Thursday, May 31, 2018

"Social Networking," by Mike McHugh

Constructor's Comments

With this, my debut piece, I'd like to say that I'm happy to be counted as a contributor to the Puzzle Society Crossword, and I'd like to thank David for his suggestions along the way in putting this together.  If I remember correctly, LION'S SHARE was the seed of this theme idea, and I wondered what other common phrases I might be able to come up with that could be interpreted as Facebook activities.  I had LIKE, COMMENT, and TAG as my other Facebook words; thanks to David for suggesting REACTION.

On the long downs, David gets credit for HUNG JURIES.  I came up with IT ISN'T A TOY out of brainstorming possible phrases to fit three crossing letters.  I don't know how many folks have heard their parents use that one phrase, but mine sure did.  The way I used to get into things, I heard it plenty of times!

Editor's Comments

Some solvers complain that crossword puzzles skew old, so I always appreciate seeing a theme with a 21st-century twist.  Mike found four clever phrases that could be "reclued" in Facebook-related ways.  He's also much too kind to give me so much credit for HUNG JURIES.  The real gem in the fill is IT ISN'T A TOY—after quickly checking my word list, the only other options I came up with were the considerably less interesting IMMINENTLY and INSINUAT(ES/ED/OR).  Amazing that Mike was able to find such a lively, in-the-language phrase for an ultra-constrained slot, let alone one that (to my knowledge) has never appeared in a crossword grid!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

"Name Changes," by Paul Coulter

Constructor's Comments

This one had a strange beginning.  I started with celebs whose initials are forms of the verb to be—BARBARA EDEN, INGER STEVENS, ALYSSA MILANO (so BE, IS, AM).  For instance, the clue for Barbara Eden would be something like [Actress who got to ___ Jeanie (see initials)].  I also had [Activist actress who could claim, "I ___ the Boss" (see initials)].  It wasn't really working, so I morphed into this idea.

Here are some more "verb-ose" celebs who didn't get a callback:  Tom Waits [Alley cat lingers?], Hope Solo [Aspire alone?], Charlie Rose [Revlon perfume went up in price?], Beau Bridges [Boyfriend crosses?], George Burns [In 1776, England's king is furious?], and Bill Withers [Congressional proposal languishes?].

Editor's Comments

In Paul's original version of this theme, "Life Sentences" was the title.  Deciding whether something should be the title or the reveal is always tricky—in this case, I thought the life sentence wordplay was so clever that I didn't want it to be given away so quickly.  The downside of moving a clever title into the grid is that the new title usually pales in comparison.  "Name Changes" may not be as clever as the original, but I still like it, and I hope the aha moment produced by uncovering LIFE SENTENCE makes the trade-off worthwhile.

I'd also like to echo Paul's point about how themes often evolve numerous times from their initial conceptions.  I've started constructing many a "dead-end puzzle" over the years, only to scrap it and reuse part of the idea for something completely different.  The hard part is giving up on a theme you've already spent a long time brainstorming, so I admire how Paul quickly pivoted from one approach to another.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

"High Numbers," by Erik Agard

Constructor's Comments

David mentioned on the blog recently that he has trouble identifying where his crossword theme ideas come from—I have the same problem.  I'm going to hazard a guess and say this one was inspired by a great article about a lesser-known 33-Down.

Editor's Comments

I took an intro stats course last quarter, so this puzzle's theme made me smile.  Erik also did a great job of spicing up the fill.  My favorite theme entry is the lively MEDIANOCHE, which was new to me but is now something I really want in my life!  In the nonthematic fill, I especially like AMSTERDAM (as opposed to OSLO, the European capital that you usually see because of its friendly letter pattern), COLLARDS, MERMAID, TOTE BAG, TRAP MUSIC, and FRY BREAD.  Also, almost all of the clues are Erik's.  Despite being the fastest solver in the world, Erik has an excellent sense of how to make the cluing just right for the rest of us mortals!

Monday, May 28, 2018

"Be Alert," by Lynn Lempel

Editor's Comments

Lynn Lempel is widely considered to be one of the masters of early-week puzzles, and she certainly lives up to her reputation in this one!  Look how she squeezed in five long theme entries while still leaving room for fun fill like ICONOCLAST, SCREWBALLS, and SNAPPY.  Oh, and did I mention how smooth the short stuff is?  Gridwork aside, I got a chuckle out of all the theme entries, my favorites BE-ing BEAN AFFAIR/TO REMEMBER and BERATING SCALE.  Barred owl is probably the toughest of the base phrases, but I've heard of it outside of crosswords.  If you don't think birds can be cute, you might change your mind after seeing this face:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

"Sunday Freestyle XIII," by Harvey Estes

Editor's Comments

Harvey's original grid had an extra pair of black squares where the C in SWISS CHALET and the D in COEUR D'ALENE are.  The fill was smooth, though it bugged me a little that the grid felt so sectioned off, so I challenged Harvey to turn what was originally ILENE into COEUR D'ALENE.  You usually just see ALENE in crossword grids (clued as [Coeur d'___]), so having the city's full name seemed like a nice change of pace.  Elsewhere in the puzzle, my favorite entries are DOG WHISTLE, with its contemporary clue; HUMBLEBRAG; TWEET CRED; MOOT POINT; SWISS CHALET; and the wackily spelled NASTASSJA at 1-Across.  That's one way to start a puzzle in style!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

"Free for All XIII," by Ryan McCarty

Constructor's Comments

I started this puzzle with SEERSUCKER SUITS running right down the middle—it's still a fun and interesting entry despite all of the friendly letters, which is a relatively rare combination with 15-letter entries in my experience.  I don't own a seersucker suit, but I do have a pair seersucker pants I'll wear with a navy suit jacket to the office in the summer on occasion.

From there I worked on getting a solid triple stack in the middle, which took a bit of trial and error but eventually worked out.  After getting the middle solid, filling each of the four corners didn't take too long, as they were pretty isolated.  Even so, I have many half-finished puzzles on my computer where I've given up after attempting to fill some wider corners cleanly, so I may have gotten lucky here :-).  My favorite answers are probably FRAT BROS and POLI SCI MAJORS, but maybe that's because Princeton Reunions are around the corner. . . .

I also want to give a shout out to my sister Kristen who is graduating from West Point today!  I couldn't be more proud of her.

Editor's Comments

Getting a "stagger stack" as lively as POLI SCI MAJORS/LET'S MAKE A DEAL/DANIELLE STEEL to work with clean short fill is quite an achievement.  Having SEERSUCKER SUITS run through everything brings the puzzle from "wow" to "WOW"!  Elsewhere in the fill, I like how Ryan placed a focus on entries that are legitimate and interesting yet rarely show up in crosswords—for example, I don't recall having seen ZEBRA FOAL or DNA CHIP anywhere else.  And finally, I got a kick out of seeing FRAT BROS at 1-Across—even though I'm the furthest thing from one myself!

Friday, May 25, 2018

"Right Wrongs," by Evan Kalish

Constructor's Comments

When I started dabbling in construction several years ago, I found developing original theme ideas very difficult.  What I had was a slew of then–New York Times debut entries scribbled on scraps of paper, including MARGIN OF ERROR.  Then, one night, it struck me:  What if the puzzle had entries that extended beyond the grid, into the margin . . . literally, some margin of error?  And what better a stand-in for ERROR than . . . —OOPS!  "This is fantastic," I thought.  "Just think, these entries are marching along, minding their own business, then suddenly they come up against the end of the grid and then . . . —OOPS!  It works on so many levels!"  Full disclosure:  I was not entirely sober at the moment of this epiphany.

The New York Times didn’t find my initial (2013) submission compelling, which was fortunate, since that enabled me to revisit and enhance the idea with the benefit of additional experience.

This theme would be super uncool if all the answers were just arbitrary -OOP plurals.  David initially thought I SUPPORT THE TROOPS was a bit too contrived, and I'm glad he came around. JUMPING THROUGH HOOPS would have made the perfect grid-spanning central entry for this grid, but working around that forced excessive grid compromises.  Another possibility I loved:  EVERYONE POOPS!  Unfortunately, that might just be a little too scandalous for the general solving public.

I hope you didn't get too startled by my sneaky little theme entry in the top row.  If so, MY MISTAKE!  I'd tried to include that as the grid's final entry (at 68-Across)—a cruciverbal exclamation point, if you will.  Again, it wasn't worth the compromises in the resulting fill.

I was pleased with several of the long down entries, including AERIAL MAPS, which I utilize all the time in travel planning.  You can see some of the results of my travels at Postlandia, stories and photos from the (presently 9,100) post offices I've visited across the country.  It's fun, I swear!

Oh yes, and thanks to David for reviving this otherwise dormant idea!

Editor's Comments

I've seen a handful of outside-the-box themes over the years, though never one that works quite like this.  I had fun imagining the "margin of error" to the right of the grid!  Evan also knocked the fill out of the park—in addition to keeping things extra-smooth, even in areas constrained by multiple theme entries, he worked in fun bonuses, such as DON'T FORGET, PIE CRUST, USB PORTS, HEY MAN, MY MISTAKE, and, as he mentioned, AERIAL MAPS.  I also laughed when I saw Evan was considering using EVERYONE P(OOPS).  I still own a great children's book with that title—saving it for my future kids' potty-training days!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

"Mix-Ups," by Alex Eaton-Salners

Constructor's Comments

This puzzle's journey started with the realization that LEMON could be "TWISTed" into MELON.  Fortuitously, while collecting other phrases with the same structure, I came across JUMBLE OF WORDS, which does double duty and also serves as a revealer.  Along the way, I considered using shorter anagrams but decided that keeping them at 5 letters or longer made for more interesting wordplay.

Using paired theme entries of lengths 12 and 13 forces the placement of the 10 black squares on the left and right edges of the grid and also limits the vertical options ([because there are] no theme entries in rows 3 or 13).  Nevertheless, I think the puzzle turned out pretty well.

Editor's Comments

I'm a big fan of cryptic crosswords, which are known for their anagram clues, so this theme hits close to home for me.  Having JUMBLE OF WORDS as both a theme entry and the reveal sealed the deal.  That to me is more ingenious than fortuitous—Alex is much too modest!

He also brings up an interesting point about grid design in his last paragraph.  Because he used two 12-letter theme entries and two 13s, the highest he could place one of them was row 4.  Placing a theme entry in row 3—usually the highest position for a theme entry—would have required either words that are less than 3 letters long or big clumps of black squares.  Having the first theme entry in row 4 constrained the grid design more than usual, but I nonetheless feel that Alex maximized the long down slots he was able to use with ROT IN JAIL and BUSTS A RIB, both fun phrases that don't show up much in crosswords.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

"I'm Out of Here!" by Ross Trudeau

Constructor's Comments

This puzzle was conceived when my eye fell on an old DVD of Meet John Doe with the Me obscured by another DVD box.  E.T. JOHN DOE tickled me so much that I tried to figure a decent revealer on the spot, with DON'T START WITH ME coming soon thereafter.  (ME)TA CENTERS was the editor's suggestion to round out the theme.  VoilĂ !

Editor's Comments

I love Ross's story about how he came up with this theme!  As a constructor, I have a lot of trouble identifying what inspires me—ideas just pop into my head randomly, especially during stressful times.  In fact, I do most of my constructing right before exams!  The New York Times recently published an article on procrastibaking, so I'll coin my "condition" procrastiverbalism.

Ross also mentions the theme entry (ME)TA CENTERS.  He originally had D STUDENTS in that slot (from med students), though it bothered me that D students was a legitimate expression.  We both dug around to find other possibilities, and for whatever reason, my eye landed on metacenters and confused it with the much more common word epicenters.  Excited that I'd found something, I sent it off to Ross, and he reworked the lower part of the puzzle accordingly.

Fortunately, our test solvers asked me what on earth a metacenter was!  After a quick Google search, I realized I'd goofed.  Discovering (ME)GALOPOLIS, which tickled me and could be substituted in without losing too much of Ross's top-notch gridwork, was a last-minute stroke of luck.  Many thanks to Ross for giving me more credit than I deserve and to our test solvers for keeping me honest.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

"Outward Appearances," by Matt Jones

Editor's Comments

Legendary constructor Matt Jones (of Jonesin' Crossword fame) is up today with an "outer layer" synonym theme!  I like how the theme has a modern vibe—I primarily associated skin and case with iPhones—but that it can still be appreciated by people of all generations.  Matt also worked a lot of fun entries into the fill.  My favorites are TIGER CUB, LASER GUN, CHILI DOG, PAINT CAN, and SPINNER (with Matt's timely fidget spinner reference).  When fidget spinners first came out, I remember thinking to myself, "Eh, I don't need one."  But when I saw a fidget spinner for $3 in New York last summer, I couldn't help myself, and I've been hooked ever since.  I'll close with one of my all-time favorite fidget spinner depictions, a Baby Blues comic:

Monday, May 21, 2018

"Swindler's List," by Val Melius

Constructor's Comments

This particular puzzle actually started out quite differently—wasn't focused on various elements of a casino, was a bit of a mess, had LOADED DICE paired with HIDDEN CARD—these just wouldn't work.

Spoke to a friend, and he was, like, how about MARKED CARD and focusing on items used for cheating.  I was, like, hmm . . . that could work.  Spent the next couple of days doing research and was amazed at all the tricky ways to cheat—they were literally evening the odds.

Spent a couple days on grid design, creating multiple iterations of the fill and overall black square pattern—all whilst listening to some EDM [electronic dance music] and nu jazz.  Music tends to keep me motivated, especially when the grid doesn't work—starting over is easier whilst listening to some tunes; each black square movement feels playful, making you want to get a lot more creative with the design.

Like switching it up in the design phase—won't stick to the regular black squares; they might be gray, blue, green, etc.  Tend to gravitate towards the gray squares, though, since I like’s puzzle preview.  Anyways, enough of my ramblings—hope you guys had a great time solving this one; looking forward to creating more amazing stuff.

Editor's Comments

I've been fascinated with casinos since I was six years old.  My family was visiting Las Vegas, and my mom decided to teach me a lesson about gambling by feeding a nickel into a slot machine.  "See," she said, "we're going to lose our nickel."  To her surprise, the slot machine spit out five dollars worth of nickels!

Today's puzzle thus hits the jackpot for me.  In fact, the theme is so narrow that I'm impressed Val was able to come up with four examples, let alone ones that can be arranged symmetrically.  He also did a great job keeping the fill Monday-smooth—he even classed it up with an ESCARGOT.  And finally, Val hails all the way from Saint Lucia, which makes today's puzzle extra-special.  Happy Monday, everyone!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"Sunday Freestyle XII," by Claire Muscat

Constructor's Comments

Hello, everyone!  My name is Claire Muscat, and I am a recent college graduate living in Chicago, Illinois.  I've had puzzles published in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the American Values Club Crossword, Queer Qrosswords, and The Orange Country Register.  I'm thrilled to be adding Andrews McMeel Universal to that list, and I look forward to contributing more!

I always try to start a themeless with a few really fun entries I can build the puzzle around.  In this case, my springboard was HEART EMOJI, an entry I really like because of its modern flair and clue-ability.  That was followed by entries like ATHLEISURE, GLUTEN-FREE, and SLEEPER HIT (as well as the dumb-luck cross of THOR and RAGNAROK), and I was pleased to have a puzzle with so many fresh, exciting entries.

However, I always find the balance between entries I really like and acceptable fill a hard line to walk.  There is fill in there I definitely would be happier without—TCI and ELY in particular, which serve as a good reminder that there is always room for improvement.  However, at the end of the day, I'm proud to put this puzzle out there regardless!

I hope the solving experience is a good one.  Lastly, I am always looking for feedback, so don't hesitate to reach out!

Editor's Comments

Claire put together a lovely themeless, and I'm not just saying that because HEART EMOJI is in the grid.  There are just so many great entries, from the ones Claire listed above to WHITE HATS (clued as [Ethical hackers]).  I also laughed out loud when I saw HAIRY LEGS—that's the kind of unexpected yet totally legitimate entry I enjoy uncovering most as a solver!  Crossing THOR and RAGNAROK is another elegant touch.  Watch for more of Claire's themelesses in the coming weeks!

Saturday, May 19, 2018

"Free for All XII," by John Guzzetta

Constructor's Comments

I keep a list of phrases on the notes feature of my phone, and every now and then I'll pull a few from it to seed a themeless puzzle.  For some weird reason the SE section usually comes into focus first, and I end up working backward.

In this case, I really liked everything in the SE except EMPTY NESTS, which didn't sound quite right as a plural.  I decided to plunk a cheater square in the corner and try CLICK FARM off my list at 1-Across, and it all came together from there, except for the BANC/ASCH crossing.  I guess the cheater in the corner doesn't look all thaaaaat bad. . . .

Editor's Comments

This themeless is a beauty all around!  All 12 of the long entries are colorful and lively, and if that plus the smooth short fill isn't impressive enough, John even worked some goodies into the midlength fill (such as PLUS SIZE and MAH-JONGG).  If I had to pick five entries that stand out to me the most, they'd be CLICK FARM, FEATHER BOA, HORSE LAUGH, ZERO TO HERO, and MR UNIVERSE.  John has become one of my favorite themeless constructors in the business—watch for another one of his puzzles here in a couple weeks and be sure to solve his New York Times puzzle today, too!

Friday, May 18, 2018

"Call Batman!" by Zhouqin Burnikel

Constructor's Comments

When I first proposed the idea to David, it was just a simple HA* HA* theme.  He proposed that we remove HA from the grid and use THE JOKER as a reveal.  And he gave me a list of the words from a quick program he wrote.  Just amazing!  Grid-wise, I initially put SARA in 53-Across—totally forgot my original word.  Thankfully I caught my goof [before] I sent out the grid to David.

Editor's Comments

Zhouqin did an amazing job with this puzzle!  Incorporating 12 short theme entries may not look hard, but with two entries constraining every corner of the grid, I'd argue that it's one of the most challenging layouts.  As usual, though, Zhouqin made it look easy—she got THE JOKER to cross two theme entries, and she even worked in fun bonus fill such as SCAREDY CAT, EYES ON ME, and PANDORA.  The clues were also top-notch.  One of the only changes I made was adding another DC reference to the RIDDLE clue.  You may think you've conquered the puzzle after catching The Joker red-handed, but there's always a need for Batman!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

"Getting Carded," by Pam Amick Klawitter

Constructor's Comments

When I first tried my hand at constructing, themes were difficult to come by.  However, with a few years of experience under my belt, ideas seem to pop up everywhere!  This theme came to me when I was reading something about peridot and noticed the word Perot in there for some reason.  The thought of H ROSS PERIDOT cracked me up (I'm easily amused), and I took it from there.

I worked with David on a couple of Orange County Register puzzles and was thrilled when he made this new venue available to constructors.  As a writer and retired educator, I have found crossword constructing to be a great way to keep up with current events and pop culture and to keep my language skills as sharp as possible.

Editor's Comments

I had a feeling Pam started with H ROSS PERIDOT.  When I judge add-a-letter themes, my two main criteria are humor and unexpectedness, and that theme entry in particular received top marks in both categories.  The other three theme entries are also very nice.  Speaking of humor, one of Pam's signature touches is an extra dose of funny clues.  My favorite clue in this puzzle is [Long dammed river] for NILE . . . that's just a beauty, especially for an entry that you wouldn't necessarily expect to have many clever cluing possibilities!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"Neigh-Saying," by Sheryl Bartol

Constructor's Comments

I am a relative newcomer to constructing, but now that I've started, I find myself looking for themes everywhere.  This one came to me while hearing about filibusters on the news and realizing how close that sounded to FILLYBUSTER.  That led me down the path of thinking about different names for horses and how they could be adjusted to common expressions.  Other horse phrases that I considered but rejected included FOAL NELSON, COLT COMFORT, and MARE MORTAL.  Ultimately it came down to using the theme words that fit well together.

As this is my first blog post, I’d like to thank David for creating this great new outlet for puzzles.  I would also like to give a shout-out to my sister, Debbie Ellerin, for mentoring me every step of the way in constructing.  Watch for her puzzles here!

Editor's Comments

Some solvers love puns and others don't, but I personally have a soft spot for them.  All four of these horse puns made me smile, and I like how Sheryl balanced single-word base phrases (filibuster and coldhearted) and multiword base phrases (full circle and hoarse voice).  In her original submission, Sheryl clued HORSE VOICE like all the other theme entries, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to harness it for a reveal.  Okay, I should really stop with the horse puns!

There's an old piece of wisdom in the crossword community that the best way to tell a constructor's skill level is by how smooth the easiest corners to fill are.  The upper right and lower left (and all other areas of the grid, for that matter) are silky-smooth, so even though Sheryl is relatively new, she's quickly turning into a pro.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Soaring Costs," by Clive Probert

Constructor's Comments

I was playing around with phrases associated with flying and planes and airport signs and remembered that those pesky airline fees were upsetting everyone, including me.  So here was a chance for a social statement theme instead of a wordplay theme.  David suggested adding BUDGET AIRLINE as a kind of reveal.

I live in Arizona, so making crosswords is a great pastime for the hot summer when confined to air-conditioning.  My other intellectual activity is math tutoring, which I do online, connecting to students all over the country.

Editor's Comments

As someone who's dealt with many overpriced airline commodities, I got a chuckle out of this theme.  The only thing it's missing is a reference to the overpriced food.  I still haven't forgotten the $11 mini cheese pizza I bought at JFK that fell apart after I took my first bite!  Anyway, it can't have been easy to come up with symmetrical theme entries out of such a narrow set of possibilities, and Clive did a nice job of keeping the fill Tuesday-smooth.  I hope the reveal provides a nice kicker, too.

Monday, May 14, 2018

"Three Strikes," by Brian Thomas

Constructor's Comments

I chanced upon this theme idea while making another puzzle—SET IN STONE and SPIKE STRIP both fit in a nontheme slot, and from there I just needed a good 10-letter BUMP phrase to pair with VOLLEYBALL, and the theme was ready to go.  I had a lot of fun playing with the grid without being very theme-constrained, though I got a little too ambitious at first.  David was very helpful in curbing those ambitions—he suggested adding in the black square under 9-Down, and that really allowed the grid to come together pretty cleanly (at least I think so!).

Editor's Comments

Today's theme is light and breezy.  Volleyball makes me think of the beach, which makes me think of summer . . . darn it, I still have one more month of school!  Anyway, Brian did a masterful job with this construction.  All the theme entries are lively and nicely change the meaning of their volleyball terms, plus the fill is loaded with zingy bonus entries—I especially like AWAY TEAM, I HOPE SO, RUN SCARED, A LOT TO DO, TIME TO KILL, YES MOM, and OPEN BAR.  I also have a funny story about TRINI LOPEZ:  As a millennial, I only know the name from crosswords, and it was only in the past year or so that I learned Trini Lopez was a man, not a woman.  Just one perk of learning most of what you know from crossword clues!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

"Sunday Freestyle XI," by Ryan McCarty

Constructor's Comments

I really enjoy constructing low word-count themeless puzzles with wide-open grids.  When I heard about these themeless puzzles being of medium difficulty, I decided to take on the challenge of making a typically difficult low word-count puzzle more accessible.  That meant doing away with all of the obscurities, difficult proper names, etc., that you might be able to get away with in a harder puzzle, which was no easy feat.  I came up with this 64-word grid design specifically because it used a lot of shorter, more familiar 3-, 4-, and 5-letter Down entries that would (hopefully) help to reveal the longer, jazzier Across answers.

When I'm not making puzzles, I do tech consulting at the SEC and sing in and compose/arrange music for various groups in the D.C. area.  I hope you enjoy the puzzle!

Editor's Comments

When Ryan sent me this wide-open grid, my jaw dropped!  I then shifted my attention to the fill, where I expected to see at least a few iffy entries holding everything together.  Nope—in fact, there isn't a single entry I'd ding anywhere in the puzzle.  "Okay," I remember thinking, "constructors often get stuck with bland long entries when the short fill is that smooth."  Wrong again—there are so many entries I like here, especially WELL SHUCKS, ARGYLE SOCK, I'M TERRIBLY SORRY, SIDE SALAD, ALOE VERA GEL, BREADBASKET, LOW-ENERGY, HIMALAYAS, UNDERCOVER AGENT, SNEAK A PEEK, and the wacky-looking KC ROYAL.  Ryan may be relatively new to the game, but he's already becoming one of the top themeless constructors in the business.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

"Free for All XI," by Mark Diehl

Constructor's Comments

My approach when constructing a themeless puzzle is to create a puzzle that feels enjoyable to solve—a bit of a struggle, perhaps, but ultimately conquerable by most solvers.

To that end, I try to pick an open grid design with good flow throughout—one that allows the solver multiple points to tackle stubborn sections while they solve.

I started the filling process for this particular grid with the 1-Across entry, since this colorful phrase was fresh in my mind from a recent Family Dinner Night discussion of what makes for a better "scary" movie format:  the modern procession of in-your-face JUMP SCARES or the classic prolonged escalation of atmospheric dread and tension.  (BTW, the consensus was heavy on the classic with a minimum of JS needed.)  Filling step-by-step from this "seed" entry, whenever presented with a choice of what might fit next, I usually opt for using multiword entries, as they tend to be more interesting, and I sprinkle in some scrabbly letters along the way for added zest.

On the what-not-to-use-as-fill side for themeless puzzles, I tend to avoid the use of partials (ON A, UP A, etc.) and abbreviations (MGR, PKG, TSP, etc.).  I also struggle hard to avoid using "cheater" squares—those extra black squares in the corners that don't affect the word count of a puzzle—when filling a themeless grid because I hate to cheat the solver out of another pair of squares that need filling in.

All these factors tend to increase the challenge of constructing a themeless puzzle, yet I think the solver usually benefits from a smoother and more consistently enjoyable solve.  At least, that's what I keep telling myself—enjoy :)!

Editor's Comments

Were you surprised to see JUMP SCARE at 1-Across?  That's almost a jump scare in and of itself!  Other entries I especially like include ARE YOU MAD, COME NOW, LEGO SET, NASDAQ, TECUMSEH, ART THEORY, MEXICANO, S'MORES, and BONA FIDE.  Also, as per usual with Mark's themelesses, the fill feels extra-smooth.  There isn't a single short abbreviation in sight (unless you count VID, which I'd argue is more informal) . . . quite a feat, given how much zing he packed in.  And finally, almost all the clues are Mark's.  Cluing a themeless at a medium level can be tough, but he nailed it.

Friday, May 11, 2018

"Up Top," by Jeffrey Wechsler

Constructor's Comments

I assume that most crossword constructors have developed a sort of sixth sense (complete with mental antennae!) that suddenly converts random phrases and words into potential crossword themes.  It is not an inherited trait; it comes in response to environmental stimuli—the multitude of verbal or written words that appear around us constantly, and the pressing need to come up with another darned theme idea!  Every so often, a phrase strikes the brain as usable puzzle material.  I have no recollection of where or when I encountered or thought of the term "high five," but upon consideration, the implications of the phrase came to the fore (or five).  If I could think of two pairs of phrases starting with "five," which, when the "five" was removed, left entries of equal length, I could place them vertically, so that the "five" was "high."  Leaving out the "five" added some challenge (and hopefully some fun) to the puzzle.

Because this is my first puzzle to be published in David Steinberg's new editorial venue, I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate David on creating a new puzzle outlet that is already clearly among the best out there in crossword world.

Editor's Comments

Jeffrey may be best known for his letter insertion themes, but he's also constantly pushing the envelope with ideas like this one.  All four theme entries here are excellent, and I also like how you can literally give the grid a high five to complete the theme entries (with 23- and 26-Down as the thumb and pinkie).  Two other miscellaneous observations:  (FIVE) O'CLOCK SHADOW is positioned at 5-Down, and (FIVE) AND DIME STORE is positioned at 10-Down, though perhaps that's coincidental.  The fill is also impressively smooth given the high theme density.  Jeffrey is one of the few constructors in the business who fills grids by hand, and he does it so well that he gives the software developers a run for their money!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

"Two by Three," by Alex Eaton-Salners

Constructor's Comments

I was lucky to find three answers that fit the theme and each have 15 letters.  There aren't too many in-the-language options—especially if you exclude examples with repeated words (such as DREAM DREAM DREAM).

This grid is unusual for me since I don't often construct puzzles with only three theme entries.  It's always fun to do something a little bit different, though.  And because the theme entries span the grid, they don't force the placement of any black squares.  Using only three themers (plus a revealer) also provides the flexibility to incorporate some longer bonus fill while maintaining a relatively low word count (in this case, 70 words).

Editor's Comments

I love the quirkiness of this theme!  For those of you who are still confused, the sequence RE appears three times in each theme entry.  When you say the reveal RETRY out loud, it sounds like "re-tri."  (Don't worry, I had to stare at this for a little while, too.)  I also like how Alex brought the word count down to 70 (!), which is low even for a themeless grid.  That allowed him to work in bonuses like LEITMOTIF, GREAT LAKE, CHEESE DIP, SHARKSKIN, TOE RINGS, and DOODAD.  Even long entries like PARAMETER and OVERDONE are more interesting than short crosswordese.  Finally, you might've noticed something unusual about the SUA clue:  I added an anagram.  SUA has appeared in other crosswords, but I feel it's tough and not particularly inferable.  Your thoughts about the use of anagrams in clues?

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

"Endurance Test," by Patrick Jordan

Constructor's Comments

This theme is proof that inspiration can come from the most unexpected sources.  I was watching an episode of The Muppet Show from my DVD collection, and Fozzie made a joke about how he never had children because he couldn't "bear" them.  This groaner made me think of how "bear" has multiple meanings, one of which is "tolerate."  A thesaurus consultation provided the rest.

I am one of those constructors who like to include 8- and 10-point Scrabble letters when it's possible to do so without compromising the fill.  Happily, I was able to place three Zs and a J in this one.

Editor's Comments

I feel this is a textbook example of a synonym theme—the theme entries are all lively and in-the-language, and they completely change the meanings of their "endurance words."  In fact, Patrick did such a good job of disguising the endurance words that I have a feeling some solvers won't pick up on the theme until the very end.  How quickly did you figure out what was going on?  Theme aside, I can tell Patrick really polished this grid.  I especially like GLORY BE, PREAKNESS, and the sprinkling of Scrabbly letters that don't compromise the quality of the fill.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

"Change of Pace," by Jules P. Markey

Constructor's Comments

The original idea that sparked this puzzle was "a day at the airport," where each common phrase began with an action you'd take when traveling by air:  Drive, Stand (TSA line), Run ("I'm never gonna make it!"), Sit ("Whew!"), Fly.  I never made that grid and really don’t remember why I changed the theme to what you see today, which became "The Evolution of Human Transport."  The only road bump along the way was at 31-Down, whose entry was originally IMBEDDED IN, a very rare variant of EMBEDDED IN; not being able to come up with an alternative, I thought about changing the theme entry to DRIVE UP THE VALUE, which sounded a bit off.  Back to the drawing board, and trial and error gave me IS WEDDED TO.  Not being too sure of that one either, I sent David the first version, and when he balked, the second.  He accepted it.

Editor's Comments

This puzzle is a perfect example of what I like for the early week!  The theme itself is simple, yet it's elevated by the progression from WALK to ROCKET.  Also, all four theme entries are lively and in-the-language—my favorite is ROCKET TO STARDOM, which I believe is making its crossword debut.  Working around 60 theme squares is always tough, though Jules rose to the challenge and even squeezed in a pair of long downs.  I was worried he'd have to scrap said long downs to get rid of IMBEDDED IN, though his IS WEDDED TO suggestion saved the day.  Your thoughts?

Monday, May 7, 2018

"Song Titles," by Todd Gross

Constructor's Comments

In the past few years, I've become interested in songwriting, so I reckon it's no surprise I'm interested in themes related to song titles.  I don't know exactly how I got the idea for this theme—I've known for some time that MR TAMBOURINE MAN was 15 letters (because I keep a lengthy list of possible 15-letter entries).  I guess I noticed one day that MISS INDEPENDENT was also 15 letters and would make a nice theme entry.  (MISS OTIS REGRETS is also 15 letters, but I'm guessing few of you are familiar with that song.)  I was lucky to find a well-known song starting with MRS with an odd number of letters.  The only other noteworthy song I can think of containing MRS is ME AND MRS JONES.

Central 11-letter entries (like MRS ROBINSON) are tricky to work with, which explains the unusual layout of this grid.  I was glad I could keep the word count low, using lots of 6-letter entries, more than your typical Monday puzzle.

If you want to experience my songwriting for yourself, you can go to this YouTube link.  But let me warn you, I'm better at writing LYRICS than I am as a SINGER.

Editor's Comments

My original plan was to run this puzzle on a themeless day, since the theme is light and the grid wide open.  I soon realized, though, that I'd have to use the title "Free for All" or "Sunday Freestyle" rather than Todd's spot-on "Song Titles."  So I ultimately decided to stick this one in the early week—even though the fill is juicier than usual, the theme feels very Monday-esque.  Todd also wrote an excellent set of easy clues, so I only felt the need to adjust the difficulty in a few places.  Did you enjoy this change of pace for a Monday?

Sunday, May 6, 2018

"Sunday Freestyle X," by Christopher Adams

Constructor's Comments

I don't remember too much about the construction of this puzzle, other than starting with X in all four corner squares (and generally trying to put multiple Xs in each corner, within reason).  Oh, and that David made a great suggestion on XBOX ONE X (over the original XBOX LIVE).  Looking over it again, I think it came out really well.  There's a few entries I don't like too much, but they're spread out, fairly crossed, and (I hope) worth both the Xs as well as all the other solid entries in the grid.

In any case, I hope you enjoyed the puzzle.  If you'd like to solve more of my puzzles, or if you just want to get in touch (and maybe collaborate on a puzzle!), here's a link to my site.

Editor's Comments

I think Chris did an X-cellent job with this themeless (okay, I'll admit that wasn't one of my better puns!).  I like all the X entries he chose, and I find the juxtaposition of XEROXES and XERXES particularly interesting since the two entries are just one letter apart.  Cramming a grid with rare letters like X often leads to trade-offs in the smoothness of the short fill, but Chris makes it look effortless.  Take a look at the lower left, for example.  Filling around SPACEX and XBOX ONE X is a really hard, but you'd never guess it from short fill like PUT, ALE, PAX, and UNO.  Chris even threw in an EMPANADA for good measure.  How did this puzzle go for you?

Saturday, May 5, 2018

"Free for All X," by Harvey Estes

Editor's Comments

One of the hallmarks of Harvey's themelesses is his emphasis on fresh, contemporary fill.  My favorite entries here are BINGE-WATCH, RANSOMWARE, MUMBLECORE, and IN THE HOUSE, though NTH DEGREE, SPIDERMAN, and RAINFOREST are close runners-up.  Harvey also enjoys sprinkling in witty clues—I especially like [They're spotted on the plains] for APPALOOSAS and [The French lieutenant's woman?] for FEMME.  Even some of his more straightforward clues, such as [One who eschews thank-yous] for INGRATE and ["If all ___ fails, read the instructions"] for ELSE, show the extra mile he goes to ensure a fun solving experience.  How did you fare on this puzzle?

Friday, May 4, 2018

"Missing Out," by Zhouqin Burnikel

Constructor's Comments

At times theme entries with no challenging letter combos can be tricky.  The upper left of this grid is a good example.  Somehow I just could not come up with a better 9-Down and no partial at 7-Down.

Editor's Comments

I like how this puzzle's theme entries look cryptic on the surface but suddenly make sense once you figure out what's going on.  That kind of aha moment is my favorite thing as a solver.  Zhouqin also chose a lively, in-the-language set of theme entries.  One thing that bugs me about many "reverse definition" themes is that the definitions sound unnatural.  For example, if Zhouqin had used LOOK QUITE MOPEY instead of PUT ON A LONG FACE for [Pout], that would've been significantly less elegant.  Zhouqin is also way too modest about her grid skills—working in bonuses like SERVICE DOG, SELFIE, KD LANG, LAKE COMO, and SKI RUN while keeping the short fill silky smooth is no mean feat.  What are your thoughts?

Thursday, May 3, 2018

"Keep Your Voices Down," by Steven Atwood

Constructor's Comments

This theme was a tough sell.  There are only a few V-to-F letter changes that result in fun phrases, and thinking of a good title was hard because there's no connection between words that are abbreviated as V and F.  "False Victories," "Forward Velocity," "End Vibrato, Begin Forte," "'Take Five' Played Loud" . . . none of these work.  Fortunately David liked the idea and went along with the "Keep Your Voices Down" title.  (V is a "voiced fricative consonant" and F is "unvoiced.")

Here are three theme entries I liked that didn't get used:

1.  Most track stars? (15 letters)
2.  Boating hazard in the Seine? (12 letters)
3.  Trying to figure out why a batter got no hits in a game? (12)

[Ed.:  Answers are encrypted below in ROT13, a simple letter substitution cipher.  To unscramble them, click here and copy each scrambled answer, paste it into the top box, click the ROT13 button or hit Return, and view the result in the bottom box.]


Editor's Comments

I feel this puzzle has a subtle elegance to it.  Letter change themes are nothing new, of course, but I don't recall seeing one with a linguistic underpinning (as Steve said, going from a voiced to an unvoiced fricative).  I'm also impressed that Steve was able to find so many strong theme entries—I certainly can't think of any more V-to-F possibilities off the top of my head!  And finally, I appreciate how Steve pushed himself to keep the grid open.  He could've just settled for one pair of long downs in the upper right and lower left, but using two pairs allowed him to work in the fun entries PLAYS DEAD and PUT A HEX ON.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

"Light Meal," by Ross Trudeau

Constructor's Comments

The inspiration for this puzzle was the persistence of the phrase "nothing burger" on cable news television over the last year or so.  If only they'd update the menu. . . .

The trick was coming up with other junky food modified by words or phrases that make the resulting meal "insubstantial."  Ultimately, BIG GULPS OF AIR was the key to being able to lay out the grid in a workable way.  And while it's the least "in the language" of the theme answers, it's also my favorite mental image.

Editor's Comments

I like how each of this puzzle's theme entries is its own "aha" moment.  In other words, the theme entries are consistent yet so different structurally that you can't just fill them all in once you solve one.  The surprise NOTHING BURGER after the reveal is a nice touch, too.  Also, check out those wide-open upper right and lower left corners!  As a constructor, I would've instinctively added a pair of black squares at the 23-Across/9-Down and 46-Across/33-Down crossings—such open corners are usually impossible to fill, let alone fill smoothly.  But Ross nailed it, which shows serious grid-wrangling skills!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

"Start Date," by Paul Coulter

Constructor's Comments

A few months ago, I noticed that the year 2018 lent itself to theme entries.  There are several long ones that start with TWENTY, and EIGHTEEN WHEELER makes a nice 15.  For the specific date, March and May are best for phrases, while FIRST provides many possibilities.  I checked the databases and was glad to see this hadn't been done before, say with a date in 2010.  I hope solvers have fun realizing the theme as the date unfolds.  Thanks to David Steinberg for providing the opportunity to run this on the exact date.

I've had a lot of free time since retiring from teaching, and even more since I stopped playing soccer.  For over fifty years, it's been a huge part of my life, from youth to high school to NCAA to adult leagues.  After playing three years for my college, my first postgraduation job was coaching the new women's varsity team.  I've been fortunate to play all these years without serious injury, but recently I've had to admit my knees are shot, so I've hung up the cleats.  Now, I fill a great deal of recreational time constructing crosswords.

Editor's Comments

When Paul sent me this theme, I was putting finishing touches on the last few puzzles for April.  So I told him that although I liked the idea, he'd have to construct the whole puzzle in just two weeks so I could have it ready in time for my deadline.  Paul embraced the challenge, not only designing a workable grid around four 15-letter entries but also keeping the vocabulary smooth enough for the early week.  Oh, and did I mention he was done with a first draft of the fill just hours after I approved the theme?  That's some next-level turnaround speed!  My hat's off to Paul for making everything come together . . . at the drop of the hat.  (Sorry—couldn't resist the bad pun!)