Listen With Others

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Listener No 4565, Folio: A Setter’s Blog by Nebuchadnezzar

Posted by Listen With Others on 18 Aug 2019

The theme for this puzzle found its way onto my list a good few years ago after I was introduced to the poem by my father. I’m always on the lookout for new puzzle ideas, and the brevity/layout of the poem made it an immediate candidate, as well as the snippets of analysis on the Wikipedia page – take a look if you’re interested, I thought it was made for thematic treatment.  

I really should keep a ‘setting log’, or some such, for these blogs – I think the following thought process occurred over around 18 months:

  1. I started at the end – the finished grid should include poem in its entirety, ideally including the poet.
  2. The grid’s first draft hits an immediate brick wall – across/down entries isn’t going to work with the poem as it is (it’s at this point I see the ‘SOLI’ in the left-hand column and store that one away for future use).
  3. Aha! Turns out I can use this constraint to my advantage, having ‘falling’ entries, like the leaf.
  4. It’s around this point I decide to use the SOLITUDE/DUET coincidence to as much effect as I can, and ‘e e cummings’ along the bottom, including spaces, makes a grid with sensible dimensions. Now to fill the grid…
  5. This bit took a long time, but it was a lot of fun. Very much a game of two halves – the left-hand side was restricted by thematic cells, but not the paths of entries. Once that’s roughly in place, it’s over to the right-hand side for the opposite challenge (no fixed letters, but fixed paths after establishing the left-hand side).
    If anyone’s curious, I used Excel with different coloured lines to keep track of the paths. Each cell was filled with a darker shade of grey to indicate how many entries it was checked with – the darker the cell, the more entries passed through it. It was about now that I started to go a bit doolally (“okay, so I need a word ???C??D whose first and second letters are the sixth and fifth letters respectively of a word going P?R????” etc.). My sincere thanks go to the Quinapalus software for helping out in this regard.
  6. Almost at exactly the point that the grid is finished, the ‘lower case in the shape of a leaf’ idea occurs to me. Sadly, a puzzle does not appear fully formed in my head, and I tend to rush to the grid-fill stage – this is my own fault, I suppose. Ho hum, time to do step 5 all over again to accommodate. Here’s a few examples of the work in progress:

  7. I took a long break before setting the clues. No gimmicks to speak of (omitting letters from wordplay is not much a hardship for the setter), so there was plenty of freedom. I tend to talk to myself whilst walking the dog or driving, and this seems to have the best result. I try to avoid clichés and single letter indicators as much as possible, and focus on consistent surface readings. It has been noted that the clues are tough, especially for a tough grid-fill, which I take no pride in – gauging a clue’s difficulty when you don’t have to solve it is a skill I’m trying to hone!
  8. Finally it’s off to two marvellous checkers, who are very encouraging. A fair bit of editing to be done on the clues, then it’s off to Listener HQ….
  9. A bit of a wait, then disaster – eagle-eyed Shane spies a fatal flaw in the symmetry, and a few too many double-unches for his liking. A major re-write later (also changing title from l, intended to be a play on 1 and lower-case L, which wouldn’t really have worked in the Listener font), and we’re just about there. Other working titles were Dropouts and Verso.

That’s a long old ramble, but the process was a great deal longer than that. I understand that solving was something of a slog, so hopefully there’s some consolation in the knowledge that it was a slog to set as well!

My thanks to the ever-assiduous Roger and Shane for their efforts, and to the test-solvers for devoting so much of their time and expertise.

Immediate feedback on the usual forums suggests a degree of confusion/consternation regarding the preamble. What’s done is done, of course, but I would note the following:

The preamble, as well as the majority of clues, had to be pruned to fit the space available. While not everyone agreed with the wording, it’s worth remembering that nothing goes into the published puzzle without a great deal of forethought and care. For this puzzle, I think the preamble as it stands has pretty much the lowest possible word-count needed in order to make it solvable.


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