Constructor's CommentsI won't speak for everyone who constructs lots of themeless puzzles, but it seems natural to me to relish fresh challenges within that niche. David and The Puzzle Society Crossword are trying to dispel some of the unattainable aura of open-grid puzzles—to help midweek solvers give them a new look imbued with hope! It's important for the art form to have venues that do this, so I was eager to try to achieve gently spicy fill and cluing that mostly offers clarity instead of disguise.
I've had good luck with this grid pattern many times. My favorite was a Los Angeles Times puzzle that clustered SHE-CRAB SOUP, MEDIA DARLINGS, and DISCARD PILE. But only a few times have I managed to keep the two vertical 12s that merge with the central stack, as we have here. The northwest and southeast always take a lot of trial and error in this pattern. That's the flip side of the initial elation of getting your flashy stuff to work in the middle and in the slightly easier northeast and southwest.