Listen With Others

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Listener No 4756, Soldier On…: A Setter’s Blog by Demoniacal

Posted by Listen With Others on 16 Apr 2023

Like millions of others around the country at the height of lockdown, in early 2021 my friends and I were desperate for new forms of entertainment that could be facilitated through zoom. For reasons I can’t quite recall, cryptic crosswords was settled upon, and after a few weeks of Times jumbo crosswords we found The Listener and embarked one Saturday evening to complete Fire Alarms by Chen (although I personally didn’t join until the following week’s Life by Hawk which ended in failure).

Months later, in awe of the constructions and thematic intricacies of the very many delightful puzzles in the series, we embarked on writing puzzles for each other. Personally, I’d always particularly liked constructions that resulted in satisfying visual or structural changes — though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. All of my ideas were driven by construction rather than theme, and at some point, during a delightful break in lockdown that allowed us to have a weekend away in the Welsh countryside, I had the idea of an endgame whereby all but certain letters were removed to themselves reveal some sort of thematic imagery.

Without a theme this is barely half an idea, but thankfully my friend remarked that she was a fan of, and wondered if someone could write a crossword themed on, Woyzeck. Having never heard of the play before, I was delighted to discover from her that it contained the pea-only diet that fit perfectly onto my desired construction and got to work (after, of course, reading the play).

Initially, I intended to have extra letters that spelled out the instruction to remove all but the unused letter, but quickly ran into the obvious realisation that, by having to use 25 letters in (typically, depending on the grid) 35–45 clues, I was severely limited in any kind of messaging that I could put together. No letter could realistically be used more than three or four times, and certainly something like “ERASE ALL BUT THE UNUSED LETTER” would prove impossible if I also wanted a thematic phrase.

Having resigned myself to place the erasing instruction in the preamble, I did however pleasantly realise that “nothing but [p]eas”, which not only sums up both theme and construction but also could not be confused with any other source, was clearly workable within the extra letters messaging. Crucially, it did not include any letter more than twice, which secured the secondary idea that since all letters except P could be included by using them all either once or twice, I could enact the potentially original swapping mechanism (I say potential since I had only been solving Listeners for about six months at this point, and so naturally had not seen them all).

I did consider giving a vaguer indication to the erasing instruction in the preamble linked to the “nothing but peas” quote. Perhaps something along the lines of “Solver must edit the final grid to reflect the quote” but with an indication of a playful or homophonic connection. However there was no way of doing so without it being what the forum often refers to as a guess-what-I’m-thinking inclusion (some solvers might have spent an undue amount of time looking for the word “pea” or “peas” hidden throughout the grid, for example). I soon gave up on it.

Momentarily concerned that it would require far too much cold solving, I reassured myself that providing the knowledge that no extra letter exists more than twice would mean entries would be possible very quickly (one would have to be monstrously unfortunate to solve 25 clues with a different extra letter in each case). With theme, construction mechanism, and endgame all in place, the grid construction in this particular instance was not the most difficult. I inserted all the Ps into the most W-looking shape I could manage (I probably spent more time on this stage than strictly necessary), filled the grid accordingly avoiding Ps at all costs, and wrote my first draft of the clues. After a few rounds of honing, including with my trial solvers, I submitted and then it slowly fell to the back of my mind until I was told about its publication a fortnight in advance.

At this point I’d like to take the opportunity to really encourage any would-be new setters. As described above my interest in The Listener began by chance and very casually and my first submission was more the result of mucking about with friends than anything else. The vetters, having warned me of the very long backlog, edited a variety of clues to have them conform to the standards of The Listener, and provided me with detailed explanations as to why said clues had to be changed even if it was only a letter or a word. They also corrected that I had accidentally submitted two clues with the wrong clue numbers.

Their feedback has immediately and dramatically improved my ability and understanding of crossword writing (such that I am already far along the process of radically improving another crossword that I was waiting to submit — hopefully this one will be less work for them than Soldier On…). In short, if your puzzle idea is good enough to submit, they will help you submit, and if not they will help you to guide you how to get it to submittable standards.

That is not to say that you should rely on the editors’ hard graft for your submission — make sure you fulfil all the requirements laid out in the setter’s guides on The Listener’s website, and have friendly solvers test out and give feedback first.

Having been very excited to see the puzzle was to be published, the final step for me was to wait for the feedback to roll in on the forum over and after the weekend of publication. I was absolutely delighted to see the kind comments coming through, and I cannot thank you enough for how encouraging it has all been. I look forward to continuing to solve so many other brilliant puzzles in The Listener, and hopefully to making another contribution of my own, though the next may take up a little more marking time for John Green.


One Response to “Listener No 4756, Soldier On…: A Setter’s Blog by Demoniacal”

  1. Alan B said

    Thanks for that very interesting setter’s blog. I enjoyed the puzzle very much and was most impressed with its thematic design. You wrote “I reassured myself that providing the knowledge that no extra letter exists more than twice would mean entries would be possible very quickly (one would have to be monstrously unfortunate to solve 25 clues with a different extra letter in each case)”, and I just wanted to respond to this by saying that I came to that hopeful conclusion even before I solved my first clue, and I remember that it was not long before I made my first entries (I just don’t remember exactly how long).

    It was an interesting choice of theme (which was new to me), and I liked the endgame.

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