When you set up a blog like this you tacitly commit to finding new things to talk about with a reasonable level of frequency, and it’s not always easy. So I’m very grateful when someone asks me a question on a subject I haven’t been thinking about or which, indeed, may be entirely new.
This one isn’t new, but I haven’t thought about it for a long time, and it’s a very simple question – when you create a good clue do you experience the thrill of an inventor, or a discoverer?
For me it’s always the latter, and that makes it more of a thrill. Our language has the glorious capacity for presenting us with things we didn’t expect, but the task of the cryptic clue-writer is to find them. Everyone knows that CARTHORSE is an anagram of ORCHESTRA and that, at some point, a crossword setter presented it to us. But here’s the thing – those words have always been anagrams of each other; they just awaited discovery.
Exactly the same thing applies to more convoluted wordplay, to indicators, to definitions. PUZZLE may have a reasonably generous, even large, number of potential definitions, but it is a finite number. Anagram indicators are plentiful but, again, finite. The number of ways in which a word can be broken down into components is never endless.
Whatever the word I need to clue, I type it into a Word doc and look for anything that stands out as exploitable, but at no point am I creating something that isn’t already there. My job is to list as many possibilities as I can find and then list as many indicators/definitions as I can find – and finally look for the various ways in which those bits and pieces can be married together to form something fair, accurate and coherent. I would never say the job is in any way mechanical, but there are rare occasions when a clue stands out for me because I happen to discover something completely unexpected. The real thrill is based on the fond hope that what you’ve found hasn’t been spotted before.
A recent clue was for a two-word phrase. At first it used standard wordplay but the overall definition was a touch too oblique to satisfy my editor; pity, because the success of the wordplay hinged on that being the definition in use. It hadn’t occurred to me to simply split the phrase into its two components and find alternative meanings for them but, out of desperation perhaps, I gave it a go. Amazingly, it turned out that a pair of different definitions strung together actually formed a valid definition of the answer, so a simple-looking clue of just two words was actually a rather surprising &Lit (all-in-one) clue.
It was a lovely discovery, and that is exactly the point. As a setter you get a huge buzz when you unearth something like this – something that was always there waiting for you.