely) that my puzzle was as common as bacon and eggs.
     I sent my third Sunday  puzzle to the puzzle editor of Newsday. I thought it was an especially brilliant puzzle. I also thought I had an inside shot because the editor lives where I grew up, on Long Island. Hell, my brothers delivered Newsday a million years ago. I quickly received a curt email rejection that basically told me that there was nothing good about my puzzle and there was too much wrong with it for the editor to make time even to offer me any advice other than to tell me to find a crossword puzzle “mentor” who could help me learn how to make a proper puzzle.
      A mentor? Huh? I thought that, if you were a crossword-doer, you just read each paper’s puzzle specs, made a puzzle, and sent it in, kind of like a letter to the editor that stays within the word count. Then you got published.
      No, no, no, no, no.
      It turns out that there is an entire hierarchy of puzzle-makers around the world and a vast subculture that cultivates and sustains it. I had figured there were maybe 300 people in the U.S. with the interest, time, and skill to make a crossword puzzle. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Of the 306 million people in the U.S., approximately 300 million make crossword puzzles. They are doing it right now. Of those, 290 million are better at it than me. There are thousands of people who do nothing but make crossword puzzles. I believe they do not eat or sleep. Sex for them is just a convenient three-letter word with a little extra cachet for containing an “X.”
      There are scores of crossword puzzle websites. The best is Cruciverb, which you can find at this link. All serious crossword people live on Cruciverb, which is of course a pretentious Latinish way of saying “crossword.” On another site, there is a man who maintains and updates a database of all New York Times crossword puzzles since, like, 1993, including all the clues ever used for all the answers. Here’s the link. When I wanted to use “limo” as an answer in one of my puzzles, I used the clue “a long way to drive.” Clever, no? Actually, it was. The New York Times has never used that as a clue for "limo," at least not since 1993. That clue is, so far, my proudest crossword accomplishment.
      The people in the crossword subculture are fanatics. Fanatics, I tell you. They each make puzzles by the dozens. Every day. They deconstruct every day’s Times and L.A. Times puzzles as if they were Finnegan’s Wake, in long comment strings that are downright political in their fervor. (There’s a crisis in the NY Times crossword puzzle! A scandal! Some people have been receiving the puzzle earlier than others!) Not surprisingly, the comments are very well written. There are a gazillion blogs devoted to crossword puzzles. The New York Times has its own crossword blog (here). One of the comments on the Times site today is in the form of a limerick. A very clever damn limerick.
     There are crossword-puzzle-making superstars who receive all the adulation of NBA all-stars. They are the LeBrons of les grids. They make puzzles with almost no blocks (the black squares) or with super-clever wordplay in the answers and brilliant pun-tastic inter-referential clues. The Newsday puzzle editor is so revered that he even stars on ocean cruises devoted to teaching people how to make puzzles. People pay big money to learn from him. These are people I dislike.
     An hour ago, I finished today's NY Times crossword puzzle. Today is Saturday. Saturday is Challenge Day for crossword puzzlers. The Saturday puzzle, if you don’t already know, is by far the hardest of the week, with clues that could mean anything. (Clue: “No wear for waifs.” Answer: “plussizes.”) Solving the puzzle took me about two hours of very hard brainwork. I needed a shower afterward. I was so proud of myself that I expected a trophy presentation to follow the shower. Most of the people on the crossword websites finished the puzzle in 15 minutes. I hate them all.
      Now I’m discouraged. I thought I was going to be able to check “crossword, Times” off my bucket list fairly quickly. But it turns out I’m in competition with people as freakishly talented as Mozart. Millions of Mozarts.
      I’m very fond of the Internet. It has brought together people of kindred spirit who elsewise would never know others like them existed. There are hugely populous subcultures now devoted to everything—from the Fibonacci sequence to fibromyalgia. This is, on the whole, good; it creates a sense of belonging, of community, of shared effort and appreciation. But it does have its drawbacks. Those of us who are dilettantes, unwilling to devote every waking minute of our day to Chinese checkers, say, or cockfighting or, yes, crossword puzzles, have no chance against these masses of experts and fanatics egging each other on.
      I suppose I should be grateful to the Newsday editor who replied so rudely to me. He has forced me to face the world of crossword puzzles realistically—kind of like the hero/villain of The Iceman Cometh who sets about exploding the pipe dreams of all the ne’er-do-well alcoholics in the bar where the play is set. What was that guy’s name again? Six letters. Starts with an “H.”
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13 comments:

  1. nicely written. in what format did you send them in?

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  2. Ed--I just spent about an hour writing you a post but it got wiped out as I tried to post it. Do you have an email address I can try you at? Thanks.--Mark Danna email: drfrizy@pobox.com

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  3. Ed--The email is drfrizby@pobox.com

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  4. I enjoyed reading your "Confessions of a Failed Cruciverbalist." It was so well-written, in fact, that I felt the need to respond.

    During GAMES Magazine's heyday in the 1980's and '90s, I was in change of correspondence for several years and so wrote many a rejection letter to those who submitted puzzles to us. (Fortunately, I also got to write acceptance letters, which, of course, was so much easier.) Whenever Will Shortz or Mike Shenk believed that a constructor showed promise, they asked me to pass along specific comments on what they liked about the work, advice on how to improve one's constructing skills, and encouragement to try us again. When submissions didn't meet our specs (for example, when the number of grid entries exceeded our limits) or had uninteresting or overused themes, our standard reply was something like "Thank you for showing us your work. Unfortunately, we are unable to use it at this time and so are returning it to you." (Our policy was to return the work even if a self-addressed, stamped envelope was not included with the submission.) We felt strongly that everyone who sent us a submission deserved a reply and a courteous one at that. There is absolutely no good reason for any editor, even a prominent one, to be mean in a rejection letter. While its true that such a direct, painful approach may compel a wannabe to reconsider his efforts at getting published and so save him from wasting more of his and an editor's time, a kinder, gentler rejection letter is a respectful acknowledgment of efforts made. Also, one who failed miserably at first sometimes does come up with a greatly improved idea or execution of a puzzle. And who is he going to submit it to? Pretty obvious. So the kindness shown in a rejection letter can end up benefiting both the publisher and the one eventually getting published.
    All this is to say: Don't give up. You've probably noticed shared bylines on crossword puzzles. Why not write to someone whose name you've seen in such cases and see if they'll work with you to share a byline? Or perhaps they'd be willing to mentor you. Being a good writer in a blog is no guarantee, of course, that you'll become a good puzzle writer. But I do think you have the potential for carryover, so I hope you'll continue your quest to scratch off "crossword published" from your bucket list.
    Feel free to contact me if I can be of help. I'm not writing many crosswords these days, but I am making a full-time living as a word puzzle writer.—Mark Danna drfrizby@pobox.com

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  5. Wow, really enjoyed your post! I read it while awaiting my trophy for finishing today's (Saturday) NYT. It should be here any moment.

    About two years ago, I decided that I was going to get an xword published in the NYT. One year, twenty plus submissions later, and a very kind note asking me to please keep to a maximum of three entries at a time (whoops, sorry!), I finally got one in - one of the first ones that my girlfriend and I did together. Ahem. It just goes to show you who's the brains in this relationship.

    Anyway, that wonderful moment was a year ago. I still get about 75% of my submissions rejected, but have a much better feel for what is novel enough, what is good enough, what is NYT-worthy. I have six accepted now, and my goal for the year is to bag me a Sunday!

    Quite a fine line between persistence and dementia, isn't it?

    Let me know if I can help!

    Jeff
    jeffchen1972@gmail.com

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  6. Hi, Ed. I did the puzzle you linked to above and, rather than just telling you that your puzzle sucks, I'd like to point out a few of the basic rules to follow when creating a crossword puzzle that you hope to sell. And also to encourage you to keep at it.

    First of all, there are way too many blocks in your grid. The maximum allowed is around 1/6th (or, 16.5%) of the grid. In a 21x21 that works out out to maximum of 72 or 73 blocks -- and even that is really pushing it. You have 82 blocks in your puzzle. This gives you a very high word count of 141. The main reason for this is that you have three "fingers" (lines of block extending inward from the outer edges) coming in from all four sides. Three fingers on two sides (say, the top and bottom) and two fingers on the other two sides (right and left) is typical and more asthetically pleasing.

    Some of your entries are unacceptable to a newspaper because they are clumsy. TRIP AT, OPEN AT are odd partials, especially in the same puzzle. BEAT RIM for {Pothole's effect on a wheel} is a puzzle killer because it's not an "in the language" phrase the way that, say, "blown tire" is. UAES is very awkward as a plural for UAE member states and HEDS (short for headlines?) is just bizarre.

    The rest of the fill isn't too bad, but you want to keep three-letter abbreviations to a minimum and go for a lower word count by having longer entries. The problem there is that two of your theme entries are nine letters, and two others are 10 letters. Since the theme entries (in this type of theme, anyway) should always be the longest entries, you don't have much choice in that regard. The best solution would be to come up with longer theme entries or, better yet, come up with some shorter ones to replace the 21- and the two 20-letter entries as I think the theme is a much better fit for a 15x15.

    Another thing to focus on is "freshness". TRI TOPS and EUER Valley stand out, but there isn't much else in the grid that's new. JAGUAR, FROLIC and some others are solid and have sparkle, but there's too much EURO/EVEN/TONS action going on that brings the solving experience down. One thing to keep in mind when sending a puzzle to Stan Newman at Newsday is that he has a widely syndicated daily crossword solved mainly by casual solvers, not us crossword geeks, and he edits his puzzles for that demographic. He likes every entry to be a common word or phrase and frowns on the inclusion of proper names (CARR, WINONA), not to mention the awkward plural proper name (IKES, ARAMS). EUER and JEFE alone would be puzzle killers for Stan.

    Generally speaking, most of your puzzle is pretty solid for a newbie constructor and definately shows potential. I encourage you to purchase a copy of Patrick Berry's "Crossword Challenges for Dummies". It's an excellent how-to primer covering all the basics of what is sellable to a newspaper.

    Don't give up just yet, Ed. You definately show promise and the most widely published constructors, even today, routinely have their puzzles rejected, too.

    --Tuning Spork

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  7. Dear Mark, Jeff, and Tuning Spork,

    Thanks for your encouragement and advice. Mark, as a magazine editor myself for 27 years, I share your sense of the value of a kindly rejection letter; I've written a few to writers who later became stalwarts of the magazines I edited. I do want to be careful not to libel Stan Newman. His rejection was brusque but not cruel; I've exaggerated my response to it a bit in what I wrote, for humor's sake. Jeff, thanks for your kind words about my writing; you are obviously a good, funny writer yourself. You help me keep my hopes up. Tuning Spork (like your name), your advice is wonderfully specific and helpful. I had a pretty good sense of most of the things you say, but I never thought about "fingers," for example. Again, thanks all for the encouragement. I'm a bit behind on my crossword puzzle making right now. I just started a second blog, at the request of my former colleagues in the English Dept. at Virginia Tech, in which I share 40 years of writing advice from my magazine and teaching days. Let me end by saying that the crossword community (which I'm just getting to know via Cruciverb and Wordplay) has a lot of fine wordsmiths. You are three of them. And kind, to boot. Thanks again.

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  8. Very entertaning post! I'm older than any baby boomer and have lower goals -- my bucket list item was just to finish an entire week of NYT puzzles. I did that -- then I changed it to 'finish a week without "cheating" (using Google).' So far I haven't crossed that one off, but that's OK -- at my age, it's not good to complete ALL your goals.

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  9. Sallie: It's still good to have goals, at any age, no? I manage to solve puzzles pretty well. My life partner Gail says I have a crossword-puzzle education: good schools, liberal arts, literature specialty. But as recent puzzles have more and more clues that refer to contemporary songs and sit-coms, I'm finding them harder and harder to do. If they'd just refer to 1950s Broadway shows, I'd be fine!

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  10. Hi Ed,

    "And now we know how to blog". I am still chuckling over that! I too am learning how to blog but curiously I am a computer programmer (class of 1968 Fortran) who survived a Ph.D. program in Computer Science. I know how to create a blogging application but am still getting used to sharing comments with people I couldn't pick out of a police lineup.

    I too thought about publishing a crossword puzzle and wrote a couple but knew that they were not good enough to be accepted. The experience really made me appreciate the skill involved in creating one of them.

    The way that I am satisfying my crossword puzzle jones lately is to write a computer program that lets me solve Across Lite puzzles. It is working now and can play back the letters I entered during the solution. This has all been great fun. I now have to solve crossword puzzles to test my program!

    I am also trying to quantify the solving experience without having to resort to measuring how long it took me. For example, I am working on producing a graph that shows how many answers were completed correctly in a given time period. My conjecture is that for an easy puzzle the graph will be flat but for a Saturday it might look more like a bell curve with some bumps in it.

    Is there a .puz version of your puzzle? I would like to try solving it with my program.

    But my real goal is to modify the program so that it can be used to construct a crossword puzzle and then have 5 top constructors use it to create a 15 x 15 crossword puzzle with a seed word that I will give them. So the only constraints would be to use 15 x 15 grid and to include my seed word somewhere in the puzzle. I am sure that 5 dramatically different puzzle would be created.

    The program would allow the constructors to record their thoughts as they are creating the puzzle and we mere mortals could play back the whole process and get a glimpse of how they do it. Curiously the one constructor I have suggested this to seems unwilling to do it. Perhaps there is knowledge involved that should not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

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  11. Hi, R.alphbunker: I love the way different people think. Programmers like you, of course, are "language" people of a different sort. I'm afraid my puzzle only comes in a Crossword Compiler format. I like your graph-the-rate-of-solution idea, as well as the seed-word idea. I think it would be difficult for a compiler to play back the process of creating a puzzle, however. I've thought of writing about that myself, though, showing which sections of a puzzle were hard, how many variations of a particular corner of the puzzle were tried, and so on--like showing the various drafts of a poem. It is a fascinating process, but difficult and long to describe. I don't think the compilers are intentionally hiding anything from the rest of us. My experience is that they like to talk about how they do their magic. They seem to be open and transparent folks. Thanks for writing.

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  12. Hi Ed,

    The version of Crossword Compiler that I have lets you create .puz files. Pull down the File menu, choose the Export command, select the Across Lite(puz) option, click Export File button in lower right corner. If this works for me could you email it to me at "rbu nker @ lis co . com". Please remove the spaces. I did this to thwart spam bots.

    Regarding the constructor commentary. My idea was that they would do it after they created the puzzle, while watching their work play back. Sort of like what Will Shortz and Merl Reagle did in the WordPlay movie.

    Thanks

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  13. You say you also like acrostics. Please try solving some on my website. If you become a member, you will find it easy to create an acrostic which I will subsequently publish online. Regards, Sue Gleason

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