Listen With Others

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Listener No 4538, Joint Conditions: A Setter’s Blog by Awinger

Posted by Listen With Others on 10 Feb 2019

Minnesota Blues

For about 6 years I had a job which involved many transatlantic flights each year. It was during one of these flights in about 2014 that, having finished the Times jumbo cryptic, I turned my attention to the Listener. I had looked at it briefly before and always been somewhat overwhelmed, but this was a relatively gentle offering (Agatha Christie was the theme) and I managed to complete it. From that point I started to have a go on a fairly regular basis, bought Chambers (hard copy and app) and, from the start of 2016, I tried to solve each week.

It was on one of these transatlantic flights in early 2016 that I viewed the on-screen flight-path and saw a map of the US states, with the sea in blue around the edge, and the idea for this puzzle was born. Initially it was a personal challenge to see if I could construct a grid that included all of the States and conformed to the Listener grid requirements. I split the grid into 6 sections and tried to construct the more clash-dense regions first, in particular the north-east and south-central. I found I could make reasonably good progress in each section but then fitting them together always proved tricky. The main problems were keeping the symmetry and keeping the average word length up.

I came up with ‘–pdance’ to pick up the Southern Atlantic coastal states quite early. The J in New Jersey and the X in Texas were always problems, eventually solved with Haj and Exuls. The idea of the framing entities was included from the start, and I liked ‘Americana’ at 1 across as being thematic, providing half of Alaska and the first four letters for Canada. Isomeric and Homeric were the two option for bottom left to pick up Hawaii and most of Mexico. I initially wanted to put Pacific in the left column (‘fichi’ was pencilled in for a while) but I couldn’t get the top part to work. Moving it to the second column gave me ‘Pacifier’ to match against ‘Nargiles’, and with ‘Mediatize’ and ‘Stepdance’ also pencilled in that gave me just enough longer words to get by. I was disappointed to have to take out ‘Seismism’, which was in the middle of row 3 and covered SD, MN, WI and MI, but I couldn’t get the bottom half to work with an 8 letter word there.

By the summer of 2017, after many, many hours of tinkering on many, many flights, I had a grid with just Minnesota missing. I decided I had four options — try to rework the grid to get it in, abandon the symmetry, include it in the wrong place or leave it out.

I tried to rework for a while but I couldn’t get it in, and I was always very attached to the symmetry. Maybe it’s my mathematical background but I do value symmetry in a grid and my original challenge to myself had been to construct a symmetric grid. I could have fitted it in near Arizona, and asked the solver to identify which item was in completely the wrong place, but I decided against this as being too artificial. So I went with leaving it out, with the missing state to be written below the grid.

I foolishly thought that with the grid settled I was just about done. I hadn’t previously appreciated the effort that goes into coming up with the clues, especially when there are more than 60 of them. I knew with the large grid and 60+ clues that space was going to be tight, so I had to keep the clues short. I wanted a number of them to be straightforward, partly as I always appreciate a number of easy clues to get in to a puzzle and partly because of the high number of clues and clashes – I didn’t want it to become too much of a slog. The idea was that the theme would reveal itself quite early and then the states would gradually fall in to place and that would help with the more difficult clues. I took my time, coming up with at most a few per day, and by November 2017 I had a full set. I sent the puzzle off to the editors in early December 2017.

They did say they had a large number of puzzles to review so it would be a while before I heard anything. After nearly a year with no further contact I assumed that it hadn’t made the grade. I was delighted to receive an email in November saying it would be published in January. However space was a problem. Quite a few clues had to be shortened, and there was no room for the line to write ‘Mn’ below the grid. It would have to be written inside the grid instead. Also the editors added the number of internal cell boundaries for the shading, to hopefully eliminate any ambiguity. I am extremely grateful to the editors for their improvements on various clues and the work they put in to fit the puzzle into the available space.

And so on the 19th January I became a published Listener setter, a great thrill for me. The feedback on the forums was generally positive, which I appreciated. There were a few comments suggesting the finish was a bit untidy, with one state missing, the replacement letters required for the framing items and Minnesota having to be squeezed in, all of which I accept entirely. I was pleased with how close I got, but in the end the grid difficulty and space constraints did leave the finish slightly untidy. I have just started work on a second puzzle, which will be a less ambitious grid and hopefully as a result a more polished finish.

John Occleshaw (Awinger)


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