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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

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

Posted by Listen With Others on 18 August 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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Listener No 4564, There and Back: A Setter’s Blog by Stick Insect

Posted by Listen With Others on 11 August 2019

I’m pleased this puzzle made it to publication for two reasons: I was seven at the time of the first moon landing and, like many people of that generation, the Apollo programme was a big part of my early life which still excites my admiration even now. The other reason is this puzzle started life as my first attempt at a Listener submission and was originally planned for the fortieth anniversary, so it’s good that it’s now seen the light of day.

I started solving the Listener in the early 2000s and went to the 75th anniversary dinner in 2005, which was open to all comers (I was nowhere near an all-correct solver then). That introduced me to a few setters and I ended up sitting near to Roddy Forman (Radix) who asked if I was going to set anything. To be honest, solving seemed hard enough and I’d never even considered the possibility, but the seed was planted. The Apollo theme as mentioned above was close to my heart and perhaps inevitably then became the basis of my first idea. I worked on that in 2007, using pencil and paper: if there were electronic aids available then, I was ignorant of them, so my attempts at grid filling were laborious. I was able to get all the twelve names in and arrange them to provide the anagram of “one giant leap” but only by making all the entries jumbles. A start to grid filling could only happen once about three-quarters of clues were solved and, not surprisingly, I got a fairly swift rejection from Derek Arthur, one of the then editors. Derek however took a lot of time to explain the problems and to provide a good deal of encouragement to try again and it was very satisfying for me that he accepted my first published Listener in 2010.

Fast forward about four years and my early use of Quinapalus’ marvellous QXW crossword construction software. I remembered the Apollo idea and the “one giant leap” possibility and wondered if it could be resuscitated. After a bit of playing around, I decided it couldn’t be done with only conventional entries but it could be done by reversing some (one of the programme’s helpful features). That seemed appropriate given the return journey and suggested the title There and Back too. I decided it would be more elegant if exactly half the entries went forward and half back and was able to achieve that with a little more trial and error.

Having got something workable, I decided I should sit on it and wait for the fiftieth anniversary, so it was another three years before I submitted it, two years ago in an attempt to give myself the best chance of bagging the slot. Shane and Roger made their customary multiple improvements, and the puzzle was accepted a few months ago.

My thanks to all those who’ve blogged and commented on the puzzle and it’s nice to know that the theme meant something to a good number of others too.

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Listener No 4562, My Nap: A Setter’s Blog by Mr E

Posted by Listen With Others on 28 July 2019

I came across the quotation [‘What an addition to company that would be’] while reading Samuel Beckett’s Company [it occurs I believe 5 times] and immediately saw the possibility of using it for a puzzle, having words that could be jumbled and added onto CO to make another word.

I decided to use extra words in the clues of normal entries to generate the quote, but I did not want to give ‘company’ so directly. So I had the extra words give the quote (without ‘company’) and author’s surname, which comes to 34 letters.

I’m not one who tries to fit large numbers of thematic entries into a grid; fitting in more than about 5 gets more difficult than I like to bother with, and I don’t feel that having more necessarily makes a puzzle better anyway. I figured 5 or so was good enough.

How big to make the grid? Well, a standard 12×12 such as Azed or Mephisto typically has 36 entries and about 54 unchecked cells in a grid of 144 cells; dividing those numbers by 18, that means that for every 8 cells, there will be 2 entries and 3 unches. I like to stick as close to that as possible even in Listener or Magpie puzzles, and generally I have found this possible if I don’t put too much thematic stuff into the grid. So 39 entries x 8 cells per 2 entries gives 156 cells, so a 12×13 grid. 39 entries x 3 unches per 2 entries = 58.5 unchecked cells was the goal (as it turned out, 58).

The bar pattern did not have to be anything special, anything with the usual variety of entry lengths was going to be ok, so I made a suitable blank grid without knowing what the thematic entries would be or where. I made lists of (many) suitable words of 4 or more letters, picked out five, including some with two unchecked cells [with some trial and error of course] that seemed suitable, and (using Word Matcher), went about filling the grid word by word [I don’t do autofills]. Eventually I got a fill that I liked and wrote the clues, working on them until I got surface senses I was satisfied with (definitely not a quick process – clueing a puzzle generally takes me several weeks).

The title fits in with the ‘company’ idea, and also seemed ok because the narrator of the work is confined to his bed.

I believe the editors needed to change only about 4 clues a little. So there it was – I have not yet seen solvers’ reactions or statistics.

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Listener No 4559, G: A Setter’s Blog by Xanthippe

Posted by Listen With Others on 7 July 2019

The inspiration for this came from Elgin’s 2018 puzzle; ‘Doing a Sort’. Sadly, I didn’t attempt to solve that puzzle but reading about it afterwards I admired the way letters fell through the grid. The Trotters television episode came to mind and I looked at getting two chandeliers side by side. The result was much too large a grid and the idea was put aside.

Later, I realised that the two halves of the scene were similar, both having the chandelier and bolt, it was just the players that were different. By using clashes in the grid both parts of the scene could be portrayed. At this point I looked up the episode and found it was an earlier one with Grandad, not Uncle Albert as I’d remembered. This was pleasing as I could have Grandad displacing the ‘bolt’ resulting in new words.

My initial plan was to have a symmetric grid and proper words left when the chandelier was removed. This was much too ambitious so I resorted to asymmetry for flexibility. I looked up pictures of chandeliers and played around with a few but needed something simple that was symmetric with 18 letters. My submitted preamble had the phrase ‘with some artistic licence’ but the puzzle was large so the original preamble was made more concise.

How to get all those letters of the chandelier smashed and scattered on the floor at the base of the grid? Initially with 18 letters to drop I thought of having chunks of chandelier, 1, 2 or 3 letters in the bottom row making new down words. At this point I realised that the writer’s name was in the dropped letters, cushty! Now only 10 letters to get into the bottom row. I completed the grid dropping mainly single letters to the bottom row but used some double letters. The ‘UNDERKEEP” in the final puzzle was there so that ‘ER’ could go under it on the bottom line. Pleased to complete the grid, I was about to start cluing when that sinking feeling arrived. The removal of the ‘D’ meant this didn’t work at all – you plonker! I couldn’t face a complete rewrite so put it aside.

Returning some time later I realised that cells I’d originally discounted on the bottom line could be used to make 2 letter words. With the cell under ‘UNDERKEEP’ out, I then had 12 cells for 10 letters if I stuck with single letters, probably doable but it had to be unique. After more manipulation, the grid was complete.

Turning to the clues the solver must be directed to ‘Only Fools and Horses’ for it to be fair. Dropping letters from down clues was thematic, I wanted 3 of each but went with what worked well as I was clueing, the two references to posterior being a chance for solvers to temporarily go in the wrong direction. Initially, the across clues were going to be normal but I was unhappy that the stepladders weren’t in the Del and Rodney half of the scene (too difficult to get in). Adding the extra letters again seemed thematic. With 20 letters for 24 clues how to choose the normal clues? Serendipity again as there were 3 across clues with clashes and the thematic ‘BOLT’ clue.

The episode title ‘A Touch of Glass’ gave me the idea for the puzzle title. One of those titles that is realised at the end so not offering assistance with the theme. That said ‘G’ is the symbol for the gravitational constant, so appropriate in a secondary way.

During setting and submission I did have a slight worry about whether it would be acceptable but believe puzzles that wouldn’t have been fair in the past are now, due to the internet. I know for some overseas solvers in particular, it was tricky. For most, I hope it was either a pleasant reminder of, or an introduction to, a classic comedy. Sadly, not the case for one solver on one of the message boards who awarded me the notorious Z-Cup – sure Del Boy could sell that on as valuable piece for me, mange tout!

Thank you to all solvers for feedback on the message boards and through letters and written comments passed on by John Green. It’s always a pleasure to hear solvers experiences of my puzzles. Thanks as ever to Roger and Shane for all the work they do improving my puzzles.


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Listener No 4558, A Moral Story: A Setter’s Blog by Aedites

Posted by Listen With Others on 30 June 2019

As I am the Literary Executor for Canon Charles Kingsley (I am one of his closest living relatives), I thought that it would be appropriate to construct a crossword to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. I first constructed a suitable crossword in 2009 based on a rhyme by Bishop William Stubbs recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which I rather liked. However I did not want to wait ten years for its publication, so I submitted it to the Listener Crossword and it was published as number 4220 “Falsehoods” in December 2012. “A Moral Story” was constructed in April 2011.

The full title of The Water-Babies is 36 letters long, and could therefore be encoded in 36 clues, and the perimeter of 44 cells would accommodate all the principal characters. I constructed the 2011 grid by hand but was unable to include KINGSLEY. After I started to use Qxw for grid construction in early 2016, I was able to adapt the grid to have 90° symmetry and to include KINGSLEY on the main diagonal. This did involve rewriting about half the clues.

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