Listener No. 4400, Three Steps to Heaven: A Setter’s Blog by Dysart
Posted by Listen With Others on 20 June 2016
The puzzle was the merging of two ideas. About four years ago something reminded me of Timothy Leary’s famous (notorious?) quote, and I thought it was ideal for crossword treatment. I couldn’t recall any Listener on the same theme, though it turns out there was, some years before I started solving the Listener. To begin with I drew up a list of words in which insertion of a synonym for TUNE, reversal of ON and removal of OUT still left real words. For the insertions, the options were limited – AIR was easy, but there were few possibilities for TUNE (ford, miss, red, unable), STRAIN (coning, diable), TEMPER (dissed, welled, evened). At the same time I was thinking of a puzzle in which an asymmetric grid is re-barred symmetrically to reveal new words. The two ideas came together and I saw this puzzle as a possible vehicle for that idea since I wouldn’t be restricted to modifications that always resulted in proper words.
Initially I wasn’t sure how to introduce the thematic hint. It could have been another part of the quotation given through a clue gimmick. However, I veered away from a clue gimmick since it would make cold-solving clues even harder. I decided on a thematic revelation in the grid, namely TIMOTHY LEARY, which determined the 12×12 grid. Some early grids had TIMOTHY LEARY on a main diagonal, but solvers would not see him until the grid was complete, so he had to be an entry. I did need one word that thematically treated became a proper 12-letter word as a symmetrical partner to TIMOTHY LEARY. There were only five suitable candidates: COASTERS/COTONEASTER (which uses a rather obscure meaning of TONE), DOCTRINES/DOCTRINAIRES, CONING/CONSTRAINING, OUTING/OUTSTRAINING, DIABLE/DISTRAINABLE. TONE wasn’t really suitable as a synonym for TUNE since it contains the letter pair ‘ON’. That would get solvers really confused since they might wonder if it should be entered as TNOE. That thought only occurred to me after I’d constructed a few early grids in which TIGHTWAD or TOUCHPAD in row 1 became TIGHT/W/ATONED or TOUCH/P/ATONED. In the end I used DISTRAINABLE for the symmetrical partner to TL since it was the easiest to accommodate.
The main difficulty in the grid construction was that Sympathy’s autofill kept using words containing ON in addition to the ones I planned to use. Fortunately unwanted words can be added to a ‘kill list’, which grew to about 40 unwanted words containing ON. The other problem was achieving an acceptable average word length. I found it difficult to avoid a number of short words, especially for the ON reversal, so the average word length of the initial grid is below the recommended 5.5 minimum. I wanted the average word length of the final grid to be higher than that of the initial grid. I also aimed for a high percentage of checked cells to make things easier for the solver. Early grids had around 78% of cells checked by crossing answers. Gradually I managed to push that up to the final figure of 88% (compared to around 75% in a standard Ximenean grid) with 23 answers or entries fully checked.
I now had an asymmetrical carte blanche grid with twelve modified entries, most of them non-words. That was going to be a pretty tough challenge. How could I ease things for the poor solver? I made the first few across clues and four of the first five down clues reasonably easy in the hope that this would give solvers a toe-hold on the upper part of the grid, then scattered some easy clues throughout the rest of the puzzle, trying to ensure that definitions and wordplay were unquestionably fair.
The final decision was whether to clue TIMOTHY LEARY or not. I decided to try it out first on some test-solvers without any clue, merely the information that the modifications followed the advice of an unclued entry. I was confident that there was only one way the grid could be re-barred using 56 bars, so testers were not told the number of resulting lights. The first tester solved it correctly the same day I sent it; the second found it very tough but succeeded in the end, so I knew it was solvable with an unclued ‘source’. Both were very positive in their responses. One tester made a slight barring error, so I amended the preamble so that future solvers would know the final grid contains 44 words and phrases, all Chambers entries or proper nouns. I then sent it to Magpie, only to learn from the first vetter that a puzzle on the same theme (with the same title – A Political Statement) had appeared in a 2010 Magpie issue. He had also done some research on Dave Hennings’s excellent Crossword Database and told me that it had also been the subject of a Listener in 1999 and two Inquisitors (2007 and 2011). Inquisitor and Listener solvers don’t necessarily coincide, so I wasn’t particularly concerned about the Inquisitor puzzles, and 1999 seemed sufficiently distant, so I decided to send the puzzle to the Listener editors. Before sending it I did some further research and discovered that the original series of lectures, The Politics and Ethics of Ecstasy, was delivered at various venues from June 3-10, 1966, so publication in late May or early June 2016 would represent a 50th anniversary. Timothy Leary died on May 31st, 1996, so it would also be a 20th anniversary. As the title, “A Political Statement’ had been used before, a change was necessary. I came up with various alternatives, but I’m indebted to one of the test-solvers, Wan, who suggested ‘Three Steps to Heaven’. At least two lucky solvers found that helpful since it enabled them to guess the theme immediately.
Here is a summary of the main differencs between the version first tested and the final one:
INITIAL VERSION: no clue/s to TIMOTHY LEARY – the preamble stated that twelve answers should be modified according to the advice of an unclued entry. Testers were told to insert 56 bars but were not told the number of lights in the final grid.
FINAL VERSION: solvers were told that there were four examples of each type of modification, and that the final grid contained 44 lights. At the suggestion of one of the editors TIMOTHY LEARY was clued as two separate words, an option I’d previously considered, so I was happy to accept it.
Once it was published I nervously checked Answerbank around four p.m. on Saturday to see what sort of reception the puzzle was getting. There was no thread. I realized then just how hard the puzzle was, probably as tough as a Sabre. The first post appeared shortly thereafter.
This is probably the toughest Listener I have ever set, though that’s not what I set out to achieve. I realize that carte blanche puzzles are not to everyone’s taste, and carte blanche puzzle with some odd entries will have even less appeal to many. I hoped that the transformation resulting from the re-barring would give some satisfaction after a tough solve. Judging from feedback via John Green and responses on Answerbank, the vast majority of solvers seemed to enjoy the challenge. My thanks to all solvers for their perseverance, and my commiserations to all who either failed to finish or felt it was a less-than-enjoyable slog. I have had that feeling myself on some occasions.
My biggest regret is that some solvers, having struggled through to the end, made errors in the barring. It was not my intention to trip solvers up at the last minute. Given the information in the preamble I didn’t think it was possible to bar it differently. After first designing the grid I tried many times to see if an alternative barring were possible and I failed every time. None of the test-solvers and Listener vetters reported a valid alternative, so I was satisfied that there was no ambiguity using the standard references. Some solvers on online forums suggested UNEAT for the right-hand entry in row 1, but I cannot find UNEAT in Chambers Dictionary or the Oxford Dictionary of English, so that doesn’t seem a legitimate choice to me. I took care to ensure that all words and phrases apart from proper nouns were in Chambers, and it is standard Listener practice to flag any non-standard words in the preamble.