[Image lifted from XWordInfo where I got the weekly "POW!" Nice!]
Writing clues is my least favorite part of making crossword puzzles. If I ever become a professor of cruciverbalism, I'm definitely delegating clue writing to my graduate students. I might deign to make a suggestion here or there (How about "Work with intelligence?" for SPY STORY -- get it?), but I certainly wouldn't be doing the grunt work.
When I first started constructing puzzles, clue writing was tortuous, and the torture was completely self-imposed. I would slave over each individual entry trying to think up the cleverest, most personally stylized clue possible. It took me nearly as long to write the clues as it did to build the grid -- and it took me a long time to build the grid, as this was back in the day when I used graph paper and pencil, and the only "software" I had was an electronic pocket crossword puzzle helper. (By the way, I feel no romance at all for those days; I much prefer it now, doing everything on Crossword Puzzle Compiler and utilizing massive word lists.) It was not effort well spent. What I found is that I was very good at writing clues that were almost certain to be changed during edit. That is, if my puzzle even got accepted anywhere, which, at that point in my "career," it probably wouldn't.
Although I would like to blame all those stuffy editors for failing to the see the genius in my clue writing, the truth is, I was very likely going about it wrong. Being clever is good -- most fun puzzles have clever clues -- but not for all 70-some entries. As a solver, I've come to realize there is often a fine line between clever and annoyingly contrived, and trying to force the former is a great way to achieve the latter. I think most solvers rely on and appreciate a certain consistency and repetition in cluing. Editors understand this, which is why clues for a given entry are very frequently the same. In fact, what I've noticed about the New York Times is that it often goes on a "mini-run" for a particular entry in which clues are the exact same or nearly the exact same for several consecutive puzzles.
For example, here are three screen shots from Cruciverb's database showing the clues for the entry SLAY. This seems to happen too frequently to be a coincidence.
Eventually I caught on and I stopped putting so much effort into writing original clues. What I do instead is, for the vast majority of entries, I look it up on Cruciverb, filtering by the publication to which I'm submitting, and then I pick a clue I like that's day appropriate and use it or something very close to it. I figure, if it's going to be changed to a standard clue during edit anyway, then why not make things easier on everybody? But then after that I pick out a handful of entries, usually the "marquee" entries, and try to come up with new, clever, and fun clues for them.
Thus far, this process has worked out pretty well. Most my clues, even my original ones, survive edit (though often slightly reworded), and I don't spend hours and hours writing a bunch of clues that will never see the light of day. I now feel significantly less like a character in the Beatles' song "Eleanor Rigby." (Damon Gulczynski writing the clues for a crossword that no one will see. How can that be? All the lonely people, where *do* they all come from...)
In this puzzle, I came up with a few clues that I really like. In fact, one of them is probably my favorite clue I've ever written:
"Type for who this clue will be annoying?" GRAMMAR NAZI
I'm quite proud of that one. Another one I like:
"A batter receives four for a grand slam" TOTAL BASES
Hopefully fellow baseball nerds will appreciate the redirect from the answer that immediate comes to mind but doesn't fit, RUNS BATTED IN.
Then there is this one:
"Iconic part of Sinatra's attire?" GO-GO BOOTS
I was quite disappointed to see that this one did not survive edit, and that the name "Nancy" was added before Sinatra. It totally ruins my intent, which was to make the solver first think it was referring to Frank Sinatra (why doesn't FEDORA fit?). That's a clever misdirect, no?
I'm not sure why it was changed. The only thing I can think of is that Will thought the solver wouldn't really get it. Maybe Nancy Sinatra isn't well-known enough or closely enough associated with go-go boots without her first name? Perhaps. But she did have a no. 1 hit back in the day explicitly about her boots. So... I dunno.
Anyway, this puzzle, like the one published a few weeks ago, took me three tries. The first didn't turn out well at all. It was one of the earliest themeless puzzles I had ever attempted, and I should have chucked it when I was done with it and called it a learning experience. I actually can't find a copy of it to post, which I'm not particularly sad about.
Below is my second attempt.
I actually really like this grid, my reasons why are the same ones why it was rejected. The upper half is a procession of proper nouns -- DISCO STU, DODIE (Stevens), OTTO HAHN, SAM ELLIOTT, (Justin) THEROUX, DON QUIXOTE, RAQUEL WELCH. So much good, fun stuff! But, alas, as I've heard before, not everybody likes what I like, and one thing people seem to like are puzzles that don't feel like a pop culture trivia contest. So it goes... And if I want to keep publishing puzzles (which I do), so I have to go too. But that's okay. I think this one turned out pretty well as it is. We shall see if people agree.
Until next time...
Friday Morning Update: Judging by what I'm reading on the blogosphere, people do think it turned out pretty well. More than a few solvers, however, are put off by seeing NAZI in the puzzle, even as part of the tongue-in-cheek phrase GRAMMAR NAZI. This is completely understandable. I probably would not use this entry if I made this puzzle today, given the political climate. I still love the clue though.
Also, I see that in the newspaper version of the puzzle, the clue for EMU included a symbol. Cool. That's a good way to liven up a common answer.