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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

Listener No 4653, Descent: A Setter’s Blog by Gnomish

Posted by Listen With Others on 25 Apr 2021

Shirley Curran’s blog (another excuse for a celebratory tipple – cheers!) reminds me again of earlier adventures in crossword compiling. My first was published by Derek Harrison under a different pseudonym (Ea). Then things got interesting – the second of the Magpie puzzles gained some small notoriety for containing a remarkable error in the treatment of the theme. I missed it, the editors missed it (possibly befuddled by my previously displayed competence) but solvers were happy enough to point it out, usually with great politeness. Maybe A Gnomish Published In Error (or similar) was duly emblazoned on the front cover of a later issue.

The long break I’ve had since has not been spent manually filling Descent’s grid with its jumbles, and I find it hard to account for why I stopped solving and setting. The Rake’s Progress descriptions have occupied that 14 x 11 grid in exactly those positions for all that time – it was the disruption caused by the pandemic that got me looking at it again.

Its inspiration probably came via the Stravinsky opera (I’m a musician) and the fact that a family member is an academic for whom Hogarth looms large. The coincidence that every scene description has an R or an E is not wholly remarkable, but was enough to get me going.

A sense of the rake’s “progress” seemed essential to do justice to the theme, with the descriptions participating in the descent in their narrative/numbered order. It proved impossible to retain row order for the descriptions in the desired eleven-row grid (four for RAKE plus seven for the subsequent stages) having settled on the scheme involving the R and E of RAKE.

This was the puzzle’s second version, as the previous one proved far too vague and difficult to be suitable. I’m very grateful to the solver who struggled through it.

FALLING THROUGH was chosen over CHALCOGRAPHIST as it enabled a thematic clue. The working title was Rogue’s Gallery, and Slippery Slope the other title considered. Descent seemed simultaneously more neutral and more arresting.

The editors tamed the submitted preamble and, after a last-minute appeal, reinstated an aspect of it I hadn’t handled well, doing so with great skill. Many clues, for a variety of reasons, were tweaked or rewritten by them. Thanks to them and also to the people responsible for QXW, without which I could not have produced this puzzle. It’s a very powerful piece of software, and a pleasure to use.

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Listener No. 4651, That’s Your Lot!: A Setter’s Blog by Ploy

Posted by Listen With Others on 11 Apr 2021

Quite often, I find that the possible themes and treatments for crosswords that spring to mind are, after some initial exploration, put to one side to “mature”. This was definitely not the case for this one, the time between initial idea and the writing of the last clue being unusually short. And from the start, I had a pretty good idea where I’d submit it. It had been some years since I’d made a (solo) Listener appearance, with “Right and Left” in September 2016, also based on a Flanders and Swann song. For those with long memories, this new puzzle would perhaps be seen as a delayed follow-up!

Some of the lyrics in “First and Second Law” lend themselves well to use in a thematic puzzle, and I could see at least three stages for possible changes in the grid: the interchange of HEAT and WORK, the movement of HEAT from HOTTER to COOLER, and the replacement of WORK with PERFECT PEACE. The song’s reference to CONDUCTION, CONVECTION, and RADIATION also looked tempting. But I didn’t know if I could (or indeed should) exploit them all. The presence of pairs of 4- and 6-letter words was certainly a promising indication. And I hoped to include the throwaway line “Yeah – that’s entropy man!” somehow.

In trying out various grid layouts, I found that left-right symmetry worked the best, which coincidentally my previous F&S puzzle had called for. Having decided on the grid “mechanics” for the selected thematic elements, I was faced with the challenge of arranging for two real-word replacements, and eight double real-word replacements. They were mostly for short words, and fortunately the letters cooperated! But I did wonder how solvers might feel about replacing a replacement they’d already made.

“Lot” in the title had the further meaning of “destiny” and, perhaps at a stretch, could also stand for Laws Of Thermodynamics – at least, I hoped so!

Test-solving and subsequent editor vetting produced worthwhile changes in clueing and preamble, and those who helped have my gratitude. All solvers who commented on the puzzle, via whatever channel, also have my sincere thanks.

If you’d like a reminder of the song, with it’s witty spoken introduction, try this link:

Phil Lloyd (Ploy)

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Listener No 4650, Two Names: A Setter’s Blog by Deuce

Posted by Listen With Others on 4 Apr 2021

I find myself, I suppose like any writer of these setter’s blogs, attempting to recollect how I went about something in circa-2019, the strange before-time when one could leave one’s house and CORONAVIRUS just an awkward fill for a 12×12 grid. This task would be easier if I’d kept a real-time journal — perhaps I will next time — but let’s see if I can’t piece it together.

Looking for a scientific theme, I set on Carl Linnaeus — who took on the remarkable task of classifying and naming every living thing, from Orycteropus afer to Bos indicus, inventing a structure that still basically exists today. That linguistic and scientific endeavour has, if nothing else, left a host of genuses and species and what-have-you splayed all over the dictionary.

It seemed neat to include the way a follower of the Linnaean system would refer to themselves, and indeed to every person. But the seven terms for describing the human already take up a lot of grid space, and in a conventional grid, once the solver got the general gist, it would be pretty much a write-in. I hoped the carte blanche format slows down the pace a touch early on, giving an extra kick to proceedings at that tricky midway lull.

I wanted to include a little poetry too to complement the science. And looking for something thematic naturally led me to the Book of Genesis, in which the task of naming the animals is given considerable importance.

Reading on in the relevant passage I found that the hardworking animal-namer craves nothing more to relax in the evenings in the company of a loyal helpmeet. And while the name of Linnaeus’ wife is hardly common knowledge, it seemed easy enough to find out — once you know what you are looking for.

Still more satisfyingly, that gave me a way of fitting a second name, SARA MORAEA, into the grid, exactly the thing I was looking for to justify the title of TWO NAMES — a reference to Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature, in which animals and plants are conventionally referred to by both genus and species.

From what I can tell, some immediately twigged what they were supposed to be looking for;  others indulging in a significant amount of gazing at the grid before figuring it out. As a frequent and often longstanding grid-starer the latter type have my endless sympathy.

 I now see this isn’t our hero’s first reference in the Listener — Verbascum having foregrounded him in his 2013 puzzle, number 4223, also titled Two Names. (I discover this merely as I write this blog: there’s nothing new under the sun, as they say in another part of the Bible).

Anyway, as ever it is a great pleasure to be informed after so many months that the editors have accepted a puzzle for inclusion. After that initial euphoria wore off, came the shock at discovering I couldn’t actually solve any of my own clues, followed by the brief but intense moment of terror — would I pass Shirley’s fiendish oenophile challenge? A sigh of relief as I spotted the clue for BIAS — and praying that zythophilia is enough to get a passing grade.

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Listener No 4649, Get Weaving: A Setter’s Blog by Paddock

Posted by Listen With Others on 28 Mar 2021

Should I ever be called upon to choose a suitable soundtrack for my puzzle setting career, it will certainly not feature Edith Piaf warbling Je ne regrette rien”, my tendency being more towards the Frank Sinatra school of regrets. Oh yes, during that period between submitting a puzzle for editorial consideration and reflecting on its reception by solvers, I’ve had a few — but as you are about to learn, they are not too few to mention (and anyway, Frank, surely the barrier to comprehensive regret-mentioning would be superabundance rather than paucity?).

The most vexing of them fall into three broad categories. Worst of all, perhaps, are the times when it has become clear from the online forums (which I check repeatedly on publication day with hope and trepidation in unequal measure) either that the endgame required a mental leap which was inadequately signposted or that the finishing line could not be confidently identified. Regardless of the merits of the rest of the puzzle, such faults inevitably leave solver dissatisfied and setter rueful.

Next on the list come those instances where, upon solving the initial proof, I have discovered issues (usually manifested as some form of ambiguity) which seemed to me to render the puzzle unsatisfactory. In my early days of setting, I would tell myself “It’ll be all right, no-one else will notice.” Experience has taught me that if the only reason I can sidestep the hole is because I dug it myself, others will undoubtedly fall into it, and they won’t enjoy the experience; now, if there’s time to fix the problem I will, but sometimes the proximity of the publication date means that it just isn’t feasible (I guess that using test solvers might help here, but I’m too set in my ways to start now). Result: self-flagellation of the mental kind.

Lastly there are those puzzles which at a late stage I realise simply don’t do justice to the theme — “I should have included that name in the grid, or done the thing as a Carte Blanche, or spent longer developing the idea.” Even if the puzzle is reasonably well received, it still feels like a good opportunity wasted. And when you struggle like I do to come up with original themes, that is a cause for considerable regret.

If I manage to avoid these pitfalls, the resulting puzzle may still not be up to much but at least I will look upon it with a degree of authorial affection.

With Get Weaving, my starting point was the idea of intertwining two normal (but meaningless) clues to produce a composite with a relatively sensible surface reading. I then looked for a theme with a weaving connection, and the Arachne/Minerva story seemed to fit the bill perfectly, in particular the potential ARACHNE->A SPIDER transformation. Using interwoven answers to make up the weft would allow me (I hoped) to introduce the combatants into the grid without their names needing to span bars. I realised that the grid-fill for the solver would not be trivial, so I wanted the endgame to be simple and unambiguous.

The challenge of populating the grid was compounded by the need to include in a single block six pairs of words which varied only in their third letter, as required for the RACHNE/SPIDER change. Half of the 24 across solutions ended up being words which I would describe as ‘unfamiliar’ (to normal people, if not to those of us with multiple editions of Chambers on our shelves), but I didn’t feel that I was going to be able to reduce the ratio without jeopardising my last lingering trace of sanity.

For the interwoven clues there could be no redundant words, while the down clues needed to be readily blind-solvable. In an attempt to make things slightly easier for the solver, I determined that the first letter entered in a column would always belong to the first solution, and that where two across solutions were the same length the first word in the clue would belong to the first entry. Ultimately it was decided not to include this information in the preamble, although some solvers apparently worked it out for themselves.

An extra (self-imposed) requirement was that the unwoven across clues had to be made as sound as possible: I couldn’t see the editors wanting to rewrite them, and I certainly had no wish to do it myself! In the event, writing these clues didn’t in itself prove inordinately difficult; the main issue was that producing half-decent surface readings meant that the separated clues were quite a bit trickier than I would have ideally liked. The high proportion of uncommon words contributed significantly to that problem, a pair such as ESSENE and TEASEL being unlikely bedfellows.

I knew that the finished puzzle wasn’t easy, and I was concerned that the down solutions might be of very little help in the solving process. I was reassured by the fact that both vetters managed to battle their way through it, and when I came to tackle the proof myself I found that solving the down clues was in fact the key to cracking the puzzle. I can’t recall ever completing a barred crossword without doing a certain amount of ‘reverse engineering’ (and I see no reason why a clue cannot legitimately support a hypothesis as well as give rise to one), but it was clear that the across clues here were going to require an unusually generous dollop of it.

I wasn’t surprised that the response on the forums was mixed – those who see the grid-fill essentially as the means to reach the endgame were always going to be disappointed, and on top of that the solving process here could be viewed as either an exacting challenge or a disagreeable slog. Those who described the puzzle as ‘an old-fashioned Listener’ didn’t venture to add whether that was a good or a bad thing!

And as for regrets? None on the three counts listed at the start, though I do wish that I had been able to make the individual interwoven clues easier to solve, or at least to parse. But hey, I did it my way…

Paddock, March 2021

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Listener No 4648, Not One: A Setter’s Blog by Nudd

Posted by Listen With Others on 21 Mar 2021

Having been asked for a setter’s blog, I tried to recall something enlightening about the setting mechanics, but sadly I can’t offer anything particularly original. Maybe I’ll concentrate first on the inspiration for the puzzle.

Back In the days when I had to work for a living, my reward for a twelve hour day was the fact that my commuting time tended to be conveniently shunted outside of the worst of the rush hours. Consequently I could normally find a seat and spend a fairly comfortable 90 minutes reading. One book I remember tackling then was “So much blood” by Simon Brett (not my usual fare but I think we had acquired it free with a jar of coffee or some such promotion and I thought I’d give it a try). It actually proved to be an entertaining read. The hero was a thespian performing his one man show about Thomas Hood on the Edinburgh Festival fringe. The text / chapter headings were littered with quotes from his poems and assorted writings, and that was enough to have me hooked. Before then — despite the fact that we share a surname — I only vaguely knew the writer’s “I remember I remember the house where I was born…”.

In fact I found that he proved to be a master of the play on words, and humorous linguistic twists creep into many of his works…

“The best of friends fall out, and so his teeth had done some years ago”

“Some minds improve by travel, others, rather, resemble copper wire, or brass, which get the narrower by going farther”

“Frost is the greatest artist in our clime — he paints in nature and describes in rime”

“His death, which happen’d in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll’d the bell”

To give him his full due, he also wrote a number of more serious pieces, some of which highlighted social injustice and deprivation as in “The song of the shirt”:

“Oh! God that bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap…”

When I eventually started setting, I decided I’d like to generate something to acknowledge the enjoyment he had given me, but I couldn’t see a way to build a crossword around his array of puns. It consequently took me a long while to home in on the final subject, though on reflection I could have got there much sooner — the closing lines of “No” are surely an absolute gift to the crossword setter.

“No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,

Anyway, having finally arrived at the theme, I just had to put together a grid to accommodate all those removals — the radio communications alphabet conveniently provided me with the final shape I wanted to display.

It was not exactly plain sailing as there was a lot to accommodate. I initially came up with a symmetrical grid but that had a pitifully low average word length — even my final version fell far short of my target length, but I could not find a way to improve it significantly. I also reluctantly had to allow an imbalance in the examples of each item, feeling quite sorry for that solitary bee amongst the abundance of birds. Despite those misgivings, I did finish and submit it.

Anyway, that’s about all I can offer. I’d just like to add my thanks to those who have already taken the trouble to give feedback in a variety of ways. I have yet to see the John Green package and doubtless there will be more in there so thanks to all for the invaluable comments.

Stay safe everyone.


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