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Archive for the ‘Setting Blogs’ Category

Listener No 4538, Joint Conditions: A Setter’s Blog by Awinger

Posted by Listen With Others on 10 February 2019

Minnesota Blues

For about 6 years I had a job which involved many transatlantic flights each year. It was during one of these flights in about 2014 that, having finished the Times jumbo cryptic, I turned my attention to the Listener. I had looked at it briefly before and always been somewhat overwhelmed, but this was a relatively gentle offering (Agatha Christie was the theme) and I managed to complete it. From that point I started to have a go on a fairly regular basis, bought Chambers (hard copy and app) and, from the start of 2016, I tried to solve each week.

It was on one of these transatlantic flights in early 2016 that I viewed the on-screen flight-path and saw a map of the US states, with the sea in blue around the edge, and the idea for this puzzle was born. Initially it was a personal challenge to see if I could construct a grid that included all of the States and conformed to the Listener grid requirements. I split the grid into 6 sections and tried to construct the more clash-dense regions first, in particular the north-east and south-central. I found I could make reasonably good progress in each section but then fitting them together always proved tricky. The main problems were keeping the symmetry and keeping the average word length up.

I came up with ‘–pdance’ to pick up the Southern Atlantic coastal states quite early. The J in New Jersey and the X in Texas were always problems, eventually solved with Haj and Exuls. The idea of the framing entities was included from the start, and I liked ‘Americana’ at 1 across as being thematic, providing half of Alaska and the first four letters for Canada. Isomeric and Homeric were the two option for bottom left to pick up Hawaii and most of Mexico. I initially wanted to put Pacific in the left column (‘fichi’ was pencilled in for a while) but I couldn’t get the top part to work. Moving it to the second column gave me ‘Pacifier’ to match against ‘Nargiles’, and with ‘Mediatize’ and ‘Stepdance’ also pencilled in that gave me just enough longer words to get by. I was disappointed to have to take out ‘Seismism’, which was in the middle of row 3 and covered SD, MN, WI and MI, but I couldn’t get the bottom half to work with an 8 letter word there.

By the summer of 2017, after many, many hours of tinkering on many, many flights, I had a grid with just Minnesota missing. I decided I had four options — try to rework the grid to get it in, abandon the symmetry, include it in the wrong place or leave it out.

I tried to rework for a while but I couldn’t get it in, and I was always very attached to the symmetry. Maybe it’s my mathematical background but I do value symmetry in a grid and my original challenge to myself had been to construct a symmetric grid. I could have fitted it in near Arizona, and asked the solver to identify which item was in completely the wrong place, but I decided against this as being too artificial. So I went with leaving it out, with the missing state to be written below the grid.

I foolishly thought that with the grid settled I was just about done. I hadn’t previously appreciated the effort that goes into coming up with the clues, especially when there are more than 60 of them. I knew with the large grid and 60+ clues that space was going to be tight, so I had to keep the clues short. I wanted a number of them to be straightforward, partly as I always appreciate a number of easy clues to get in to a puzzle and partly because of the high number of clues and clashes – I didn’t want it to become too much of a slog. The idea was that the theme would reveal itself quite early and then the states would gradually fall in to place and that would help with the more difficult clues. I took my time, coming up with at most a few per day, and by November 2017 I had a full set. I sent the puzzle off to the editors in early December 2017.

They did say they had a large number of puzzles to review so it would be a while before I heard anything. After nearly a year with no further contact I assumed that it hadn’t made the grade. I was delighted to receive an email in November saying it would be published in January. However space was a problem. Quite a few clues had to be shortened, and there was no room for the line to write ‘Mn’ below the grid. It would have to be written inside the grid instead. Also the editors added the number of internal cell boundaries for the shading, to hopefully eliminate any ambiguity. I am extremely grateful to the editors for their improvements on various clues and the work they put in to fit the puzzle into the available space.

And so on the 19th January I became a published Listener setter, a great thrill for me. The feedback on the forums was generally positive, which I appreciated. There were a few comments suggesting the finish was a bit untidy, with one state missing, the replacement letters required for the framing items and Minnesota having to be squeezed in, all of which I accept entirely. I was pleased with how close I got, but in the end the grid difficulty and space constraints did leave the finish slightly untidy. I have just started work on a second puzzle, which will be a less ambitious grid and hopefully as a result a more polished finish.

John Occleshaw (Awinger)


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Listener No 4537, Rollerball: A Setter’s Blog by The Ace of Hearts

Posted by Listen With Others on 3 February 2019

I got the idea for this crossword while looking up four-wheeled carriages for a previous Listener crossword (The Evolution of East Perry) and discovered a wonderful definition for a wagon was “A movable piece of furniture with shelves”. So I (or rather Qxw) created a circular grid with 35 (seven letter) radials. I chose 7 letters radials as I thought it would give me better selection of words to choose from while also including the letters latent gimmick. The idea was to fill the perimeter ring with types of wagon to form a defensive ring, cryptically indicating a definition of CORRAL with the latent letters giving the other 35 letter (an enclosure to drive hunted animals into) definition. The grid fill didn’t take half as long as I thought it would as the Qxw programme is quite powerful (and I am becoming more familiar with it) and it only needed a bit of jockeying around with perimeter wagons to make it all fit.

And so to the clues. I put a lot of time into these and left them, then re-checked them a couple of times for errors, accuracy and fairness until everything was to my satisfaction. However, from previous experience I knew that this would not be enough, but this time I had enlisted the help of a checker (Shirley Curran AKA Chalicea) and was about to send it to her when I suddenly realised that grid (with 7-letter radials) was probably too large to fit the space allowed by the The Times for the puzzle. Because of the amount of time I put into it I sent it anyway, more in hope that expectation.

Shortly after that I got the report from Shirley (who did a comprehensive review of the puzzle, Thanks Shirley) pointing out some errors that I made in the clueing, but also adding that I should also clue some of the words in the fifth ring to make things fairer for the solver. She did also say that this would use up more valuable space and because of that the puzzle might be rejected by the Listener vetters. I sent it off anyway; again more in hope that expectation.

Some time later I got The Times vetters’ (Roger and Shane) reports and neither of them mentioned that it wouldn’t fit into the paper (though I noticed that the paper’s edition of the puzzle, did not have ANY spare space at all and COMPLETELY filled an A4 sheet when printed), so it must have been a tight fit. The vetters did modify a few clues, but not nearly as many as my previous submissions (thanks again, Shirley) and changed the title from “Old Black Pen” referring to a pen (Corral) for cattle (Black being an old name for a type of cattle) to “Rollerball” also a type of pen but with circular intonation. They also asterisked the letters of CORRAL to make the solution unique as some solvers might justifiably put in LAAGER, RAT-PIT or KEDDAH, eventually getting the puzzle over the line.

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Listener No 4534, A Secret Unlocked: A Setter’s Blog by Harribobs

Posted by Listen With Others on 13 January 2019

Back in the olden days, before computer games and even before colour TV, one of the more popular entertainments in our house was the comic. At various times we subscribed not only to the ubiquitous Beano and Dandy, but also to Buster, Cor!, Sparky, Whizzer and Chips, Bunty, Jackie, Mandy, and the more educational choice of our parents, Look and Learn. Sometimes, as a bonus, a comic would include a free gift, such as the noisy ‘Flying Fizzer’ in the Beano and the even noisier ‘Banger’ in Buster. But on one occasion the free insert was a card with holes in it which, when placed over a text inside the comic, revealed a secret message. Such was the inspiration for A Secret Unlocked.

The Wikipedia entry for cryptography leads eventually to the subject of steganography. It makes interesting reading: for example, during WWII the UK government was so anxious about messages being hidden in knitting patterns that it banned people from posting them overseas. But my favourite story was that from Herodotus in Histories, where Aristagoras has to cut the hair from the head of Histiaeus’s servant to reveal the secret message.

The trickiest part of the puzzle’s construction was coming up with the preamble template. It needed to provide an introduction, not too stilted, while containing the right number of occurrences of the letters H,A,I,R, reasonably spaced. The slightly awkward ‘popped up’ in the preamble was a late replacement, needed because I had overlooked the ‘R’ in ‘turned up’.

Some solvers were mystified by the instruction ‘USE TEMPLATE AND NOTE WHAT HAIR CONCEALS.’ It could have been clearer, but I reasoned that solvers could act as cryptanalysts, and deduce what the template was.

I can’t remember seeing steganography used in a Listener crossword before, and was surprised to see the excellent puzzle Telling Lies by Somniloquist, published just the previous Saturday, using a similar technique – cutting out some words and folding to reveal others.

Thanks, as ever, to Roger and Shane for their rigorous vetting.

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Listener No 4532 How?: by Twin

Posted by Listen With Others on 7 January 2019

On my laptop at work I keep a spreadsheet called ‘Ideas’, where I sketch out possible themes for crosswords, most of which never see the light of day, either because I can’t get them to work or because someone else has already done them. When I thought up the idea of a grid with a TARDIS in it, and double letters for the cells within the TARDIS, I assumed it must already have been done in the Listener — after all, double letters crop up every now and then, and Doctor Who is a popular topic — but an online check suggested otherwise.

This check must not have been very thorough, as it was only later that I discovered Ilver had written Journey to the Centre in 2013 (and, as the setter’s blog here revealed, How? had in fact been the working title of that one), shortly before I began solving in earnest. Curiously, it turned out that Ilver had also had Detective Work published in the same year, with a Hercule Poirot theme; my only other Listener crossword to date was based on Murder on the Orient Express. Great minds?

The basis for the puzzle thus set, I set out trying to construct a grid. The words TIME AND RELATIVE DIMENSION IN SPACE (I’ll come back to that) were slightly restrictive, as the lack of symmetrical words that could be formed within them meant that I had to bar off most of the phrase. At first I thought I could use DEMI-DEVIL across the bottom — coinciding with RELAT(IVEDIME)NSION — but I couldn’t get that to work; in the end only ADEMI or ELEMI would work in the bottom left of the grid, and I allowed myself the abbreviation EMEA at the top right. I thought that, being fully checked, this wasn’t too much of an issue.

In my brief setting career so far I have set myself rather difficult grids to create (I don’t use proper crossword software to complete the grids — which presumably wouldn’t work with double-letter cells anyhow — but I do make liberal use of the searching facility on my Chambers Dictionary app). This means that I’ve tended to end up with a few under-unched words and relatively low average word lengths, although I managed to scrape over the recommended minimum (5.51!) in this one. Completing the grid took many attempts, but I got to something I was happy with in the end.

Back to that TARDIS acronym. I became a keen Doctor Who fan in the Matt Smith era, so I was aware that DIMENSION was the preferred expansion of the D these days, and — even though Chambers has it as DIMENSIONS — I couldn’t bring myself to add in that S. Unfortunately that meant that I needed an extra letter to complete the picture (it only occurred to me very late in the day to put it in the place of the light on top, actually, rather than just completing the rectangle). This was the weakest part of the puzzle I submitted, I think, as I just claimed it was a seven word phrase — i.e. A TIME AND RELATIVE DIMENSION IN SPACE — and it was Roger Phillips’ suggestion to go with ‘article on top’. The neatest possible solution to the problem, I think.

The idea of using synonyms for doctor with misprints was a reworking of an idea I’d left out of my previous puzzle (which would have used synonyms of ‘stab’). Fortunately there are a lot of synonyms for doctor in its various meanings, including words like ‘breeze’ that might set people off down the wrong track. I ransacked my Chambers Crossword Dictionary (a tome I must admit I prefer to Bradford’s, although I also dug into that) and came up with 70 synonyms. Playing around with these, I managed to get all the words I needed except a synonym that could generate the W of TWO HEARTS; in the end I went for WHO, which I think worked well enough. The overall technique was one I don’t remember seeing before — although I’m sure it’s been used many times — and I think that, particularly with ‘jawbones’ and ‘burgeon’ to set people on their way, it will have helped people onto the right track.

The final part of the puzzle was entering GALLIFREY, albeit misspelled, in the centre. It was rather early on in proceedings that I rather organically came across GALL- at the start of a word, and thought it would be a neat bit of thematic content to include the Doctor’s home planet. But it was an odd number of letters — how to get around this? Well, double-entering the central letter of the word (also the central letter of the TARDIS and the grid) seemed very neat to me, given that the Doctor himself (well, ‘himself’ when I wrote the puzzle — ‘herself’, now) has two hearts. From the comments I’ve dared to read online, this part of the puzzle doesn’t seem to have been universally popular — the word ‘pointless’ has been used — and my only answer is that I always enjoy it when Listener puzzles have multiple bits of thematic content, so I aim to do as much as I can in mine.

Thanks as ever to Shane & Roger for their excellent editing. A lot of clues needed changing for one reason or another — two were rejected as being fanciful! — and, as I’d got a lot of rather long words to clue, several adjustments were needed for space-saving purposes, including a fairly dramatic rewrite of the preamble. We had quite a few emails back and forth, and there were one or two clues that I rewrote entirely, but I didn’t lose anything too close to my heart.

I didn’t use test solvers for this puzzle (I do now), but I should thank John & Simon, who gave me ideas for SOLSTITIALLY and STONE SAW respectively. And, of course, thanks to John Green for his excellent services — and apologies that he had 27% more letters to mark than usual!

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Listener No 4533, Telling Lies: A Setter’s Blog by Somniloquist

Posted by Listen With Others on 6 January 2019

I came across B.S. Johnson, “Britain’s one-man literary avant-garde”, a number of years ago when a friend recommended one of his later novels to me, Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry. Since then, his books have always been in the back of my mind as possible crossword themes, with their unusual content and layout: Christie Malry lives his life by the principles of double-entry bookkeeping, The Unfortunates is presented in a box in several sections which can be read in any order and Albert Angelo has holes cut in the pages to reveal later parts of the story.

When I was mulling over ideas for my second Listener, I quickly settled on Albert Angelo and its cut-outs, which would provide good fodder for an endgame. I assumed The Times wouldn’t be willing to print some extra Listener content in amongst the sudoku on the page behind the crossword, so I had to find a way to fold the crossword to make the reveal work. I changed the shape of the grid from my default 13×13 to 14×12, so there was a natural fold line and the proportions were somewhat book-like. I toyed with making the theme the author himself and including references to other books, but was wary of trying to cram too much in and ending with a confusing treatment of quite an obscure subject.

I started with hopes of being able to use thematic words (cut out) on the left to reveal a long quote on the right, but quickly found this was far too restrictive to fill the grid. It would also have meant some very fiddly cutting out and holes that reached the edge of the page. So I settled on just the title and author being revealed using non-thematic words. I fed this all into the software I’d written for my first Listener (no 4466, X XX XXX) and started sifting through the possible grids to find a satisfying set of words – not too many obscure rock types or Scottish relatives.

Once I had a filled grid, I needed to work out how to provide the instructions and the words to cut out. For the sake of simplicity (for me and for the solver), I decided on an additional letter in wordplay to spell out the instructions (having spent a very long time wrestling with deleting letters from clues for my first Listener effort) and extra words in clues to indicate what should be cut out. Pleasingly, the message “cut out extra words then fold” required an extra letter in exactly half the clues, which made the preamble a bit more elegant.

I looked into including more thematic content, as it was fairly light, but the internet (my memory of the book not being up to scratch) didn’t turn up anything I felt was usable. It did give me an initial idea for a title for the puzzle: Alberto Angelo is described as a failed architect, so I looked for an anagram of architect and found The Arctic. Fortunately, I decided against using this dubious reverse cryptic as the title, as I think there’d be a large number of confused people at this point. I ultimately used part of a quote from the book, which highlights the author’s ethos: that “telling stories is telling lies”. This was obscure enough not to lead the solver directly to the theme (even via Google), but could fairly easily be linked to it when revealed.

After submission, I was pleasantly surprised to wait less than a year to get the email from Roger confirming publication – I think they were keen for an easier puzzle to give everyone a pre-Christmas break! The vetters’ eagle eyes had spotted a few clues that needed tweaking. Primarily, these were where I’d used a connecting word between definition and wordplay (IN, FROM, etc) that incorrectly implied the two were equivalent, when the thematic extra letter made them different: not something I’d considered when writing them.

If you want to find out more about B.S. Johnson, there’s an excellent biography by Jonathan Coe called Like A Fiery Elephant.

I’ve now used up the two theme ideas I’ve had, so I’m on the lookout for inspiration for Listener #3…

Happy New Year!


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