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Listener No 4521, Translate into Spanish: A Setter’s Blog by Cagey

Posted by Listen With Others on 14 Oct 2018

Look at me Ma – I’m a blogger!

Early last year, I looked up ‘glorious revolution’ on Wikipedia as it had been mentioned on the radio [usually radio 6, and although Stuart Marconie seems to have a massive general knowledge (x-ref Round Britain Quiz. It is a shame they are moving him (and Mark Radcliffe (get well soon)) to Sat morning, when children’s lessons in swimming, guitar and gymnastics preclude much listening (aurally and crosswording), I suspect I hear it on some transient radio 4 listening]. Having virtually no knowledge of history (I stared out the window an awful lot at school, and history was, at its best, shamelessly dull in lessons), I had thought it was in the far East, so surprised it was in England. After reading the Wikipedia article I scanned back up to the top and saw the disambiguation thing mentioning the Spanish one. As I am more a numbers person (enjoying Listener numericals/logic ones as well as Magpie ones and Cross-numbers Quarterly), I saw the similarity of the numbers and wrote the coincidence down on a post-it note for above my desk and for future use…

When I had time I returned to it with a vague notion about exchanging or “revolving” the middle two digits (maybe an exchange of central columns where some answers are part numerical to change the grid between displaying antagonists of one revolution into the other). But when it came to create the grid for this, it was clumsy and complicated, and I was fairly convinced that, whilst people may have heard of the English one (except me!), they may not have heard of the Spanish one, so had to be very careful about which way I moved things around. The participators in the revolutions also seemed to have rather inconvenient lengths of names. Glorious revolution seemed too long for one answer, and was clumsy across two. It was also proving very difficult to create the required number letter mix to give the date. In short it was not working.

Eventually I just thought why not just have Glorious revolution as one big across answer. Once I had it written across the top of my paper, I then wondered how long 1688 was in letters as in my head it seemed about the same length. So I started to write underneath. As I was writing it, I realised that the two dates must be anagrams of each other. (This seems to me obvious on starting to write, but when I have explained this to non-crosswordy people they look at me rather blankly — maybe it is just us who think like that!) I got more excited (and a bit shaky) as I neared the end of writing it as it was amazingly the same length! (Is there a setter’s equivalent of a PDM? (An AM – Aberdonian moment? when we pick up the penny).

The idea was then effectively formed. Go from something that was almost glorious revolution (Glorious Revolt UION, was a very early pick – enough to be very, very noticeable but annoyingly not quite there), and use the unclued date at the top to anagrammatise and correct a different line. Then I looked at grid size, it was very wide so needed to be relatively short (top to bottom), and working on 13×13 = 169 and 180×10 is 180, settled on 10. Using scraps of paper, I wrote down the 3 required letters for each column and moved them about, based on constraints of fixed positions, in order to find a combination that gave me a few words in the initially mixed up row – to disguise what was happening – two rows of unchecked cells would have been very obvious. Found that Nous and Tori could be formed. Aesthetically I wanted the two rows to be next to each other, because I wanted to draw people’s attention to that area. I put all this into the initial grid, 18×10, and put the two rows in just below mid-way down as this put some distance between the top (constrained) row and the other constrained rows (this helps in setting), and avoiding the bottom, as constrained letters at the end of words are difficult too. Even with this set up, once I had put in the existing blocks in a symmetrical pattern there was still an awful lot of constraints on the grid, especially having 2 almost fixed letters right next to each other, and the relatively small height of the grid bring the top row constraints closer. (I am sure there is an interesting study to be made of constraints and distances between and word lengths… I have always used constraints to help solve puzzles as well as approximately place thematic things in other people’s puzzles, as there is often a forced distance expectation between a constraint and a second constraint.)

In order to keep up average word length, I put in a few long words top to bottom and spread out from there. Having a lot of forced blocks in two rows, soaks up a lot of the available unching per word, and also I needed to have some way to distinguish the ambiguity, and initially given the already heavy constraints this had to be a rather short word, or in the row with lots of blocks. Tried using ISABELLA, and a few other thematic words, but simply could not get a grid to work. Eventually settled on the word Pact, as it allowed a reasonably quaint turn of phrase in the blurb, it was short, and could fit it into the grid. I also could not find an 18-letter word or phrase that would fit along the bottom of the grid, that allowed word length to be high enough. There were just too many constraints, so had to break symmetry there (rats!). I was determined to keep as much symmetry as possible, as this was probably going to be a carte blanche as there was so much grid moving so did not want numbers and things, and basically that is playing fair, especially as there is a lot of vertical blocks in two rows, which is something that could make a carte blanche difficult to solve.

I have used automatic grid fillers before, which in one Magpie crossword I set left me with a swear word smack bang in the middle of the grid as well as an ass and a vulva in close proximity. Was not happy at all with that and wanted more control. So avoid these if I can and finally only needed help from word wizard to fill the word Glaceing – which I think is the worst bit of the grid. I checked the percentage unching and word lengths as I went along and this was reasonable, even if excluding the top row.

 I thought it was a strong enough idea for The Times, so in consequence I pulled out a lot of stops on the clues (over an hour a clue is what I estimate) to try and give them neat surface readings and some originality. I may have over-complicated them and made a few too difficult for carte blanche setting, but some were deliberately easy to try and make building the grid fair for everyone.

I chose to hide whole words in the clues for the required instructions, as I have already written crosswords with extra single letters and am writing very slowly one with letter substitutions that is proving very difficult. The original message was vaguer, but got great feedback from Artix (thank you very much), who suggested something a little like it now is (and suggested the high and light split- which I thought was great), which I managed to further rearrange to give the current message, keeping one instruction to the across clues and one to the down clues. I wondered if the 180 was actually too well hidden (and not to my mind technically a word), but the Editorial team at the Times cleared that up later with the way they altered the blurb to make it clear about information separated by spaces, which alerts to the solver that it will not all be words, making it fairer. Artix suggested some changes to some of the clues, some whole new clues, (including the ORAN clue) and suggested a second solver before submission, Shark, who provided more excellent feedback (and again much thanks must go to Shark) and more clue feedback. The editors at the Times also did clue editing, rewriting a few, but correcting grammar and tenses in quite a few (x-ref what I have written so far), and they also must receive a huge amount of thanks.

The clue that I am most proud of is RIOTS. I realise that riots and revolutions are not exactly synonymous, but had thought of the clues around about the same time as getting the idea and it evokes the whole theme. It changed format during the process, with some testers wanting it as “Is history filled with such misguided revolutions”, and other wanting it as “History is…”. Those two first words flipped around an amazing amount during the setting! I was also happy with my clue for IDLE [“Fled naked after I had run out of gear?”].

I always send my “preferred version” to editors and of late have started to send clue alternatives when I have these written as well. I note that almost without fail the editors tend to choose the alternative over my preferred. So for a moment might I mourn the loss of:

Maybe E.P. dropped from band on the fringe (4)

… where my alternative was…

Side-splitting cartoonist creates illustration of nobleman (4)

… which became…

Noble cartoonist making sides split (4)

… which I admit improves it, but I have a soft spot for the ropey original.

A few people have complimented the TETRA clue. I have wondered what that type of clue should be called … a DIY run on, like the final one for NEON. The clue used for NEON was actually a variant on a clue in the very first crossword I wrote (unpublished), whose clues all gave answers on a theme and whose clues all lacked definition. That one read “The middle four of 11 (4)”. I used the idea of 11 in a different crossword I did in the Magpie (A Journey from B to A, I think), where the clue was: “My description of 11? (4)”. I like to try and reference previous clues and play with them, although it can be tricky to do. The clue for Neon for this one was originally “Element central to 11?” But that did not get passed Artix (or maybe Shark), and I had to change to “Element central to Pushkin’s novel”, which later (and I cannot remember when) got extended to the final form — “Pushkin’s novel in verse”.

Anyway, finally it all came together and then came out, and seems to have been enjoyed by people, which is the intention. Thanks again to Artix, Shark (test solvers) and the Times editor (Roger Philips) who were essential in making the puzzle come together as well as it has. Thanks also to John Green for tireless marking (and this must have been a scunner to mark, without many real words at the end) and forwarding feedback. And thanks to everyone who has fed back to me.



One Response to “Listener No 4521, Translate into Spanish: A Setter’s Blog by Cagey”

  1. Encota said

    What an interesting read – many thanks! I can still imagine the feeling when spotting that the dates of the two different Glorious Revolutions could be jumbled (Gloriously Revolved?) to create each other 🙂

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