It’s only been one week since my first newsletter went out, and yes, today is Christmas Day. But I do have good reason for interrupting your Christmas morning (and honestly, if you’re the one ignoring your family right now by checking your email, then that’s on you).
Today I am delighted to be making my debut as a published crossword constructor in the Sunday New York Times.
The puzzle is titled Novel Thinking, it’s about books, and I couldn’t be more excited to share it with you and the entire crossword-solving community.
Analysis of my puzzle around the web
I’ll avoid any major puzzle spoilers in this newsletter, but consider yourself warned if you click any of these links.
Wordplay - Caitlin Lovinger at the Times’s own crossword column describes the puzzle as being “imbued with the personality of a cartoonist”, which is high praise indeed. Included in the column are my own notes on the puzzle.
XWord Info - Jeff Chen’s site has been an invaluable resource in my crossword-constructing journey. I’m delighted to have been bestowed the POW! Puzzle-of-the-Week distinction.
Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle - I read Rex’s blog every day after completing the puzzle, and I always delight in his crankiness. It’s a real badge of honour that he didn’t enjoy my puzzle; I’d almost be disappointed if he did like it.
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Constructing a crossword puzzle
Constructing crossword puzzles combines two of my loves: bad puns and tedious tinkering.
I’ve been a lifelong crossword fan, and a daily NYT solver for years. I started to teach myself how to construct crossword puzzles a few years ago and have found it to be not unlike composing a page of comics—the processes share a similar choreography of boxes and words and visual design. And both are easy skills to pick up, but difficult to master without a lot of trial and error. I've often described plotting out a story or a page of comics as being a puzzle to solve, and it has not been surprising to learn that the same is true of constructing puzzles themselves.
It helps that a career in making books ensured that I was familiar with the usual aphorisms: writing is rewriting… murder your darlings… and no, Will Shortz does not want to “hang out some time”.
Being a writer also prepared me for the numerous rejections. This puzzle was my tenth submission to the New York Times, and tenth time’s the charm, as they say.
When I think back to my earliest efforts, I was just so happy that I successfully filled an empty grid with interlocking words, that I didn’t stop to consider whether they were good words, or if the puzzle was even fun to solve (they weren’t; it wasn’t). Here I am after making my very first crossword puzzle, and emailing it to my friends, while I awaited their adulation:
As clumsy as those initial efforts were, I’m grateful for the encouraging responses I received from the Times’s editorial team, and from the handful of test-driving friends who patiently tried to make sense of my ham-fisted themes and too-cute cluing.
For anyone who wants to get into constructing puzzles, you could do worse than start with the New York Times’s own How to Make a Crossword Puzzle, Patrick Berry’s Crossword Constructor Handbook, or by visiting The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, which focuses on people from underrepresented groups who are interested in making crossword puzzles.
The genesis of this puzzle
A puzzle isn’t a puzzle without someone to solve it, and while I waited for the Old Gray Lady to accept one of mine, I looked for other ways to share my work and hone my skills. So, for the last few years I’ve made a holiday crossword puzzle for my co-workers at Tundra Books with themes playing off the titles of the books we publish.
My NYT puzzle evolved out of the Tundra holiday puzzle I made last year. After completing that puzzle, I thought that the theme could be reworked for a general audience using the titles of famous novels in the clues, rather than Tundra titles.
And here we are.
It's quite fitting that this puzzle is being published on Christmas Day, one year later. If it helps my chances at publishing more, maybe I should start making puzzles for my coworkers for every major holiday.
My first published crossword puzzle will not be my last. Certainly you’ll hear about any new puzzles in this newsletter, and in the new year I intend to make room on my website to share more of my work.
I’ll leave you with The Crossword Puzzle from the great Czech animator Michaela Pávlatová:
Happy solving and warmest wishes to you and yours this holiday season! See you in 2023.
This was the first Sunday Times puzzle I ever completed! How serendipitous to follow a link from Austin Kleon over here.
Amazing! Is it a sign of my age that I think this is the coolest thing ever?