Miscellany #2: Published a puzzle!
Got a puzzle in the New York Times! Play it here; if you don't have an NYT subscription, you can probably figure out other ways to find it. This feels like a good opportunity to go a little more in-depth on my construction and publishing experience; some notes below!
This puzzle started with the oversized groups of black squares in the corners, because I liked the look of those big pools of ink. How the crossword looks before you solve it is part of the experience! (I think it's like the plating of a dish at a restaurant, in an awkward metaphor I've tried to force before.)
With this many black squares, I could afford a pretty low wordcount, and I'm pleasantly surprised at the quality of fill I was able to get. (ENIGMATOLOGY, most famous as the invented major of a young Will Shortz, was a happy accident, not an attempt to curry favor!) I started filling from the top down; I'm a big fan of conversational fill, and SOIGATHERED is one of those phrases that's been creeping into my vocab lately. As far as I can tell, it hasn't been used in the Times before, although "SOIGATHER" has, clued as "That much is clear," so I find it funny that this is clued with "That much was clear."
I still don't think I'm very good at cluing! As I work on more themeless puzzles, I have this odd feeling where some entries feel like they must have a fun cluing angle, but I can't quite figure out how to get there. E.g., for some reason, I feel sure other constructors out there could think of off-beat ways to get at DOCTORSNOTE or DANCEROUTINE, although I do like my pretty straightforward clue for BATSANEYELASH. (The fact that it's more commonly "doesn't bat an eyelash" might seem like a ding on that entry, but I think it's funny to extract terms out of idiomatic phrases).
My favorite clue/entry pairing, perhaps surprisingly, is ["George," in aviation slang] for AUTOPILOT. I like trivia clues that are inferrable even if you don't know them; it feels like a fun way to sneakily teach the solver something. I don't think most non-pilots would be familiar with that slang term, but it makes sense in retrospect that it's the sort of thing that would have a funny slang name, and so with a few cross-letters you can solve it and get a little "aha" moment as you picture pilots chatting about passing the stick to their erstwhile copilot George. As crossword puzzles have improved and fill quality has gone up, they seem to become more about wordplay and misdirection than about trivia, which is an overall positive trend, but I do think crosswords are always in part trivia games, and it's nice to find clues that let a solver combine background knowledge with some logic and intuition.
I find the publishing process interesting! I know some people are interested in learning which clues were original and which were changed by editors; this puzzle was initially returned to me with a request to make the clues generally harder, but was then edited again, and many of those clues were removed (and in some cases, reverted back to the original). This doesn't seem too weird for me, especially with multiple editors looking over a puzzle, but it means there are three versions of this puzzle to look at:
DANCEROUTINE went from [Set of steps] to [Number system?] back to [Sequence of steps]; I think my attempt at a hard clue doesn't quite land, but there's something there.
THOR went from [Norse god whose archenemy is the World Serpent] to [God prophesied to slay the World Serpent] to [God who is destined to slay the serpent Jörmungandr], which I think is a fun highlight of the path these revisions took; from easy to hard to a middling difficulty, letting solvers infer which pantheon he's from by recognizing the language of "Jörmungandr."
EPICS went from [The Iliad and Odyssey, e.g.] to [Beowulf and Gilgamesh, for two] to ["Beowulf" and "Gilgamesh," for two], in a similar easy-hard-medium trajectory.
HEY went from "Yo!" to "You there!", and I know the Times editors aren't as stuffy as they sometimes seem, but I think this little extra formality is funny.
ENIGMATOLOGY had a reference to Will Shortz that they cut, out of modesty, maybe?
TOOLS originally had [Hammer and sickle, e.g.,] but I understand the change.
TOTEM went from [Lucky charm, e.g.] to [Word for the animal symbols of Anishinaabe clans, originally] to [Ancestral emblem]; the second clue was my attempt at a similar "guessable trivia" question. Honestly, I think it's an interesting etymology that the word "totem" originally referred to specific symbols of a specific culture, and if they wanted a simpler clue, I prefer my original.
POD was clued as a simple noun in all my drafts.
ZSNAP did not include "sassy."
These last two I would have changed if I had noticed the proof email in time; my apologies! In case you're wondering, after acceptance you wait a few months, and then you unexpectedly get an email called "Constructor PDFs" shortly before publication, which got completely lost in my inbox.
I have a lot of complicated feelings about crossword puzzles, the crossword community, publishing, and so on; at some point, I might be able to collect them in a way that leads to a conclusion, but I thought I'd throw some scattered thoughts out here for now and see if any resonate. For instance:
I can't really blame anyone who doesn't want to send money to, or be affiliated with, the New York Times! I also don't think one should judge people who subscribe and read too harshly. It's both a deeply flawed company and, as far as megalithic media groups in the United States, probably the best one; a highly variable collection of quality reporting and bizarre bias, always weighed down by the lead shoes of a truly dreadful Op-Ed section. It also feels (I mean, maybe this is just me, but I doubt it) like a de facto gatekeeper in the world of crosswords, the overwhelmingly most influential institution, establishing the conventions of the form and setting the tone for what's allowed. Obviously, you can be a fan and constructor of crosswords without playing or being published by the Times, but its massive audience and influence are inescapable. For better or for worse! The editors there have gotten much criticism, a lot of it extremely well-deserved, and yet the Times is still the premiere daily crossword and will likely remain that way. I'm not really going anywhere with this train of thought, but I'll say this: I'm very glad to be published in the Times largely because it's the puzzle my mom does. I used to submit puzzles to the Times as often as possible, making sure I always had some in the queue (21 rejections before this one); I felt a great sense of relief when this was accepted, and immediately stopped submitting so aggressively, but I will continue to try to get published there in the future.
It also can feel like an important step in being a "real" constructor or part of the "crossword community." I think this one actually is largely in my head; there are really many crossword communities intersecting each other, and no formal induction once you've gotten a puzzle published. However, and I'm really not sure how to put this, but that is kind of how I felt on receiving an email from XWord Info, and not in a good way. I've talked with some people about it, and I truly can't tell if my reaction made sense or not, but I thought I'd put it out there in case it resonated; as my first time publishing in the Times, I found it really odd to receive an email from a nominally unrelated blog asking for info, without mentioning that whatever I sent eventually becomes part of an archive you have to pay to access, or any explanation even as to how they knew my puzzle was scheduled. I don't read or subscribe to XWord Info, it's not really on my radar, and it was just strange to feel like I was expected to know about it; at the very least, I feel like a first email from the blog should have tried to explain what it is or why it would make sense to send them anything? But, as far as I can tell, constructors almost always do send in thoughts, so maybe I really have been out of the loop this whole time? Either way, it's the only part of this process that didn't feel great. Anyway, if there are any new eyes on me today: Hi! I'm Ben! I like puzzles, and am always down to collab, chat, talk puzzles, etc.
In short: Glad to make a Times debut and that they went with a somewhat odd puzzle. Tremendous thanks to the many resources out there that greatly reduce the barrier to crossword construction: in my case, the many helpful users and hardworking admins of the Crosscord discord server, free wordlists including Peter Broda's and Spread The Wordlist, and the Phil web app originally developed by Keiran King. I am always down if any puzzlers want support, feedback, to collaborate, or just to chat about puzzles; find me online (on twitter at _bbctol for now, though if anyone has other sites to join let me know; on discord at bbctol) or wandering about Cambridge, Massachusetts.