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Listener No 4606, Isolated in May: A Setter’s Blog by Dysart

Posted by Listen With Others on 31 May 2020

The crossword was the outcome of two aspirations being realized in one puzzle. For some time I’d wanted to do a puzzle based on a crime story. There have been some outstanding puzzles on Sherlock Holmes stories and other examples of the genre, so I needed to find an example that had not been treated before. The other idea that had preoccupied me for some time was a puzzle in which the endgame involves some movements in the grid. There have been many such examples and they always go down well with solvers. I still remember Kea’s Safe-cracking from long ago, and more recently Elgin’s Lady Killers puzzle.

At some point Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter came to mind, and I realized that this would satisfy both aspirations. The story is short, so it wouldn’t take solvers long to get the essential details. The grid would show the lamb in the freezer, later removed and fed to the policemen, and Patrick and Mary. The carpet was a later detail that resulted from one of my computer software’s autofills. The thirteen letters of POLICEMEN & LAMB made it a standard grid.

I wanted real words remaining in the grid after Patrick is felled and the lamb is distributed. This made the grid very tough to construct, and I ended up abandoning symmetry to avoid many short entries. The left-hand grid below shows the final grid after adjustments, though solvers were presented with a numbered unbarred grid (so that FREEZER with LAMB in it wasn’t obscured by bars). Since the endgame involved moving letters around, the obvious clue gimmick to provide the narrative source was a letter move within clues. It turned out to be one of the hardest gimmicks I’ve ever tackled, and I spent many hours trying to get smooth surfaces and well-hidden letters. As far as possible I tried to ensure that each clue had at least two potential candidates for movement. A danger of this gimmick is that if there are too many clues with only one possible choice solvers may scan the clues and get the message before solving them. Finally it was ready to be tested. The only hiccup in the testing was that two testers were tempted to delete PATRICK altogether, leaving a real word at the end of the penultimate row, OUTRAN (though this left too many empty cells) CAB-RANK in the later grid eliminated the potential trap.

I wasn’t able to submit the puzzle to the Listener as I had two in the pipeline already, so I sat on it. During that time my failure to get a symmetric grid irked me somewhat. I’m not against an asymmetric grid if it’s essential to the realization of a theme, but I felt I hadn’t explored all options. Five months later I started messing around with grids again. Two discoveries made symmetry possible: the first was a 13-letter carpet to replace AXMINSTER, which meant I could place POLICEMEN with LAMB distributed therein on the top row; the second was DOWNPATRICK, which balanced the eleven letters of FREEZER and LAMB in column 1. Felicitously it was doubly thematic as it represented an instruction to fell the victim. Additional benefits of the new grid were a more even distribution of LAMB among the policemen, and a barred grid. The first tester of the original puzzle, Wan, helpfully suggested a two-stage movement of LAMB to echo the narrative. First it should be used to whack poor Patrick on the head, then fed to the policemen. Engineering the first stage so as to leave new words was tricky. There are few options for the N/B/– alterations in row 5, mostly four-letter words, but I was able to avoid the latter by using the only five-letter option I could find, DEMON/DEMOB/DEMO. After this further grid revision, I was unable to hide MARY in a straight line in the grid, so resorted to the LAND-MARY change in the endgame. In retrospect, perhaps it might have been better to have had MARY as an unclued entry. Then another set of clues to write (a task I enjoy as it can be the most interesting and creative part of the setting process) and some further testing. Finally it was ready to send to the editors.

The main problem for the editors was a lengthy preamble, making the puzzle impossible to squeeze into the available space. I’m very grateful to Roger Phillips for his skilful trimming of the preamble without losing any of the clarity, and for his judicious tweaking of some clues to make them one-liners, yet still preserving the essence of the clue. He also suggested changing the first word of the title, which already ended in ‘May’, to make it topical.

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Listener No 4604, Tour de Force: A Setter’s Blog by Kea

Posted by Listen With Others on 17 May 2020

In 2019 I had an idea for a circular puzzle to celebrate an anniversary. I developed the theme and got as far as a grid I was happy with — then I learnt that someone else had already submitted a puzzle to the Listener pipeline marking the same anniversary, so I had no real option but to abandon mine. However, having got into the circular grid mindset, I felt like doing another one. From somewhere, the idea of a centrifuge spinning the “heavier” letters to the outer rings arrived, and it felt natural for the less common letters to be the “heavy” ones, correlating with their values in Scrabble.

For the sake of elegance, I wanted to construct a “classic” circular grid with 36 radials, in 9 groups of 4. All radial entries and ring numbering would have to go from the centre outwards, to fit the theme. Then an explanatory message would go in one of the three outer unchecked rings. In ring 6 the message’s 1-point letters would force many of the radials to have no “heavy” letters and thus to be entered normally; conversely, any heavy letters in ring 4 would make their radials hard to fill (needing even heavier letters in the outer rings); so ring 5 was the only practical place for the message. I took some time to ensure the 36-letter message was as clear as possible while containing a decent number of letters worth more than one point, as having many one-pointers would make entry of their radials too samey, with just one heavy letter (if any) moved to the outer ring.

Filling the grid took a long time. I decided to have something in the innermost ring, to prevent having too many repeated letters there (as often happens in a circular grid), and to give solvers a bit more help — but it could consist of one-point letters only. With the theme uniquely determining the entry form for each radial answer, I used spreadsheet formulas to make sure I didn’t slip up there. Once I had a complete grid I began worrying that it was too much to ask solvers to have to divine the message in ring 5 when (until the theme was understood) the outer three letters of each radial could be in any order, so I resolved to add some clued ring entries. They couldn’t realistically be in ring 6 (consisting of “heavy” letters only), and they had to be clockwise like the other rings, because the centrifuge should rotate in only one direction. Fortunately, it didn’t take too long to tweak the grid to get some words of reasonable length in ring 4, though sadly they weren’t symmetrically arranged.

Finally, writing the clues without gimmicks was a joy, a relief from the many hours I spend checking and editing other people’s! My working title had been the rather uninspired Forced, but halfway through the clue-writing I thought of Tour de Force, using the French tour = “revolution”, at which point I felt the theme had come together nicely (though I did consider changing the title out of modesty). I sent the finished puzzle to my co-editor Shane, who alerted me to the potential ambiguity of YOELLE or JOELLE in radial 23. I hadn’t bothered to look for YOELLE, as it wasn’t in the Chambers first names appendix, while JOELLE was, but an Internet search confirmed it did exist as another spelling of the same name. I’m grateful to Shane for suggesting mentioning the pangram in the preamble, so that only JOELLE could be right.

Scheduling the puzzle on 25 April was purely coincidental, not a deliberate echo of my Anzac Day puzzle in 1998, Listener 3459.

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Listener No 4603, In Round Numbers: A Setter’s Blog by Colleague

Posted by Listen With Others on 10 May 2020

The first difficulty in setting a Listener Crossword is to think of a (previously unused) theme – this is the hardest part. Then all of the thematic items must be squeezed into the grid whilst being careful about answer lengths and unches – this is the hardest part. Next comes the clueing – not too easy and not too difficult – this is the hardest part. Finally comes the wait of up to eighteen months to see if the puzzle has been accepted for publication – this is the hardest part.

The above is really a blog for this and every (possible) subsequent Listeners and so I thought I might get away with it for the future.

Then I remembered Shirley Curran and realised that I have no chance.

So, here are a few thoughts about the puzzle “In Round Numbers”.

I have always liked lists – they are neat and organised and formalised. At least some are. A list should be set in stone, immutable, irrevocable and unchanging (except for additions over time). The best for this purpose are the lists of actual events. Other lists have to be treated with caution. Take Wedding Anniversaries for example. They are constantly changing, evolving and modernising. The 7th anniversary was traditionally a woollen gift – now it is desk sets!

Events are good because they only change with later additions.

My idea was to select ten discrete lists, clue one item from each list and have the grid entry as a different member of that same list. I knew that these ten clues would be ‘blind’ with no cross-checking in the grid and so gave the actual word length of the answer and not its substitution. Also I felt that, even if the grid was only initially filled by the non-thematic answers, that would be sufficient for some thematic entries to be guessed, and some back-solving to take place.

The options for completing DA*LE*IS (24d), BL*SS (34d) and *O*EO (10d) are limited and 11across is fully entered as ALPHA.

After several attempts I managed to get all ten thematic names into the grid. I deliberately introduced a few red herrings. Ben Nevis was not a mountain but a Grand National Winner, Pond is not water but an Astronomer Royal and this Day-Lewis is not an actor!

The number of moves up or down a list needed to be indicated (hopefully in an original way) and this was achieved by means of the position of an extra word within the ten thematic clues. These extra words, by using letters 1234554321, gave the phrase ‘more or less’ (the alternative title) to give a hint of how the answer changed. Chambers gives the definition of ‘more or less’ as ‘In Round Numbers’ – the title for the puzzle.

Finally, as always, I am indebted to the puzzle vetters for their guidance and assistance.

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Listener No 4602, Ahead of the Game: A Setter’s Blog by Apt

Posted by Listen With Others on 3 May 2020

The idea for this puzzle came from nothing more profound than the random thought that it might be nice to do something involving an optical illusion. This was before the great face/vase puzzle by Hurón, which came out just about as I was finishing off this one. Searching through a list of illusions I came across the duck/rabbit picture, which seemed like it would lend itself well to the Listener treatment. I found what seemed like the original version of the picture, and after a bit of messing around in Microsoft Excel I convinced myself that you could create a decent representation of it guided only by a few cells in a 12×12 grid. (I’m a particular fan of 12×12 Listeners; there are not nearly enough of them, any bigger and I find even when you’ve put a dozen answers in it still looks intimidatingly like you’ve barely started.)

I remember struggling for a little while with exactly how the mechanics of the puzzle would work, but talking it through with my wife (and Listener solving partner) Katie on a pleasant walk around Hollingworth Lake, I settled on the idea pretty much as it ended up. Looking back now I can’t at all remember what about it I had difficulty with, which hopefully is an indication that the final product fitted together quite nicely. I’m particularly fond of how the clashes giving the two definitions mirror the ambiguity in the final illusion. By a stroke of luck, Chambers had good definitions of the non-animal senses of ‘duck’ and ‘rabbit’ that were both twelve letters, so I could use them verbatim.

The twelve main clashes were specified by the theme right down to which letter was in the across clue and which in the down, and in addition to including the words DUCK and RABBIT in the grid this meant it was fairly constrained, at least for my grid-filling skills. But I got a fill in the end — and even managed to sneak a couple of Xs in there (I always feel a pang of disappointment with myself when the Statistics panel in Crossword Compiler announces “Unused letters: JQXZ”.)

Since the solver has quite a few clashes to contend with, whose letters probably can’t be deduced from the theme until very late on, it’s probably good that the clues themselves were all normal. It also made writing them a relatively painless experience — though the word ‘relatively’ is very important there (I started to slightly resent past me for putting those Xs in…).

I hadn’t intended it as a springtime-themed crossword, but expert scheduling from the Listener team gave it an extra Easter-rabbitty flavour. I hope it provided some amusement during an unusual bank holiday weekend.

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The Name of the Game by Chalicea

Posted by shirleycurran on 26 April 2020

I think people hear more than enough of the Numpties on these pages and don’t normally write a setter’s blog but so much has come to me from friends (and the many who were friends until they put the three billiard balls outside the bounds of the ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL billiard table, this committing a foul in the game of billiards, and wrecking their all-correct Listener records – if they still had them after mangling lower-case Greek letters in Opsimath’s the week before) that I thought I should write a few words of apology.

My original grid was carte blanche because it required no bars until a final set to be drawn around IKB’s name, thus delineating the thematic item. One of my problems, as a setter, is producing too many words and editorial tweaks pointed out that there was no need for the bars as a solver would realize that his three coloured blls had to be on the table – so words cut, as they were very cleverly by the second editor, producing succinct and better peamble and clues – we do owe those editors so much – but he had over-estimated the nous of the solver and the floor was littered with balls – so sorry!

Masses of praise has come over the ether, or whatever it is, for my knowledge of billiards, (actually I am rubbish at snooker which is the nearest I ever got and I know next to nothing about the game but the Internet is great isn’t it?) but It was Shark who did the last test-solve of my puzzle and he had a billiard champion in his family, and is also an astonishingly able test-solver. The warm comments about what was good about the puzzle should really go to him. My speciality is the Brunel bit – he is one of our heroes and I have been astonished by the number of solver and setter friends who tell me that they live within a mile, say, of the Great Western Railway and didn’t know it was Brunel’s billiard table. If he had played his game (billiards?) a little better we would have his wide gauge everywhere.

So many thanks to testers, our superb editors and dear John Green (no, not to Tim and Dave – fellow bloggers – what’s all that about alcohol!).


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