5 Questions with Crossword Constructor Joanne Sullivan

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 Joanne Sullivan as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

[Joanne stands beside fellow constructor Tracy Bennett at this year’s Indie 500 tournament.]

Joanne is a terrific constructor whose puzzles have appeared in The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other outlets. One of her puzzles is now featured on The New York Times‘ Wordplay Blog as one of their 11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers (each hand-picked by Will Shortz). Her puzzle with Erik Agard at the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, “Do I Hear a Waltz?”, was one of my favorite crosswords last year.

She often spends her time teaching crossword classes, spreading not only the love of crossword construction and wordplay to others, but hard-won knowledge and experience from a fun and innovative constructor.

Joanne 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 Joanne Sullivan

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I’ve enjoyed a variety of puzzles and games ever since I can remember, but I had avoided crossword puzzles for decades. When I was a young adult, I would occasionally take a stab at The Sunday New York Times crossword and would manage to get only a couple of answers after reading every single clue. I was amazed that my father could routinely complete the whole puzzle. I didn’t aspire to match his achievement because I thought that crosswords were filled with useless, arcane information.

When I subscribed to GAMES Magazine, I solved all the puzzles in it except for the crosswords because I had the mistaken assumption that all crosswords were dry and boring. I now realize that I missed out on a lot of fun. The high-quality crosswords in GAMES were part of the new wave of puzzles that were filled with current references and lively phrases.

Many years later an office mate encouraged a group of our fellow coworkers to solve The New York Times crossword together each weekday. I never really enjoyed the computer programming work that I was supposed to be focusing on so I welcomed the diversion. I immediately was surprised at how clever and entertaining the crosswords were.

Like the character in Green Eggs and Ham, I learned that I actually liked the nourishment that I had assumed would be distasteful. In the beginning, my coworkers would pass around the newspaper, and we’d each fill in an answer or two until we managed to complete the whole puzzle. We relied heavily on Google by the time we got to Friday. Solving late week puzzles without help seemed like an impossible dream, but before long that dream became a reality.

[One of Joanne’s New York Times-published puzzles. This one makes excellent use of the black squares by incorporating some of them into the themed entries.
Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

2. What, in your estimation, makes for a great puzzle?

I personally love puzzles with inventive, tricky themes and clues. Crosswords have been around for a long time so it’s hard to come up with a new theme or a tricky clue that misdirects the solver in a different way. Even new themes and clues tend to be variations on something that has been done before so I appreciate crosswords that are truly original.

What do you most enjoy — or most commonly avoid — when constructing your own?

Here are crossword constructing tasks in descending order of my preference:

  • Coming up with a theme and finding answers that fit it.
  • Writing clues / Arranging the black and white squares in the grid. (Two very different tasks that I find equally enjoyable.)
  • Filling the grid with non-theme answers.
  • Adding new words to my database of potential crossword answers and rating those words in order of desirability.

Maintaining a good database of potential crossword answers can greatly facilitate crossword construction, but I find database maintenance time-consuming and dreary so I avoid it. I try to rationalize my negligence by telling myself that it’s impossible to add words and assign values to them that will be valid for all audiences.

For example, the word UGLY would be a perfectly fine answer in any mainstream newspaper, but I would try to avoid including it in a personalized puzzle that I was making as a birthday gift because I wouldn’t want the recipient to interpret it as an insult. But deep down I know that my rationalization isn’t valid, and I’m just too lazy to properly maintain my database.

What do you think is the most common pitfall of constructors just starting out?

I think some new constructors might settle for mediocrity instead of pushing themselves to achieve more. I’ve heard that some constructors are afraid to arrange the black and white squares in a grid from scratch. They’ll only use sample grids that they copy from a crossword database. It might take a lot of trial and error, but you’ll probably come up with a better grid if you try to arrange the squares in a way that best suits your theme answers instead of grabbing a prefab grid. I’ll often experiment with dozens of different grid designs before choosing one that fits my theme answers best.

Constructors might also be satisfied with so-so fill (which are the non-theme answers) or clues. I can understand the urge to leave well enough alone, especially when submitting puzzles on spec. It can be really frustrating to spend a lot of time coming up with stellar fill and clues only to be told that your puzzle was dead on arrival because the editor didn’t like the theme. Instead of compromising their standards, constructors might try to seek out the few editors who are willing to preapprove themes. Or they may emulate the many excellent indie constructors who publish their puzzles on their own websites.

[A puzzle, mid-construction. Images courtesy of Crossdown.]

3. Do you have any favorite crossword themes or clues, either your own or those crafted by others?

It’s hard to pick favorites because I’ve solved so many great puzzles and clues over the years so I’ll be self-centered and mention three of my own puzzles.

My Tuesday, February 23, 2010 New York Times crossword will always be close to my heart because it was my first published puzzle. Will Shortz picked it as one of the “11 Remarkable Crosswords for New Solvers,” but novices shouldn’t feel bad if they find it difficult. Most solvers found it harder than an average Tuesday puzzle.

Another special crossword is “Contents Redacted,” which The Chronicle of Higher Education published on October 16, 2015. I’m very grateful to Brad Wilber and Frank Longo for polishing it and working hard to present it in a way that stayed true to my vision. I also appreciate pannonica whose review on the Crossword Fiend blog was clearer and more insightful than any description that I could have written.

(Speaking of blogs, kudos to PuzzleNation Blog, CrosswordFiend, and similar blogs for helping us appreciate puzzles! Thanks for helping us understand the strengths and weaknesses of puzzles you review, explaining tricky themes and clues, and keeping us informed of news such as puzzle tournaments.)

One of my most satisfying experiences was co-writing “Do I Hear a Waltz?” with Erik Agard for the 2016 Indie 500 Crossword Tournament. Working with Erik was a joy. He’s brilliant and extremely kind. You should interview him next!

One great thing about making a puzzle for a tournament was having the flexibility to make an odd-sized grid that best suited our theme. I find that tournament puzzles are often very creative, perhaps because the constructors don’t have the same editorial and size constraints that they do at most other venues. Some of my favorite puzzles came from The Indie 500 and Lollapuzzoola crossword tournaments.

As a solver, my favorite clues are the ones that make me think, “What on earth can this mean?” One recent clue that gave me that reaction came from Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 9/20/17 AV Club crossword (which is titled “The Lay of the Land”). At first, I couldn’t make sense of the clue [Like slightly firm elbows, e.g.] When I read it, I thought, “What the heck is a slightly firm elbow? … Hmm … AKIMBO doesn’t fit … Hmm …” Eventually I achieved a great aha moment — AL DENTE!

I also love clues that put a fresh spin on old crosswordese or teach me interesting pieces of trivia. I find that The Chronicle of Higher Education and Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords are particularly strong in that regard.

[Joanne poses with members of a crossword seminar,
showing off prizes from our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles.]

4. What’s next for Joanne Sullivan?

I’m currently focusing on giving crossword puzzle seminars. For years I had mistakenly assumed that crosswords were boring and impossible to solve. Now I enjoy showing skeptics how fun crosswords can be and giving people tips that help them improve their solving skills. I love hearing from novices who tell me that I inspired them to start solving crosswords and veteran solvers who say that my tips helped them tackle more difficult puzzles.

I recently taught my first children’s classes and was blown away by the kids’ intelligence and enthusiasm. I’m so glad those children caught the puzzle bug early and didn’t waste decades avoiding crosswords as I did.

5. If you could give the readers, writers, aspiring constructors, and puzzle fans in the audience one piece of advice, what would it be?

Read Patrick Berry’s PDF publication Crossword Constructor’s Handbook. The former print version of that book (Crossword Puzzle Challenges for Dummies) taught me more about constructing crosswords than any other source.

Cruciverbalists might find the information about crossword construction interesting even if they don’t aspire to create puzzles themselves. The book includes 70 crosswords by Patrick Berry (who many crossword aficionados consider the preeminent crossword constructor) so it’s worth the $10 for the puzzles alone.


A huge thank you to Joanne for her time. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for her puzzles and her crossword seminars!

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Ruts

It’s always fun to find puzzles in unexpected places, so when friend of the blog Jen Cunningham sent me the picture above of a single with a crossword aesthetic, I was immediately intrigued.

I’d never heard of the band or the song, but as a long-time fan of ska music — a mix of Jamaican reggae, rock, and blues, heavy on the horns, very jazzy and upbeat — I initially suspected a ska influence, given the crossword pattern.

You see, the mix of black and white squares in crosswords is very reminiscent of the checkerboard pattern that is synonymous with both two-tone ska and third wave ska.

[Image courtesy of Gattuso.org.]

My suspicions turned out to be correct when I began investigating the record itself.

“Staring at the Rude Boys” was the fifth single released by The Ruts, a British band from the late ’70s and early ’80s that mixed punk and reggae-infused ska elements. Although the band never made a splash in the United States, they had a UK Top Ten hit with “Babylon’s Burning” in 1979.

And as it turns out, the crossword design is part of an actual crossword, complete with clues related to the band and the single, as well as some random obscurities meant to poke fun at the challenging clues featured by some crossword outlets.

[Image courtesy of Punky Gibbon. Click the link for a larger
version, though honestly, it’s not much easier to read.]

Apparently, the crossword aesthetic was part of a marketing campaign, complete with a contest to see who could solve the crossword!

According to the website Punky Gibbon:

The single was promoted with a crossword competition that featured on the front and rear cover of the sleeve. First prize was a night out with the band (“You win – they pay”). One lucky punter secured this great opportunity to see his heroes in the flesh…

[Image courtesy of Punky Gibbon.]

Once again, we discover that there’s virtually no corner of pop culture that hasn’t been touched by puzzles in some way, shape, or form. And not only did I get to explore a curious diversion in puzzly history, but I got to do so while listening to one of my favorite genres of music.

Puzzles… is there anything they can’t do?


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Game Boy: A Puzzly Step Forward for Mobile Gaming

It’s no secret that we’ve got skin in the puzzle app game. The Penny Dell Crosswords App is our flagship project, and it’s part of a thriving puzzle app market.

But if you think back, mobile puzzle gaming really started decades ago with Nintendo’s Game Boy handheld video game console. It was a precursor to the smartphone app system we have today, even if the Game Boy didn’t exactly fit in your pocket.

And at a time when classic video game systems are being revived and re-released — the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Nintendo, and the Sega Genesis have all seen repackagings in the last year — could a Game Boy revival be far behind?

The crew at Gizmodo think so, and they made a list of 25 Game Boy games that belong on a revived system.

And as you might expect, there are several puzzle games suggested.

It makes sense, because many industry experts attribute some of the Game Boy’s success to the fact that every machine was packaged with a copy of Tetris, the addictive piece-moving game.

But that wasn’t the only puzzle game to make an impression on young gamers. Dr. Mario was all about pattern-matching in order to eradicate different colored viruses with stacks of similarly colored pills.

Either as a one-player challenge or in competition with another player, Dr. Mario taxed your ability to strategically use each pill provided, trying to eliminate as many viruses as possible.

And for a pure puzzle solving experience, there was Mario’s Picross.

This was a logic art puzzle where you had to use the lists of numbers along the top and side of the grid to deduce where to place black squares in order to reveal an image.

Although there was a timer attached to each puzzle, it wasn’t nearly as stressful a solving experience as Dr. Mario or Tetris, and it introduced an entirely new form of puzzle-solving to many young gamers.

Without the Game Boy and these puzzle games, it’s hard to imagine the success and growth of puzzle apps like the Penny Dell Crosswords App.


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A long time ago, in a corn maze far, far away…

Corn mazes are a wonderful puzzly tradition synonymous with the arrival of Fall and the end of Summer.

And one particular corn maze in Evansville, Indiana, has captured the attention of the masses with one lifelong Star Wars fan’s tribute to Carrie Fisher, the actress who portrayed Princess Leia Organa, who sadly passed away last year.

The maze was designed by Jeremy Goebel of Goebel Farms, who has been responsible for planning and executing corn maze designs as part of his duties on the farm — he’s been there 16 years! His previous maze designs include Darth Vader, the film The Force Awakens, and the starship USS Enterprise from the Star Trek series.

Each design is quite time-consuming to bring to life. Planting the Carrie Fisher design took 40 minutes — amazingly fast, courtesy of a tractor computer and GPS coordinates — and the initial plan dates back to February.

From an article in The Evansville Courier & Press:

The process used to be much more labor-intensive. The first year the Goebel family decided to make a corn maze they cut the rows by hand in mid-August, when the corn was tall and strong.

“It was not a great time to make a maze,” he said.

The second year they cut out the design earlier. The process involved a lot of guesswork. Goebel had to measure out the pathways in the field as he went.

“The third year we started using GPS,” Goebel said.

The maze is now open to the public for their enjoyment. As both a Star Wars fan and a maze enthusiast, this is the perfect puzzly way to combine those worlds in a satisfying fashion for all.

Do you know of any other dazzling corn mazes that will be challenging fellow puzzlers this Autumn, PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below!


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Hashtag Game Fun with Puzzly Women!

Oh yes, it’s that time again! It’s time to unleash our puzzly and punny imaginations and engage in a bit of sparkling wordplay!

You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie, hashtag games on Twitter, or @midnight’s Hashtag Wars segment on Comedy Central.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleWomen, mashing up Penny Dell puzzles with famous women both real and fictional!

Examples include: Lana Tossing and Turner, Adele Sunday Crosswords, and Madeleine Albright of Way.

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


Selma Diamond Rings

Fill-Ins Diller

Katie Kakuroic

Mary Kay Places, Please

Cher-a-Letter

Priscyllacrostic Presley

The Maddow

Tie-Indira Gandhi

Midler’s Frame

Victoria’s Secret Words

In Black and Betty White

Gennifer Flowers Power

Stepping Sharon Stones

Classified Cheryl L-Adds

Marcia Crossroads

Ariana Grande Tour

Esther Rolle of the Dice

Tori Spellingdown

Sigourney Weaver Words

Maggie Wheelers

Debra Messing Vowels

Emily Observation Post

Tina Turnerabout

Diamond Ringrid Bergman

Word-a-Matilda

Kate In The Middleton

Evan Rachel Word Seek

Right of Fay Wray

Sylvia Plathboxes

Carly Simon Says

Shirley Temple Blackout

Chess-ica Simpson

Senator Barbara Mathboxer

Jenny “From the Blockletters” Lopez

Jigsaw Squares Eyre

Anne Bowl Gamelyn

Miss Piggybacks

Paris Hilton in Rhyme

Louisa May All Frame

Zsa Zsa Gaborderline

Twiggybacks

Marla Marbles

Mariah Carey-Overs

Kathleen Battleships

Dora the Exploraword

Mrs. Double-take-fire

Glinda the Group Values Witch

Diamond Li’l Rings

Major Margaret “Hot Blips” Houlihan

At Sixes and Seven of Nine

Elphababet Soup

Queen Ellery Elizabeth of Penny Dell

Mary-Kate and Ashley Double Trouble


There was also a submission that deserve its own section, as one of our intrepid puzzlers went above and beyond.

To the Cartoonist: Draw the Lynda Carter character Around the Block from the Double Trouble. We’ll Roll the Diana Prince into Wonder Woman and the Amazing Quote Amazon will take them down Brick by Brick.


And members of the PuzzleNation readership also got in on the fun!

On Facebook, Sandra Halbrook submitted the delightful entry Marcia Cross Sums!

Have you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle Women entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them!

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The Crossword From Hell

This is an innocuous looking grid. A smattering of black squares. Classic diagonal symmetry. At first glance, this could be any crossword.

But this isn’t any crossword. This is The Crossword From Hell.

A brilliantly tongue-in-cheek takedown of obscure cluing and other frustrating puzzle conventions, The Crossword From Hell challenges you to come up with, among other things:

–The opposite of “forty”
–Person who did not speak quote
–Color I am thinking of
–Color I will be thinking of for tomorrow’s puzzle
–He batted .219 in 1953
–“… a ______” (Keats)

I have to confess, I love this puzzle. The mix of fill-in-the-blank clues that could be ANYTHING and the incredibly obscure, yet specific, requests for trivial minutiae delightfully skewer the worst crossword constructing practices, particularly crosswordese.

This parody puzzle is the creation of Dr. Karl M. Petruso, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. I reached out to Dr. Petruso regarding his hilariously snarky rejoinder to the puzzle community, and here’s what he had to say about the puzzle:

Yes, that puzzle is my only foray into crossword composition (well, fake composition, truth be told. I did field at least one email from somebody who said he had solved all the clues but one, and he believed that I cheated on that word. I suspected he was pulling my leg…).

Since my grad school days in the ’70s I have been a snooty puzzle solver: only the NYT puzzle, and even then, nothing earlier than Thursday, always in ink. I was able to solve maybe a third of the Saturday puzzles, but it took me well into the next week to do it. I love the clever themes and wordplay in the Sunday puzzles, and could often complete them, but by no means every time.

I decided to take my frustrations out on clues that were at once obscure and too much trouble for someone as lazy as me to remember the words for. Creating that puzzle was very satisfying, kind of like an exorcism or something. I don’t know. I have always thought the web is the perfect place to post snark and work out dark impulses.

Perhaps the funniest thing about this exaggerated crossword is that, to many who struggle with tougher crosswords, it probably doesn’t seem exaggerated at all.

Great crossword puzzles manage to be clever and challenging while sidestepping many of the pitfalls featured in The Crossword From Hell. But this is a wonderfully funny reminder of what you should strive NOT to do.

A huge thank you to Dr. Petruso for his time AND his creative efforts on behalf of puzzlers everywhere.


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