Listen With Others

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Listener 4715, Singles Only: A Setter’s Blog by Twin

Posted by Listen With Others on 3 Jul 2022

Usually when I come up with an idea for a crossword, I either work on it until it’s complete or I get far enough to decide that it’s not workable (at least, not for me, or not in the form I want it) and give up. This was, I think, my first exception, as I first tried to make a crossword that became a sudoku a few years ago, before putting it temporarily aside and returning to it in early 2021.

The twin (ahem) problems in creating this puzzle were: (i) how to get letters to change to numbers; and (ii) how to tell the solver to complete the sudoku. In my early attempts I was going for a fairly simple replacement in the grid – A = 1, B = 2 etc. – and double-letter cells on regular points of the main diagonal that spelled DO SU DO KU. It wasn’t working, though, for several reasons, not least because I hadn’t figured out a nice way to tell solvers to shade rows and columns, and to convert letters to numbers, and to get rid of all the numbers above 10.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the last few puzzles I’d worked on had all involved clue restrictions – e.g. particular letters missing, or messages spelled out with the first and/or last letters of clues – which had been fun, but tricky to write. I’d decided that, whatever my next puzzle would be, it would not have clue limitations: just free rein to write clues however I wanted them.

Well. I think it’s fair to say that I went back on that decision. Revisiting the sudoku idea, it struck me that a letter’s position in its clue could be converted to a number – and how hard could it be to pull off that kind of thing off? A few weeks or months later, as I tried to write a clue for PERSUADER (with an extra T in the wordplay) where the first R was in 4th place, the first S was in 13th place, the first A was in 17th place, the first P was in 19th place, the first E was in double digits, and there wasn’t a U… I realised I’d been a little naïve. Certainly the toughest clueing challenge of my setting career (see picture for an idea of this process) – and, if you want a fun exercise, I invite you to compose your own PERSUADER (+T) clue with those restrictions. Comment box below!

As an aside, the reason for the slightly convoluted language in the “letter’s first position…” instruction was that I wanted to be as clear as possible that solvers should only be looking at letters: on previous occasions where we’ve been directed to look at, say, tenth position in a clue, I’m never sure if numbers, punctuation and spaces are included in that.

Oh, and as another aside, I hope you’ll forgive me for the egotism of including COLIN as an answer in the grid. My only excuse is that it organically got to the point where my only choices were COLIN / AMIS or COLON / AMOS, and by that stage I thought I might as well go for it. As my friend Stu pointed out, 4 down in the Jumbo opposite was TWIN, which felt appropriate.

Taking the decision to make it a jigsaw construction came relatively late in the day, and in fact I sent two versions to my test solvers: one in conventional format and one as it was published (I was briefly tempted by carte blanche but decided that was a step too far). My reasons for settling on jigsaw were that it delayed the arrival of the instructions, and equally importantly I thought it detracted from the final sudoku appearance if there were lots of smaller numbers littering the grid. While I appreciate that this made the puzzle very difficult, with a lot of cold solving, I was comfortable that there was precedent. And, after all, who doesn’t like a challenge?

…which brings me onto the comments. I’ve previously written puzzles that have been very well received; I’ve written puzzles that have had some gentle criticism (some of which I’ll even admit was justified); and I’ve written one or two puzzles that have been almost immediately forgotten by everyone who solved them – but I’ve never written a puzzle that has proven as dramatically polarising as this one. A few people have been in touch to say some very nice things, and several commenters I’ve seen have ranked this as amongst their recent favourites. Others… have been less fond. An early comment I read used the kind of language I tend to reserve only for waiters I’ve actually seen spitting in my food (or for numerical Listeners), and while none of the others were that overblown – or poetic – it’s fair to say that the name Twin has been cursed in a few households up and down the country of late. I harbour a suspicion that solvers who are also setters are more likely to be in the pro- camp, but it’s just a theory.

Which of these two groups to address? Well, let me say a genuine and heartfelt thank you to the first group; to the second group, many of whom found the difficulty a bit much, I can only apologise. Let me direct your anger towards the correspondent who wrote a lovely letter about my last Listener puzzle, saying it was very nice but could have done with being a bit harder.

Speaking of past Listeners, Singles Only is somewhat of an homage to Mixed Doubles by Shackleton, my favourite Listener crossword of all time (I’ve not yet received the bundle from John Green, so I don’t yet know if anyone has picked up on this). While my own effort shouldn’t really be spoken of in the same breath as that masterpiece, some of the similarities may have tugged at people’s memories: the shading of rows and columns to make a simple grid; a difficult grid-fill that gives way to a relatively trivial puzzle (I deliberately made the sudoku on the easy side, mostly because we’re not a sudoku-solving community); even the title hints at the connection. If you’ve not done that one, please do seek it out.

Finally, thanks as ever to my test solvers John, Paul & Stu; thanks to John G for his sterling efforts (hopefully a slightly easier marking job this week than usual); and thanks to the editors Shane & Roger for coping manfully with a practically uneditable puzzle.

2 Responses to “Listener 4715, Singles Only: A Setter’s Blog by Twin”

  1. Mike said

    Many thanks for blog. Fascinating to see how this monster evolved. I found it as hard as any I’ve tried. Failed to finish and it may amuse to know why. I read the instruction as saying, ‘the SE columns and rows’, rather than ‘these’. So I (uneasily, it’s true) shaded enough of the SE columns and rows to take out just over half the cells (ie four RH columns and four bottom rows). No coming back from that, obviously, but I was on the right track otherwise…

  2. gillwinchcombe said

    I rather suspected that Singles Only might have been just as difficult – and probably even harder – to set as to solve. You’ll see from my blog that I’m in the appreciative camp, having crawled (just) over the finishing line. Thanks for this epic puzzle and the blog.

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