Listen With Others

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Listener 4211, One Shot at a Time: A Setter’s Blog by Artix

Posted by Listen With Others on 9 November 2012

I suppose that setters are always on the lookout for themes to incorporate into potential puzzles – and anniversaries of events is a favourite hunting-ground. At least, I think that’s how the initial germ of the idea came for One Shot. It was back in 2010 and I must have been idly “oogling” (to borrow a recent new portmanteau word) when I stumbled across the story of the assassination attempt on Theodore Roosevelt in Milwaukee in October 1912.

I am no student of American history and certainly had not been previously aware of the event. It spiked my curiosity; and the more I read of the details, the more I became intrigued: the sheer tenacity shown in keeping to his scheduled appointment, the thickness of his speech effectively saving his life and the seemingly incredible decision not to remove the bullet afterwards. And so I read more and more about the event in particular and Teddy in general, until I stumbled across this extract from a letter from Roosevelt to President Taft (offering him advice in his successful bid to be President in 1908): “It would seem incredible that anyone would care one way or the other about your playing golf, but I have received hundreds of letters from the West protesting it. I myself play tennis, but that game is a little more familiar; besides, you never saw a photograph of me playing tennis, I am careful about that; photographs of me on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal.” (In fact, Roosevelt did play a fair bit of golf, but he hid this from his electorate as its image was deemed too elitist at the time).

And that’s pretty much how it all started: the cruciverbal leap to combine the two themes with the key word SHOT as the link seemed promising and started to race out of control. The grid could represent a golf course with 18 answers somehow representing the holes. There could be areas that were out-of-bounds, bunkers, trees, streams, elevated tees, penalty strokes imposed on solvers, a scorecard to complete, rain-sodden spectators trampling down the rough, the spectre of Seve haunting the grid, a practice-ground, car park, flags fluttering over the club house. Reality soon bit in, and lead to the first (of several) course designs, with the “lodge” being added some time later, along with the phrase emanating from the “greens”. I tried long and hard to incorporate something from the letter quoted above: ADVICE TO TAFT: GOLF IS….(and write the word FATAL below the grid) was an early idea soon rejected in favour of the more familiar elements and quotes eventually incorporated. I strove to have all the columns populated by 10-letter jumbles, but eventually had to compromise with two pairs of 5-letter answers and one 6-letter entry in the central column, but this at least made it look a little more like a conventional barred grid in my view.

As the puzzle progressed, and with invaluable input from my three test solvers (whom I thank publicly here) I reckoned it might stand a chance at The Listener. I’d bumped into Shane at the Times Championships in October 2011 and he urged me to send it in immediately as the backlog was considerable. I now know that he really wasn’t exaggerating and I can only apologise to other aspirant setters if I jumped the queue because of the time-relevant date I proposed for publication.

So off it went. Immediately upon my return to Geneva. Polite acknowledgement, then wait for six months before Shane’s and then Roger’s first analysis. With these, I have to confess came moments of frustration, infuriation, even desperation: they wanted to change so, so many of the clues, add features that made the solve “easier” and to argue the toss on such seemingly minor points: TATU is marked as “earlier” in Chambers and not “rare”; the “buck” sense of SOREL is Shakespearean; a boy isn’t necessarily a teenager, and so on, and so on.

At least, that’s how it seemed to me at first. Getting a single word originally submitted to be accepted was becoming a victory in itself. BUT, after considerable to-ing and fro-ing and a small library of e-mail correspondence, we smoothed out the rough edges, played it more by the book, and eventually agreed on just about everything… except (“just one last thing, please, nice Mr Editor, Sir”) surely BROADS isn’t truly “offensive” slang as BRB would have it and thus it could be used as part of the wordplay?

Looking back, I can now not really understand why I had defended so many of my originals: almost every one of the editors’ suggestions did indeed improve the clues used or made them fairer. And normally the “tweaks” were just one word or two. I thank them both, for their perseverance, powers of persuasion and ultimately their patience in dealing with my persistent petulance.

And so, in early September, the letter finally comes, confirming acceptance and proposed publication date. Just one caveat: “In exceptional circumstances, your puzzle may need to be swapped for another.” Surely somebody wasn’t going to have an untimely pop at Barack or Mitt? (Or did the Editors know something the rest of us didn’t? By now, it wouldn’t have surprised me.)

Fortunately (in many other non-selfish respects also), that didn’t happen and so One Shot at a Time made it to print on the right day.



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