Best of luck goes incognito   11 comments

Because it was a prize puzzle, live until today, I spent last week in a fever of impatience, desperate to start writing about one of the nicest and strangest of clue-writing experiences.

The immediate problem, of course, is that any discussion of one of my own clues can easily come across as self-congratulation, so please let me start by saying this; what I’m about to describe came about absolutely by chance. It had nothing to do with ability or effort. And it’s something that’s never happened before.

Editing of the Sunday Times puzzle is unique in that we do it by phone. If any tweaks need further work they tend to be very minor, and at that stage the email process is sufficient. Anyway, PB called about ST 4641 and at some point I said “Ah, the SPINNAKER puzzle”. I mentioned it because, while assembling the grid, I had this spot with a few checking letters in place and SPINNAKER was the best – well, least bad – of a pretty uninspiring bunch of candidates. I could see SPINNER but no immediate potential for the remaining AK, so it looked like I’d be struggling. After a lot of faff an alternative hove into view, based on S(PIN)NAKE + R. Some thesaurus rummaging eventually allowed me to build a clue with an entirely nautical feel, and I was so hugely grateful about those happy quirks of the English language that it stuck in my mind as the puzzle’s highlight.

A Club Forum member queried a clue on the Sunday of its appearance and I opened the puzzle just to re-assure myself that I hadn’t slipped up. I often take that as an opportunity to read through the clues again and try to find other potential problems. And then I noticed 9d; specifically, I noticed what I hadn’t seen before.

When writing a clue my list of requirements is very short, just two things really:

1) It has to work technically.

2) Good surface reading.

With those in place there’s not really anything else to ask for. Other requirements tend to concern the puzzle as a whole. Is the difficulty level about right? Have I not exceeded the maximum number of anagrams, hidden answers, and have I not repeated eg wordplay indicators? Have I been able to approximately form a linear solving path so that areas of the grid will gradually open up?

9d had already ticked a couple of bonus boxes in that it was reasonably concise (always a challenge with long answers) and avoided anagrams altogether but, most importantly, boxes 1 and 2 were also ticked. Oh, the clue?

Not to be justified on earth? How appropriate (3,3,4,2,2)

It’s a straight charade, quite pleasing for me in that the split points are all different to the splits in the answer and, even better, the charade converts the 5 words in the answer to 4. So we have:

FORTH (‘on’) + E (‘earth’, as you’d see on a plug) + HELLO (‘how’, in Native American style) + FIT (‘appropriate’), all leading conveniently to FOR THE HELL OF IT (‘not to be justified’). Nice! Oh, but hang on…

Yes, so what struck me a week or so after writing it was ‘earth’ in the clue and HELL in the answer. Suddenly the whole thing was blessed with an extra depth and a real &Lit feel (although that’s not what it is). It’s odd to think that, had I not had reason to re-open the file, I would probably never have seen this extra little thing going on.

As I’ve said many times, I see clue-writing as discovery, not invention. There’s something a bit spooky about the idea that I could have discovered something and ended up being permanently unaware of it.

The strangest thing of all, though, is the final result of all this good fortune. Of all the Club and blog comments, SPINNAKER and FOR THE HELL OF IT pass by pretty much unnoticed. In fact a number of solvers reserved their highest praise for a clue which, to me, was pretty ordinary – asked to select my personal top ten I’d have put this one a long way out of the running, probably not even in the top twenty.


Posted May 17, 2015 by Anax in Uncategorized

11 responses to “Best of luck goes incognito

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  1. Fascinating blog, Anax. And a fantastic clue.
    I certainly often have a feeling of some clues [and, even more so, themes] being sort of ‘delivered’ from who knows where. If I weren’t a total rationalist I’d suspect some very geeky guardian angel honing clues for my delectation and use. I actually suspect a combination of serendipity and having a subconscious that is loads cleverer than my rather feeble (and increasingly so) conscious mind! But most setters I meet are obviously pretty smart so I might be the exception there.
    And I recognise that disconnect between how I value my own clues [and indeed whole thematic puzzles] and how they are received. Some treasures disappear unappreciated and without trace and other clues and puzzles somehow do [to my mind] surprisingly well.

    I think I was disappointed when nobody commented at the time on one of those ‘delivered’ clues “Fleet mounts strike across here” in which every word of the surface has a quite different cryptic function [ RACEHORSES = fleet mounts, strike (imperative) [as in strike camp] = anagrind, across here = anagram fodder. Well, I’ve mentioned it now! 🙂

  2. That’s a beauty! I see a couple of people mentioned it – particularly amazed to see Don actually offering praise for an individual clue, which I’ve not seen him do before (he does offer praise on occasion, but generally for the puzzle as a whole).

  3. Thanks Anax. I only now see this was my very first Crosophile puzzle for the Indy and yes it did get picked out for comment. Unreliable narrator 😀

  4. It makes me think of those occasions – doubtless you’re familiar – when we’re asked to quote our favourite clues. It’s so difficult to give a true answer because our first thought is that the readership/listeners will be expecting something spectacular; but the clue isn’t as important as how you got there.
    We love to do our secret prep of stand-out clues long before they appear in a puzzle, but these are composed in an environment of total freedom. For me, a blindingly innovative pre-written clue isn’t as satisfying as a good one written under the pressure of having to find it for an answer forced into the grid.
    Right now I’d call FOR THE HELL OF IT my personal favourite, but I’d never quote it, because the vast majority of the audience wouldn’t see anything particularly special about it.

  5. I know what you mean. For some reason bloody “GESG (9,4)” wins every time! WHY??!!!!?!??!!

  6. Arranges fingers in form of crucifix.

  7. 😀

  8. I think one reason why there is often a wide difference between setters’ and solvers’ evaluation of clues is that it’s far more of an achievement for to come up with an adequate clue for intractable words than to produce a good clue for a “friendly” word. I often use OMNIVOROUSNESS as an example of the former. It doesn’t break down easily into wordplay in any obvious way; it is hard to define succinctly and it doesn’t lend itself to a cryptic-only definition. Any setter who comes up with a half-decent clue for this word deserves to be congratulated, but solvers often see clues in terms of the end result rather than the clueability of the word (and understandably so), so the skill required to provide an OK clue for words like this often goes unrecognised.

    I wish I’d thought of the FOR THE HELL OF IT clue myself!


  9. I love the sentiment of a clue unintentionally being better than intended, though there is a flip side of the coin – equally, there are those clues which in all innocence did not intend to have *that* additional innuendo. Sound familiar? I’m a bit worried I may have more examples of this than the other way around. Any one want to share examples?

  10. The subject of awkward words is an interesting one. I’m not sure there are particular words that fill me with dread. I’m made far more nervous by the plethora of very common prefixes and suffixes; CON-, UN-, SUB-, INTER-, -LESS, -NESS, -ATION, -ING and so many others can be real problems. It’s not that they’re nasty groups of letters, rather the difficulty in giving them any sort of new treatment. In ST4644 the rows containing 11/12a and 17/19a originally had their dividing blocks in all manner of different locations, basically because I was unhappy with 17a (spot the oh-no-not-again prefix and only-appears-in-crosswords river!) and desperately sought alternatives. In the end I was ‘rescued’ by a fairly unfamiliar word as part of the wordplay – not that rare, to be honest, but the comparatively rare root of a much more common word.
    I’ll struggle to think of examples of what you’re referring to, Dutch. I’m sure there are some – just can’t think of any. It does remind me, though, how good clues go can go largely ignored while ordinary ones can gain plaudits.

  11. Aha, I think that FOR THE HELL OF IT clue suffered from being just too good! I have vague recollections of doing the puzzle, but like others I suspect I bunged this one in from the crossers, assuming it to be some kind of cryptic def. It would probably have got more kudos if people had had to actually unravel it to stand a chance of seeing the answer.

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