Welcome to 5 Questions, our recurring interview series where we reach out to puzzle constructors, game designers, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and puzzle enthusiasts from all walks of life!
It’s all about exploring the vast and intriguing puzzle community by talking to those who make puzzles and those who enjoy them! (Click here to check out previous editions of 5 Questions!)
And I’m excited to welcome Patti Varol as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!
If you’ve solved crosswords anywhere other than the New York Times for the last few years, you’re bound to have encountered Patti Varol’s clever constructing and crafty cluing. A regular of The Washington Post and other outlets, Patti is a topnotch constructor and a crossword pro.
She’s also no stranger to PuzzleNation Blog, as she has previously contributed advice for constructing your own crosswords and shared her victory at Lollapuzzoola two years ago with the PuzzleNation audience.
Patti was gracious enough to take some time out to talk to us, so without further ado, let’s get to the interview!
5 Questions for Patti Varol
1. How did you get started with puzzles?
I solved all kinds of puzzles with my grandparents when I was a kid, and games were a big part of family time when I was growing up. A few years after I finished college, I answered an ad for an editorial job with the crossword/variety department at Penny Press — the puzzle test and the interviews for that position, and then taking that job, well, that changed my life. Suddenly, puzzles and games were something to study from the inside out, to take apart and put back together better, to make from scratch. And that was just as much fun as solving them…and I was getting paid to do it.
2. You keep awfully busy when it comes to puzzles. Can you fill the PuzzleNation audience in on your various puzzle jobs and how they differ from each other?
I do! I’m Rich Norris’s assistant at the L.A. Times Crossword, which means that I write some of his correspondence (I let constructors know what Rich likes or doesn’t like about the puzzles they’ve sent him), and I pre-edit some of the daily puzzles. I also send out the monthly constructor schedule notices and do some of our testing and fact checking.
I’m also the editor of The Crosswords Club, which is a monthly publication with six Sunday-sized crosswords. The puzzles are made by some of the best constructors in the business, so they are as fun as they are challenging. Each monthly envelope also has an extra word game, and all of the puzzles have explanatory blurbs with some trivia and etymology. It’s a really neat product – there’s really nothing else like it on the market.
And I also do puzzle testing/proofreading for a few other venues, including some crossword tournaments and puzzle magazines. And I’m a puzzle constructor for the CrosSynergy puzzle syndicate; my crosswords appear in The Washington Post roughly once a month. I also construct puzzles for the LA Times and Crosswords Club occasionally, and I mentor new constructors who seek out my help.
Every venue I work for has a different style guide and different target audience, so it’s a job in itself to keep them all straight. All of these different puzzle jobs have made me a strong, confident editor and constructor. I love what I do, and I love being good at what I do. And I’m only good at what I do because I’ve had the privilege to work with and learn from the best.
[Image courtesy of Wikihow.com.]
3. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle? What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own? What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?
A great puzzle has a spark to it — you know right away that it’s something original, fresh, and special. You learn something new, or you see something familiar from a new angle. It’s that aha! moment, that pop. I’m being maddeningly vague here, I realize, but the elements of a great puzzle are elusive and subjective.
That same pop comes when constructing a puzzle, too. Getting a tough grid to come together cleanly, realizing that the right pieces are finally all there in the right order — that can be even more satisfying than solving someone else’s puzzle.
New constructors always seem to start off with more than they can handle: they try to make a Sunday puzzle (21x) before they’ve mastered the smaller daily format, or they try to do a low-word-count themeless before they’re fully comfortable with the 15x themed format. Or they try to cram too much theme in a grid.
Start small, aim big, and you’ll get better with every grid.
4. Between the Timothy Parker plagiarism scandal and the recent Slate article about insensitivity and tone-deafness in cluing in the New York Times crossword, accountability has been a major topic this year in the world of puzzles. As a gatekeeper to getting published yourself, what changes would you like to see made in order to bring crosswords into the 21st century?
Change is already underway, and it’s exciting, because crosswords just keep getting better and better. Just as language evolves — words and their meanings can be as fluid as they can be subjective — so, too, do the media and art forms that rely on language.
[Image courtesy of HomeSchoolSuccess.com.]
The conversations about crosswords, online and offline, illustrate clearly that the crossword community is made up of some of the smartest, most language-sensitive, funniest people you’ll ever meet. We’re in love with our craft, and sometimes we take ourselves and our work too seriously, which is what happens when you’re passionate about what you do. But it’s so important to remember that puzzles are entertainment, a happy diversion, and if we use language incorrectly or insensitively, we’re not providing that diversion. We have to take our fun very seriously!
When we’re polishing a puzzle, crossword editors have a very specific audience in mind — we know our solvers because we listen to them and because we’re solvers ourselves. Because of this larger, ongoing conversation, we know that our solving audience is bigger and more diverse than ever.
This presents an interesting challenge: how do you make every crossword accessible and fun for every solver, regardless of race, gender, or age? Maybe not every clue and every entry will resonate with every single solver, but as long as I’m not actively alienating a solver, and as long as I’m stretching, testing, and entertaining most of my solvers, I’m doing my job.
And there are so many crosswords available now! In addition to the newspaper dailies, there are paper subscription services like The Crosswords Club, plus email/blog subscriptions by so many talented constructors, and more puzzle books and magazines available on newsstands than ever before.
We’ll always have good, old-fashioned puzzles, but now we also have lively, fresh puzzles with more current pop-culture references. This, too, is what happens when you’re passionate about what you do: your art naturally reflects and includes the community it is a part of.
5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?
Solve all the puzzles. All of them. Even the puzzles that, at first glance, look like the kind you don’t like, solve them. And if you don’t know the answers, look them up. There’s no such thing as cheating at a puzzle — it’s all simply research that makes you better at puzzles.
The more you look up, the more you will learn and remember for the next puzzle you solve. And if you want to learn how to make puzzles, or to get better at making puzzles, nothing will teach you more about how a puzzle works than getting stuck — and then unstuck — while solving one.
A huge thank you to Patti for her time. Be sure to check out The Crosswords Club, and follow her on Twitter for baseball tweets and updates on her latest projects! (Her website is currently under construction.) I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next!
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