Never give up!   5 comments

The email I received quite recently was rather sad. It came from a novice setter – I won’t give any details here, but it revolved around the frustration of what was felt to be an inability to get a full set of clues good enough for publication or submission. Essentially the tone was “I keep getting it wrong”.

Well, we all get things wrong, even the most experienced, and it’s because we’re human. The following (which is a true story) will, I hope, illustrate how giving up can be something for which you’ll never forgive yourself.


It’s about 9am on a Saturday morning. Making coffee in the kitchen, the phone rings. The call ends and I put the phone down. Debbie appears near the top of the stairs; sits down and asks who I was speaking to. I say it was just a personal call. At that moment a 5-year relationship comes to an end.

Of course it does. At a time when our relationship is a fortnight into a sticky patch, telling her (in her own house) to mind her own business is a fatal mistake. I deserved it; unfortunately none of this is what it appears to be. Let’s slow down the events.

We had an argument. It wasn’t nasty or all that serious but, for various reasons – mostly stress – I’d started smoking again and she found an ashtray hidden in a wardrobe. We still ate together, went shopping, watched TV; we just weren’t sleeping in the same bed.

Debbie was convinced I was having an affair with Julie-Ann, an ex-work colleague who, like me, was in the early stages of running her own business. I had graphics and typesetting skills which were useful to her and I needed the extra income. The affair never happened, never could. There were many reasons to do with personality, but these were minor compared to the basic one; until our time ended, I was with Debbie.

A month before the argument we’d been shopping in Walsall and I gently tapped the front of a parked car. I left a note with my contact details and an offer to pay for repairs. The owner subsequently pestered me for all kinds of unreasonable costs.

Back to that Saturday morning. It was him on the phone again. What I meant by “Just a personal call” was that I had no choice but to deal with it myself. Involving Debbie was going to add stress to an already difficult situation.

I once thought the truth was simple; Debbie assumed it was Julie-Ann on the phone. At a time when she and I were having problems, here I was ‘arranging things’ with my (as Debbie called her) little tart. Wrong. If I’d thought more carefully I’d have realised she would have heard enough snippets of conversation to know it wasn’t her. In the end, her actual question had little significance; what mattered was the moment immediately beforehand.

In confrontation, if one person is standing the other will be, too. I stood by the phone, but Debbie sat down. Not weak, not submissive. Conciliatory. A fortnight of me being in the doghouse was enough, and it was time to talk. She was reaching out for communication. Not only did I fail to see it – inadvertently I rejected her.

None of this can be undone and she will never know the truth, so I will live with it. There is a nagging fury inside me, though. If we were at the threshold of rebuilding what we used to have, one very unwelcome phone call from an irritating nobody killed the chance.

When people found out we’d split up, the most consistent reaction was “That’s wrong”. The irony is that none of us – them, Debbie, me – knew just how wrong and why.


When clue-writing doesn’t go the way you want it to, never make the assumption that it’s a reason to not carry on. After a couple of years on the Birmingham Post I basically gave up for quite a few years – I’d burned out, and that seemed to be a reason. It took over ten years for me to realise I was wrong. I wasn’t exhausting all of my good ideas; rather, I’d imagined every clue had to be a best idea on its own.

It was only thanks to the new medium of the internet that I was encouraged to rethink; without it, there’s every chance I’d never have got back into setting. It allowed me to try again and offered a medium through which I could get some feedback.

The worst thing you can ever do to yourself is narrow down the ‘bad stuff’ in such a way that you can miss the real cause. Maybe you just need more time and practice, a different working environment, different/fewer/no distractions.

My point is that if you enjoy the process of writing clues then you have it in you to write them. This isn’t some silly saccharine US-style end-of-film cosy moral. It isn’t so much about ‘believing that you can’ – I’m just saying that there will be moments when you’re tempted to believe you can’t, and that’s what you have to get out of your head.


Posted November 22, 2014 by Anax in Newsification

5 responses to “Never give up!

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  1. Excellent advice and good encouragement to those of us who believe we have what it takes to make a good compiler but perhaps need to convince not only ourselves but perhaps also, more importantly, the puzzle editors ! In my experience, in addition to the understandable self-doubt, the other major barrier facing would-be compilers is knowing how their puzzles rate and whether clues are too simplistic or too convoluted.

    Since taking early retirement six months ago I have been compiling cryptic crosswords in earnest both for my own amusement and that of friends, but I would appreciate some advice as to how to take the next step. Ideally I would like to see my crosswords in print or online one day, but I would value some professional feedback as to the standard of my efforts. Does one keep pestering or bombarding puzzle editors and hope that they will eventually reply – or is this more likely to have the opposite effect ? Would you have any suggestions in this regard ?

    Many thanks.

  2. Hi Russell
    Bombarding definitely isn’t the way – the Internet is, although I have to say the www has bad points as well as good. In the old days, editors were bombarded with postal submissions from new setters, and in the some cases the volume of these was such that they all got binned with barely a glance. The trouble was this; new setters didn’t understand the workings of crossword publication – how many setters were on the team, how their slots were allocated, or even if there was a team. Even now, when somebody asks me what I do for a living, they’re sometimes surprised that the daily cryptic doesn’t get compiled by a team of crack journos in the newspaper’s ‘Crossword Department’.
    Thanks to devoted solving blogs, regular crossword articles and, of course, personal blogs like this one here, novice setters have masses of information about how crosswords work. That’s all fine, except there is now so much readily available information that every novice and his/her dog can feel encouraged to submit. The current situation is that most quality daily cryptic teams are very full. That said, I would always encourage new setters to try The Guardian first, as they do like to claim ‘ownership’ of fresh talent. There’s good and bad in that, but it’s a discussion to be had at some other time.
    Before submitting anything, though, make use of online opportunities to get your work out there and to get feedback. The links on the left of this page include two valuable ones:
    Free Crosswords Online is run by Neil Shepherd (aka Alberich and Klingsor) and guest puzzles are always welcome. Although you won’t get feedback, the site is popular. My first puzzle there quickly resulted in a place on The Times’ team.
    DIY COW is the weekly clue-writing contest forum I set up some years ago. It too has a guest puzzles section, and the feedback you’ll get is second to none. Have a look when you get a moment, just to see how extensive (and hugely positive) the responses are. To submit to any part of the forum you need to sign up, of course, but it’s free.

  3. Also, don’t forget Big Dave’s site. He publishes puzzles from amateur setters on a Monday in a slot called Rookie’s Corner. You’ll get plenty of feedback there. Also joining DIY COW, submitting to the clue-writing contest and taking all critique on board is a great way to start. At first, I didn’t understand some of the intricacies that people would talk about, but over time you really start to appreciate the relevance of all these points. Couldn’t recommend it more.

  4. Lovely and moving story Anax, I’m very impressed you are using your personal life to illustrate a point. You’re right – it’s not just about crosswords, it’s about everything you ever do. Very relevant to me, having wasted countless hours of my life as an addicted solver I thought upon early retirement I would try sitting on the creative side of the fence. I experienced an initial rush, gee this is fun, but soon started hitting self doubt. Whenever you open a door to a new discipline, you get excited about everything you see and then you start fully realising just how good the pros are. I have been able to tell myself this happens in any new discipline and the only answer is to persist. The consciousness of the quality out there is hardly a bad thing – it is a major influence.

    I can only re-recommend the web sites already mentioned and the quality of learning that you get from DIY COW. Most of the time it takes me a long time to come up with a clue I think is good, let alone a full crossword, so I worry how rapidly i’ll ever be able to produce quality crosswords. But I feel good about how much I’ve learned from DIY COW.


  5. Thanks a lot for your suggestions and advice. I decided to make contact with Big Dave and today my first puzzle has been published in the Rookie Corner section of his website. I’m hoping that the feedback and constructive comments I receive will be extremely useful when submitting future efforts.

    Thank you all once again.

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