Having made a first attempt at setting with the Magpie I decided to grit my teeth and make an attempt at scaling the walls of the Listener. As someone new to whole setting game, this being only my second puzzle, I’ve discovered that I thoroughly enjoy the rather different discipline of writing rather than solving clues, and also the noodling about with themes, but I find grids absurdly difficult and headachey. For boring technical reasons I don’t have a proper version of Sympathy, but in any case I suspect my problems are as much to do with not being very good at composing grids and filling them as they are to do with electronic tools. Maybe I’ll improve – but those issues with grid setting and filling caused problem number one in my journey to publication.
Perhaps inevitably, with three small children, when I was vaguely checking things that passed through my mind as potential themes, the ‘what are boys and girls made of’ rhyme stuck and I wondered if you could quite literally use the ingredients of that verse, taking the letters from slugs and snails to make names and so on. Interestingly, I have only ever known the verse as ‘slugs and snails’ and never thought to check for alternative versions – had I done so, I probably would have settled for the ODQ version for safety’s sake – and that was problem number two.
Matching 13 letters in ALL THINGS NICE and PUPPY DOG TAILS meant that I could have those as unclued ingredients in the grid, along with the unclued names, which refined very quickly how the rest of the puzzle would unfold. Choices were rather more limited for slugs and snails than they were for sugar and spice but in both cases I managed to find a group of names that worked relatively quickly with the first set of ingredients I chose (which means that it’s probably not actually as hard as it seems) and I enjoyed the fact that although the theme might drop before the end you needed to solve all the ingredients in order to remove ambiguities. But again, despite having found the names more easily than I had originally expected, I settled for the first group I found. Problem number three.
The title had been obvious from the start, but the idea of setting food-related clues only came to me once I’d already made my way through the list of ingredients, by which time I’d come up with the Aston Villa/VANILLA link which I felt very pleased about and was rather reluctant to rewrite. But I did like the misdirection and thematic constraint of foody clues, so I justified the non-ingredients as separate and rewrote the few other clues I’d already done. With hindsight, I rather wish I’d rewritten the lot, just for neatness’ sake, but it’s not a big deal.
Potential problem number 4 then popped up when I had almost finished setting all the clues – Aedites’ Babes puzzle, based on the same idea. The penny had dropped fairly quickly for me on that puzzle and I was at first completely distraught. As I got through it, I realised my exploration of the verse was very different from Aedites and there was a possibility it would be OK, especially with a decent time lag (as proved to be the case) and in any case, I wasn’t going to make the editors’ decision for them on that front, so I continued with the puzzle, thankfully.
The grid, as it originally appeared was this:
On to test solving. My test solver set to it manfully and I received some very positive feedback, although they did rather struggle with the ingredients – and this was the point at which I discovered that not only was the version of the verse with which I had grown up not the only version, but it seemed from the references to be one of the more unusual versions. My tester went first for ‘snips’, then for ‘frogs’. Unable to face rewriting the whole puzzle, I stuck to my guns and merely changed the preamble to allow for alternative versions of the recipe.
I then sent a tentative submission off to the Listener and to my delight received an incredibly rapid response indicating broad approval of the idea and the general standard of the clues (woohoo!) and some rather worrying sticking points. The Babes puzzle was raised but then dismissed, as I had hoped. Similarly, there was less concern about the alternative versions. But my grid was deemed to be substandard (low average light length and unjustifiable double unching on the two 13 letter entries) and more worryingly still, I had made a stupid mistake with the names. The day that I had been noodling about with the anagrams I had with me the 90s version of Chambers, not 2003 (the 2008 hadn’t come out when I was setting it) and in there DOD exists as a short form for George. It wasn’t a particularly satisfactory name, given that DODMAN was one of the ingredients, but I wasn’t about to complain. Needless to say, Dod no longer appears in the list of shortenings for George in Chambers. A lesson for the future, to use proper references and not rely on old dictionaries (which means I must update my ODQ if I’m going to set anything based on a quotation…).
John helpfully offered the suggestion that the idea would probably find favour and publication with a better grid (even with the Dod problem, as there was at least a reference somewhere for it) and at this point I’m incredibly grateful for his help in suggesting alternatives, getting the puzzle to the shape it’s in now, including an improved list of boy’s names without Dod. Of course, while we had kept the original list of ingredients, everything else had changed so I needed to write an entirely new list of clues, if I could be bothered. I had been pretty pleased with a lot of those clues (maybe if continue setting eventually I can find room for them) but I was keen to break into the ranks of Listener setters and I had been given too much encouragement from very helpful people to back out now. So I set to in my painfully slow way and many weeks, or probably even months later, I had found enough quiet moments to come up with a further bunch of clues and sent it back to the Listener.
At this point, I was properly in the queue and the wait was a few months, but frankly every week that passed took us further from Babes by Aedites which could only be a good thing. A few weeks ago I received the very welcome communication that Recipe had made it through, and shortly after that, the proofs arrived with the very thorough notes on the clueing, together with some deft rewrites very sensitively done. As a newbie, I felt very chuffed to have only a very few total rethinks but even with that, the puzzle certainly improved no end thanks to their work, for which I’m most grateful.
With further hindsight, I’m not happy with the clue for GENA – I really struggled with finding a food related surface that didn’t have a very obvious definition and in the end fixated on the collision of GAUR and the potential of ‘ox cheek’ which really constrained where I could go. I have to admit to not having thought of alternatives since, but it really is very contrived and I can’t think why I felt the need to add the word ‘conventional’ – I must have thought it was necessary for the definition of ‘ur’ but I can’t find that in the 2003 Chambers or anywhere else. There are a couple of others that stretch the constraints, but that’s my least favourite.
Finally, along with thanking the editors I have to express my gratitude first to John for the extraordinary feedback he provides – both in its breadth and its detail – and to all the solvers who take the time to write feedback in such detail themselves. It not only encourages me to set more, and as much as possible, but also to feed back myself more on other puzzles, given the pleasure it brings (and that includes the querying of many clues, which can only make me determined to write more watertight wordplay in the future).