As you rummage around the numerous cryptic crossword blogs you occasionally see those words; commenters describing a clue as contrived or convoluted, or even accusing the setter of ‘trying to be clever’. On most occasions such comments are made in good faith but, just as often, they are made without a full understanding of what goes into creating a set of crossword clues, so let us take a little peek into the way most setters work.
Whether full-time or casual, setters generally devote the time they have available to making crosswords and, often, there is little extra time available for writing clues outside the confines of an active puzzle – but we try to squeeze in some of that time whenever we can, and it’s an important thing to do.
I can’t think of any setter who, given a blank grid, would click the ‘auto-fill’ button to populate it but, even if we adhere to the more common practice of carefully selecting answers before committing/clueing them, we end up in a situation where several answers are placed simply because nothing else will fit, so we’re forced to write clues for answers even though the prospect of doing so may be daunting. Unavoidably, our creativity (for want of a better word) gets channelled into increasingly tight confines.
As a technical exercise in keeping ourselves sharp, that is of course vital, but if we’re expected to endure the stickier moments of clue-writing then we should be allowed the freedom to develop ideas with no restrictions at all. And we do that by taking the crossword grid out of the picture. Instead, we arm ourselves with pen, paper, dictionary/thesaurus and perhaps some software to help with building anagrams.
Many people relax by reading. Such people are normal. Setters tend to be a bit weird, or at least that would be the view of an onlooker watching someone poring over a thesaurus for no obvious reason. But as we riffle through the pages we’re chasing that unexpected meaning, colloquial definition, noun-that-could-be-verb quirk – anything that appears to have cryptic potential. And what we end up with may in reality be no more than one small component of something larger, so we jot down ideas about how it might work with something else, with some other bits and pieces. Very often the ultimate quarry in this hunt is two components which, when placed alongside each other in a clue, look like they can’t possibly be separate.
If we can devote a day to this freeform thinking, most of us would probably expect to be rewarded with ten or so grin-inducing clues. And we might get two, maybe three of those into a new crossword. So is that an exercise in showing off? Absolutely not.
I’m sure it’s not just me who can be a little insecure. We all have a bit of that. And when you start a new puzzle the devil on your shoulder will at some point whisper, ever so gently, “Will this be good enough?”
The nicest response to that is to point to a couple of clues and say “Well, nobody’s going to dislike those” – and it gives you a real determination to make sure that you go on to complete the full set of clues. Abandoning a crossword is horrible, it really is. Sometimes there is a technical reason why a complete restart is needed. It hurts, but it can happen. But the very worst reason for ditching a puzzle is reading through a full set of clues and thinking “There’s nothing wrong here, but there’s nothing great either”. In a strange way, ordinary is far worse than bad.
So ‘trying to be clever’ misses the point somewhat. What we’re really doing is making sure that something stands out as a (hopefully) memorable clue. It is actually true to describe these seed clues as ‘contrived’. In many cases we’ve discovered clever wordplay components (or indicators) a long way ahead of deciding on an answer that can make use of them, so by definition these are contrived clues, but all they do is represent one of the ways in which setters go about clue-writing.
In my early years of published cryptics, my editor Roger Squires gave this piece of advice; whatever the rest of the puzzle is like, make sure the first clue Across is a good one – it sets the tone for the rest of the puzzle. I’m pretty much in agreement – not totally. Part of the problem there, I think, is that such an ideal opening clue would have to be clever, witty, concise, original and almost instantly solvable, and it’s that last bit that’s difficult. Clever and original suggests something a little unexpected, so I don’t imagine a solver getting it immediately; they would just move on to the next clue. However, an opening clue which is wordy (and indeed patently crosswordy in its language) and fails to present a convincing tale will immediately come across as setting a poor tone. So, really, Roger is correct; if that first clue can’t be solved at first glance then it has to at least make the solver want to know the answer – it has to be intriguing. For that reason you don’t find many duff clues at 1 Across. And you can be very sure that, in many cases, that 1 Across slot has been reserved for what some would call a ‘contrived’ clue.
To finish, how about ‘convoluted’? All I can say to that is “It happens”. It’s the nature of clue-writing, unfortunately, that gives us some answers which just refuse to be broken down into a couple of easy chunks. For me there is a difference between ‘wordy’ and ‘convoluted’. A wordy clue is simply long(!). A convoluted clue contains a good link-up between at least two components, but the rest of the letters in the answer don’t readily avail themselves to either brevity or consistency with the story. The biggest danger with these clues is that they eat up setting time and, believe me, there is a point at which we setters begin to grind our teeth. Setting is creative (lovely jubbly) but time is money (big hair, shoulder pads) and we don’t get paid that much. So a convoluted clue is one in which a couple of good ideas have been successfully married up, but we’ve had to wrestle with the rest of it to get something which, as a minimum, sticks to the rules. It may look desperate. I can only assure you that, well… yes it is.