Crossword vs Setter – a relationship   11 comments

So, a Jumbo puzzle has just been completed and sent off for testing, which means at least an hour or so before the next crossword is started. The production line needs to be stopped temporarily. That seems odd, doesn’t it?

Despite the linguistic creativity a setter must use to complete a puzzle, surely it is – at base – a mechanical process? Select or design a grid, fill it with words, write the clues, send it off.

Well, not quite. I’ve always maintained that the reason for a break between puzzles is to let exhausted brain cells recover. While there is truth in that, I don’t really believe it’s the main reason, and perhaps the Jumbo crossword has reminded me of it.

While driving some lavish sports car around the test track, a Top Gear presenter will occasionally say how the vehicle ‘talks to them’ and it sounds like pretentious crap. It’s a machine, for heaven’s sake, which can only do what the driver tells it to do – it isn’t going to talk back.

Maybe not… on the other hand, maybe there is something in it. Keen drivers will tell you how certain cars have character. It’s an undefined thing but, even if it is undefined, if you sense it then you sense it. Crosswords have this same ability to develop a sort of character, and the strange thing is that it goes beyond the setter’s personality which unavoidably drizzles itself across the clues.

It is so hard to explain that I’m not going to try – if I did try it would come across as the aforementioned pretentious crap. All I can do is attempt to describe what the feeling is or, at least, what it resembles.

Ideally, I want to have total control over every part of the process, from grid design to the final clue, but it never happens that way. I may start with one or two seed (for which I’ve already written, or almost completely formulated, clues) answers, and will gradually build up the grid based on further answers that look like they have good clue potential. At some point, though, the choices will narrow and ultimately disappear – for a particular slot only one answer will fit, regardless of whether or not I have any clue ideas. The grid imposes itself on me. The absolute control I desire has been removed.

Of course, I can seek to regain control by stepping backwards, undoing a few answers and block placements, but that’s because I have to, not because I want to, so I’ve relinquished some of the decision-making and I might even have lost a good clue or two in the process. Thanks crossword!

What we now have is a relationship. It began with me doing what I wanted to do and developed when the puzzle said “Well, actually I think you should do it this way”. If things don’t go too badly this relationship will continue for about a day, maybe a day and a half, but in that short space of time it can become the closest to ‘intense’ as you can have between a human being and an arrangement of pixels on a computer monitor. It is at its most intense – well, tense, actually – when an entire quadrant of a grid forces its answers into place and the only remedy would be so much backtracking that some exceptionally satisfying clues would be lost. I don’t want that to happen, so I let the grid have its way and brace myself for half a dozen very nasty looking answers.

This give and take between setter and puzzle constitutes much of what I think of and remember as its character. And for a few hours after completion I’m conscious of what that character was, at least to the extent that if I immediately start a new puzzle some of it will carry over. Ostensibly that’s not a disastrous thing but, for me, it creates a fear that the new puzzle won’t be as fresh as I want it to be.

The oddest thing is the speed with which that memory of character dissolves. It goes after a couple of hours. If I return to the puzzle just a week later, there will be a couple of clues whose answers I can’t remember. Given a few months I may remember only a handful and, by this stage, will have no recollection at all of how long it took to set, exactly when it was set, what the weather was like, or anything else about it. This ‘detachment’ can be quite extreme.

Very recently a crossword editor emailed to say that a particular clue had become his favourite – one to cite if ever he was asked to do so. I couldn’t solve it. I wasn’t even sure it was one of mine. The puzzle was published a few days later, and the clue in question was one I’d edited, on request, to its existing form only a fortnight or so previously.

Harsh as this may seem, my relationship with a crossword goes from occasionally troubled intensity to absolute estrangement in a period which I might be tempted to think of as either unusual or worrying. But maybe it isn’t. Perhaps the only way to stay fresh is to forget previous work as quickly as possible, and to have a completely blank psychological canvas for the next project.

If this is indeed what’s happening, and if this is the benefit, then I’m very grateful. I’m also very lucky, because that process of blanking out old puzzles isn’t something I choose to do. It just happens.

PS: Anax in the Independent tomorrow which I hope one person in particular will remember!

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Posted September 19, 2012 by Anax in Newsification

11 responses to “Crossword vs Setter – a relationship

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  1. If you remembered every detail of every crossword you would go mad (even more mad? 🙂 in no time at all. Your brain is looking after you!

  2. That’s very much the relationship I feel as though I have with the puzzles I write. It’s similar to my academic work as well – something you bust a gut over for a long period that, in a year, seems as though it couldn’t possibly have been written by you…

  3. I know just what you’re on about, but more from the point of view of poetry rather than crosswords. I’m the sort of poet who prefers rhyme and metre to free verse, so often there has to be a compromise, to make something rhyme or fit the metre. Which kind of vindicates free verse in some ways – but to me that wouldn’t have the same beauty, as I suppose a non-symmetrical “free grid” might not…that perhaps being the closest cruciverbal equivalent.

    • There are some who say there’s a poetry in cryptic clues. As it happens I disagree; the constraints are too great for that, but your comparison is an interesting one, not just because of the compromise aspect but because it also ties in with the basic thread of leaving a gap between puzzles.
      A lot more personality goes into poetry than cryptic clues, and certainly a lot more emotion. How long do you have to leave it, after writing a poem, before you can ‘forget’ its emotion and create a new one for the next?

      • It’s more about waiting for the inspiration for the next one, which can be weeks or months in some cases. I’m not professional or published, and so don’t have deadlines or anything to worry about as you might have. But I don’t think that I’ve ever felt, when starting a poem, that I’ve not had the chance to “recover”, if you like, from whatever emotions spurred me toward the previous poem. However, were it the case that I needed to write to order, and provide a certain amount of poems over a certain period of time, then knowing myself, I’d probably want some recharging time, to have that blank canvas that you mention.

  4. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. As someone who basically only sets half a dozen or so full puzzles a year this intensity – and occasional resentment of forced choices – rings particularly true. I figured perhaps this emotional attachment was *because* of my on-off setting schedule (often to deadlines I’ve totally forgotten about) but it seems as though you professionals are apt to get just as involved. It’s relieving in a way, not least because I find it passes pretty quickly too.

  5. The Indy puzzle today was very nicely done!

    There are always compromises in setting puzzles. Forced grid entries that you’d rather not have to write clues for, tension between surface and cryptic reading, not wanting to have similar clue types too close together, the list goes on.

    If you have to set puzzles regularly, you just have to move on to the next one. Who among us has spare synapses for clinging onto last month’s work, when, by their nature, newspaper crossword puzzles are ephemeral entities, more likely to be wrapping chips than eliciting comments once the next day’s paper is printed?

  6. The ‘wrapping chips’ observation is rather interesting. In their printed format many crosswords will be assigned that fate, but the proliferation of blogs over the past 6 or 7 years has also given crosswords a longevity they never had previously. The good and bad examples of the craft remain visible indefinitely, and I wonder if that influences the setter’s approach.
    Before blogs, a minor slip or an outright howler in a clue would promptly disappear; as, indeed, would a flash of brilliance.
    I have to confess it plays a part in the way I go about writing clues, and it may contribute to the sense of involvement and connection with a puzzle. Knowing it can rattle around the Internet for years to come makes me much more aware of the need to keep things tight.
    Put it this way – when I set for the Birmingham Post in the 1980s my approach certainly was different. My clues were very much of their time, but it was only the clues I concentrated on. These days I’m thinking about how many devices are used, where they are used and how close to each other they are, the overall balance of the puzzle and even what the grid looks like. Essentially, I give at least some thought to what bloggers and commenters may like or dislike, whereas in the past the almost exclusive consideration was for what the editor would think of the clues.

  7. I’ve been doing cryptic crosswords for about a year, but I’ve been writing poetry for a lot longer. While I’m deeply in love with language, solving cryptics doesn’t come easily to me; even after a year, I’d struggle to complete a cryptic from The Sun! And this is perhaps why my poetry has tended towards free verse than its more regulated counterparts. I know that rhyme and metre can improve a poem by tightening things up and forcing the poet to think beyond their own initial designs of the poem. With experience comes an appreciation of the rules – or rather, an appreciation of the creativity that can flourish within those rules. The Scottish poet Norman MacCaig said that he found it harder to write in free verse, which proves that masters of form and metre are reliant rather than restricted by poetic constraints. So as I go forward in my cryptic crossword adventure, an understanding of the rules will lead to a deep appreciation of them, which – I hope for my sake – will lead to answers.

  8. Hmm interesting could Dean, Nimrod or Bannsider set a puzzle for the Sun?

  9. Does anyone know who writes cryptics for The Sun?

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