Listener No 4433, Yes You Can: A Setter’s Blog by Atlas
Posted by Listen With Others on 5 February 2017
I’ve always wanted to have a puzzle feature as The Listener Crossword. Well, nearly always – I hadn’t actually come across it until I met my wife in 1968 and her father, who was a Listener fanatic, first showed me what a proper crossword is like – I’d only done the Telegraph crossword with my own father up until then. At university some friends and I started to compile puzzles for each other and I haven’t stopped since – school and church magazines being my early outlets – but I didn’t take compiling seriously until 2008. Since then ten of my barred puzzles have featured in 1 Across, and every time I attempt to solve The Listener I either take my hat off to a compiler way out of my league or think “I must be capable of something as good as that.” As everyone knows, however, it’s waiting for the flash of inspiration that holds things up.
It came early in 2015, when there seemed to be a spate of people on television saying “The genie’s out of the bottle”. Putting the genie back into the bottle seemed an ideal theme for a puzzle, so I set to work. Try as I might, I couldn’t find words which generated ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ (the only bottle long enough to hold ‘genie’ backwards inside) in a symmetrical grid, despite trying the middle, the top, the bottom and both sides. In the end I decided that an asymmetrical grid probably wouldn’t rule the puzzle out, as they have featured occasionally, and left it in my first-choice location at the centre. Following the trial-and-error process of filling the rest of the grid, I was finally able to get on with the essence of compiling, writing the clues. I always enjoy the particular challenge of clues with ‘wrong’ letters, in this case to give the instruction ‘Highlight your achievement’. Looking back, I’m surprised to discover that almost a year passed before I’d produced what I naively thought was the finished article.
I sent it to Shirley and friends to test-solve, and they came back with some very pertinent suggestions, the most important being that the instruction didn’t give solvers enough guidance as to what to do. I was surprised, as I had felt that with EINEG sitting right at the centre of the grid (often a happy hunting ground for thematic material) and the title telling solvers they had to do something one is thought unable to do, it would perhaps be even too obvious what was required. I foolishly decided to ignore their observations and submit it to the editors anyway.
Roger was kind enough to look at it straight away, and his most damning criticism was that the instruction didn’t give solvers enough guidance! He had numerous quibbles with the clues themselves, of course, but felt those were easily resolved. On that basis he returned the puzzle, saying acceptance was conditional on addressing his primary concern.
I made various attempts to do so, with input from Shirley, but was unable to make headway and effectively stopped trying. Then out of the blue I realised that a simple change to the rubric could give solvers a far more explicit steer towards what was required, and I sent Roger the revised version. This included the words ‘. . . the instruction, in following which solvers will have succeeded in presenting information that is contrary to a well-known expression’ (information = GEN, that is = IE, contrary = backwards). Unfortunately he didn’t agree that it gave solvers a far more explicit steer! (My judgment in this regard has been unfailingly deficient, it seems.) He did, however, say that he could see how to make it work (drawing attention to EINEG by omitting those letters from the wordplay of the relevant clues), and with his editorial improvements the puzzle passed Shane’s second vetting.
Thus the whole creative process has taken almost two years, but in terms of an ambition fulfilled it’s been well worth the wait so far as I’m concerned – I hope you agree.
Many thanks to Shirley for her constant support, and Roger for his editorial wizardry.