Today I smash the dome of secrecy that covers crossword-making in mystery. Ignore the man behind the curtain and join me—as we interactively construct next week’s Slate crossword puzzle together!
Each puzzle starts with a theme. Well, each puzzle starts with a beer, then a theme (the theme is a group of the several longest words in a crossword puzzle that have some unifying motif). This puzzle’s theme was inspired by “The Fray,” where Deej harrumphed that the Slate puzzles are too U.S.-centric and asked for a Canadian-themed puzzle. OK, Deej, let’s do it! Hoser power!
Theming starts with free association: Canada, maple leaf, Quebec, Toronto. Nothing coming to mind … Mom, Dad, childhood, anger, WHY CAN’T YOU PAY ATTENTION TO ME? AREN’T I WORTHY OF YOUR LOVE AND AFFEC—sorry, that was way off-topic. Jean Chrétien, hockey, Wayne Gretzky, all the good comedians, Nova Scotia, “Eh?”
Lights start flashing: Maybe “Eh?” is something we can work with. Political words/phrases starting with EH? Let’s see what we can unearth from that angle.
A few minutes’ thought yields Congressman Vernon Ehlers of Michigan; Congressman Robert Ehrlich of Maryland; former Israeli PM Ehud Barak; Ehime Maru, the Japanese fishing vessel accidentally sunk by a U.S. submarine last year; Ilya Ehrenburg, Soviet writer. This is looking good. If the Canadian national tag were “No?” instead of “Eh?” then political phrases starting with NO wouldn’t be a great theme, since there are so many. Very few words start with EH, however, and we’ve pegged five political ones, so we’ll run with this puppy.
The letters work out like a dream, too: EHUD BARAK and EHIME MARU are nine each, and ROBERT EHRLICH and ILYA EHRENBURG are 13. Since crossword puzzles are symmetrical along their diagonals, it’s key to have theme words of equal lengths to offset each other. For example, we might put EHUD BARAK in the upper left of the grid, and EHIME MARU in the bottom right to counter it. VERNON EHLERS we can split into two six-letter entries; not super-elegant, but not bad, and maybe we can find a way to make it more elegant, like putting VERNON at 1 Across and EHLERS as the last across entry in the puzzle, in the bottom right of the grid.
Now I need permission from above to continue. I send the theme idea off to my Slate editor, with the working title “He’s Backwards.” That’s not a bust on Canada, but a bit of wordplay—get it? It’s not great, but we can improve it later. She zaps me back the go-ahead, and we’re in business.
Now it’s time to make the puzzle. Cruciverbalists everywhere owe a great debt to one Antony Lewis, a twentysomething Englishman I’ve never met. He wrote a snazzy piece of software a few years ago called Crossword Compiler, which is to crossword-makers what the word processor is to novelists. It doesn’t do the work for us, but it makes it a whole lot easier.
Making a crossword used to be a graph paper and pencil affair, followed by laborious clue typing on a word processor. Crossword Compiler dramatically simplifies all these tasks—it lets you make the grid right on screen (no erasing, no graphite-covered hands), collates the clues, and even packages everything up into a tidy e-file you can e-mail directly to an editor.
First we’ll place the theme words in the grid since those are the longest. One has to keep in mind the main rules of constructing: Each word must be a minimum of three letters in length, the grid must be symmetrical, and each letter in the grid must be part of both an across and a down clue.
The theme entries are in place. Everything fit well—we didn’t get VERNON in at 1 Across like I’d hoped, but VERNON and EHLERS are still in corresponding spots in the grid, so that works. Now it’s time to work on the “fill”—just what it sounds like, filling the grid with words. (Click here to see the theme entries in the grid.)
The most frequently asked question I get at parties is, “Can’t a computer just make the crossword for you?” (The second is, “Are you going to leave, or do we have to call the cops?”) It is possible with Crossword Compiler to just click a button and have the computer make the crossword grid, and most low-end crosswords in the 99-cent book bin are made just that way. The problem is that they’re awful. For high-quality puzzles, the computer can help a little, but the human still has to do most of the word-weaving.
I try to put entries in the fill that include strange letter combinations—PLAN B, HOMONYMY, MMLIV, MBUNDU, and SIOUX, for example, all found their way in. The reason for this is to make solvers think they’ve made a mistake. For PLAN B, for example, clued “Backup operations,” I’m hoping a solver will look at a five-letter word ending in NB and think, “Well, I’ve screwed up somewhere.” My Billboard editor was recently puzzled over a six-letter word ending in YG, clued as “Big name on the sax.” He thought he’d made a mistake since no English word ends that way. He quickly realized that no word ends in YG, but a saxman does: KENNY G.
Now the fill is done, and it’s pretty solid. Some good, high-end vocab for these supersharp Slate readers (you know who you are), and no “crosswordese,” those really lame words (ANOA, ESNE, EDE) you see nowhere else in life except the crossword page.
Time for the clues. I aim to make the Slate clues very literate, politically flavored, and perhaps a bit snobbish. Like I always assume knowledge of Latin, probably a cognitive dissonance-influenced reaction to wasting three years of high school studying a dead language. (Minoan B was filled the semester I tried to sign up, so Latin it was.)
Finally, I spend about an hour fact-checking, then fax the puzzle to Slate HQ, where my editor looks it over, as does an eagle-eyed copy desk editor. They usually save me from embarrassment by finding a mistake or two, which I hastily correct. Then I zap the relevant e-files from Washington, D.C. (where I live), to Washington state (where Slate lives), they post them, and voilà! A crossword puzzle unto this Earth is born!
Time elapsed, from concept to fruition: just under five hours.