5 Questions for Crossword Constructor Amanda Rafkin

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 we’re excited to welcome Amanda Rafkin as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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When she’s not contributing to musical theater with her deft piano performances (or entertaining herself with various showtunes), Amanda constructs crosswords for various outlets including her own puzzle website, Brain Candy, where she posts a new puzzle every day. She also features other constructors, providing a valuable platform for her fellow cruciverbalists!

She has been published in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Universal, The Inkubator, and many other outlets, and recently contributed a puzzle to the 2020 Boswords crosswords tournament (which just so happened to be your lead blogger’s favorite puzzle from this year’s tournament).

Amanda 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 Amanda Rafkin

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

I really started loving puzzles at some point in my pre-teen years when I would confiscate my mom’s half-finished puzzles when she would step out of the room. I think she eventually got so fed up with me stealing her puzzles that she bought me my own book of variety puzzles, and since then I’ve been off to the races.

I became interested in constructing a couple of years ago when I got more serious with my crossword solving and felt that crossword construction could fall in that blissful middle-of-the-Venn-diagram area between something I might be good at and something I might love. I guess who’s good at anything is a matter of opinion, but I’m happy to report that I was wildly correct about the love part.

2. In addition to your crossword constructing, you’re also a musician, which seems to be a recurring theme among some constructors (Patrick Blindauer, Brian Cimmet) and tournament solvers (Dan Feyer, John Delfin). Do your musical skills ever influence your puzzling, or do you ever find yourself relying on your puzzly skills while performing or composing?

This is something I’ve heard many times (the relationship between crossword constructing and musicianship) to the point that I, myself, wonder if there’s something to it! If there is, it’s not something I’m aware of at all. For me, the two things are pretty separate experiences in my life.

The one exception to this I guess would be my theater-themed puzzles that I’ve grown so fond of. Every Thursday on my website is “Theatre Thursday”, where I post a midi-sized Broadway-themed puzzle, often accompanied by a bunch of relevant musical theater information that no one asked for. I also have a couple of Broadway-themed midi packs on the horizon. One is completed and will be released sometime in the (probably) not-too-distant future, and the other is a midi pack centering around each of Sondheim’s 19 major works, which I’m working on right now.

sondheim

[Sondheim constructed cryptic crosswords for New York Magazine,
so Amanda certainly finds herself in good company!]

3. To call the last few months tumultuous is an understatement, considering public unrest and pushback against infringements on civil rights. In a similar vein, there has been a more strenuous push in crosswords recently (Women’s March, for instance) for greater representation for women, people of color, and the LGBTQIA+ community. In your estimation, how are the major outlets faring regarding inclusion?

Well there’s a loaded question! The numbers will tell you that, by and large, they are faring rather poorly. There are of course some exceptions (notably, the USA Today, which publishes far more puzzles by women than men). If you’re looking at the major outlet (The New York Times), this can feel challenging to assess in some ways.

If we’re acknowledging a recent push for inclusion, then we also have to take into consideration the often 18-month delay between the time of construction and the time of publication. As a result, the things that are happening now may not reveal themselves to us until over a year from now. None of this is an excuse for not having implemented a more inclusive system long ago, but I do think that even the major outlets with a shorter queue than The New York Times may not reveal to us any of aforementioned representational shifts until months from now.

I hope this is something that we as constructors and solvers continue to keep our eyes on, so that we can continue to work on opening doors that may have previously felt closed, and offering equal opportunities to anyone and everyone interested in the endeavor of crossword construction.

I think, as a whole, the general industry is still struggling to understand the difference between “I personally don’t know this because of my own life experiences” and “This isn’t gettable/knowable/likeable for solvers”. Inclusion begets inclusion, as exclusion begets exclusion. By leaving certain things/people/customs etc. out of puzzles, we continue this cycle in perpetuity. The more different kinds of people we have making puzzles, the more likely it is that any given solver will be able to do a puzzle and see themselves within it. And, at least for me, that is a goal that I always try to keep in mind when constructing.

rafkat

[Solving runs in the family.]

4. What’s next for Amanda Rafkin?

I wish Amanda Rafkin knew the answer to that question as well. Given how things are going, it seems it will be a while before I’ll be doing much in the way of music again. So, for now, I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing for most of quarantine: making puzzles, putting them into the world, and hoping that they bring some kind of joy to folks during a time when joy can be a tricky thing to come by. Would it be awesome to be able to make a living solely from making crossword puzzles? HECK YES! So maybe that’s a goal for sometime in the future as well.

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

No matter who you are, no matter how much you know, no matter where you went to school, no matter who your friends are, no matter the experiences you’ve had in your life, no matter how woke you think you are, you have blind spots. We all have blind spots. And sometimes, in the wake of these blind spots can come decisions that hurt other people. We are imperfect but lifelong students on this collective journey to betterment.

Be open to feedback, specifically from people who have had different life experiences than you. Feedback is not criticism; it’s the space from which we all grow. So get feedback on your work and actually listen. Resist the urge to be defensive. Collaborate with other people. If they differ from you in some way, even better.

Oh, and if you’ve been tossing around the idea of constructing for a while but haven’t actually taken the leap…jump. The kindest and most supportive people are on the other side waiting to catch you.


A huge thank you to Amanda for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on her puzzly and musical endeavors, and be sure to visit her puzzle website Brain Candy for all sorts of puzzle goodness. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

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The New York Times Crossword Now Accepts Online Submissions!

Photo by Matt MacGillivray, licensed via Creative Commons

There’s good news for aspiring and established crossword constructors out there, as The New York Times crossword is now accepting online submissions.

I could be cynical and say it’s about time for a change like this, given that The Los Angeles Times has been accepting online submissions for at least a decade now, and many of the other major outlets made the transition well before 2020.

But I won’t. This is a moment worth celebrating.

True, it was inevitable that the Times would move in this direction. I don’t know if the tipping point was the pandemic, given how many other companies and businesses have been forced to adapt to a paperless/lower-contact way of doing business, or if the department was simply following a directional shift the industry had already taken.

But I’m glad they have. This may seem like a relatively small change, but it’s significant for several reasons.

1.) It’s simply easier

People send emails, attach documents, and share files every day. How often do you hit the post office?

2.) Electronic submission encourages younger solvers to get involved

New blood is a necessity for any industry, crosswords included, and when the standard-bearer makes a shift toward inclusivity (even if it’s just a matter of technological familiarity), it’s a step in the right direction.

3.) Electronic submission helps level the playing field

Having to mail submissions has a price attached, through envelopes, paper, and postage, whereas electronic submissions don’t. Yes, the price of crossword construction programs is still a hindrance, limiting access to some, but again, this is a step in the right direction.

The submission page is loaded with information, including specs on puzzles, file formats for submission, and the submission form itself.

Plus NYT-savvy constructors and staff like Joel Fagliano have already posted answers online to Frequently Asked Questions in forums like the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory, and have offered to answer any other questions constructors have.

Hopefully this change means not only an influx of new talent, but greater accessibility for underrepresented groups in crosswords.


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Puzzling From Home!

Problem-solving-crossword

In the wake of puzzly public events like the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament being cancelled, as well as the shutdown of various school districts, workplaces, and businesses in order to limit exposure to the Coronavirus, it’s completely understandable that some puzzle fans may be feeling disappointed or even isolated from their fellow puzzlers.

But fear not! There are all sorts of options available to solvers looking to enjoy a puzzly experience from home, either on their own or with friends.


If you’re looking for crosswords, all you need is your computer. The New York Times, The LA Times, The Washington Post, and many other outlets offer online puzzle-solving, either by subscription or through watching ads before solving.

If you have access to a printer, you can print those puzzles out for the true pencil-and-paper solving experience.

And it’s not just newspapers. Many constructors — Brendan Emmett Quigley comes to mind — offer their own free puzzles semi-regularly (though you’re welcome to tip as a thank you). There is a world of puzzles out there on the Internet awaiting solvers.

But you don’t even have to go to a computer anymore. There are loads of terrific puzzles available right on your phone. Forgive us for tooting our own horn, but Daily POP Crosswords is a great puzzle app with a free puzzle every day and additional puzzle packets available for purchase or through our in-app coin system. (We also offer Word Seeks, Sudoku, and a marvelous story-driven puzzle mystery, Wordventures, if you’re looking for something different.)

Oh, and speaking of something different, if you’re looking to delve into more elaborate puzzles, there are some fantastic puzzle services by mail that offer all sorts of challenges.

enigmasmall

Wish You Were Here by the Enigma Emporium conceals an entire mystery within a handful of postcards, challenging you to mine them for every scrap of information as you uncover a series of coded messages. It’s spycraft in an envelope, very clever stuff.

The Cryptogram Puzzle Post out of the UK offers something unique, mixing puzzles and encryption with bits of mystery and supernatural narratives to create standalone chapters in an ongoing story. So you can pick one season or an entire year, depending on how deep you want to go!

And for multi-month affairs, there are outlets like Hunt a Killer and The Mysterious Package Company, which create vast, immersive puzzle experiences by mail. (Though according to friends’ recommendations, Hunt a Killer works better without the month wait between installments.)

As you can see, there’s a wide variety of ways you can puzzle from home, whether you prefer to solve online, by email, on the phone, or by mail!


That’s all well and good, you might be saying, but what about the social aspect? Well, there are options there as well, even from the comforts of your home.

Photo by Matt MacGillivray, licensed via Creative Commons

Some puzzlers actually livestream their puzzle-solving online through avenues like Twitch, Facebook, and YouTube. The New York Times periodically does this as well, often with celebrity guest solvers!

You can keep your eyes peeled on Facebook and Twitter for constructors and solvers who do so. It often adds a fun, communal element to puzzle-solving (especially if they struggle with the same tricky clues that you do). Some pub trivia outlets are also moving online to allow for participating from home!

new york times

But if you don’t want to wait for someone to livestream their solving, you can do it yourself! Between Facetime and similar apps on smartphones and all the online avenues for audio and video-chatting (Skype, Google Hangouts, Discord, etc.), you could pair up with a friend and tag-team a crossword puzzle or other puzzly challenge!

It’s like co-working, except with puzzles. Co-solving!

In times like this, where uncertainty abounds and our comfortable routines have been upended, puzzles can offer a wonderful refuge from all the stresses of the world. And with technology on our side, we can even keep the communal joys of puzzling in our lives.

Happy puzzling, friends.


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How Will Shortz Works

shortzoffice

[Image courtesy of Lifehacker.]

Last week, Lifehacker posted the latest edition of their How I Work series, which takes readers behind the scenes and into the workspaces of all sorts of experts, scientists, creators, and pop culture icons to see how they do what they do.

And New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz stepped into the spotlight to share his average workday and what his job is really like.

It provides an interesting snapshot of a job most people know very little about. (And, sadly, thoroughly debunks the glamorous crime-solving editorial life Lacey Chabert portrayed in A Puzzle to Die For earlier this year.)

Will talks about going through submissions, editing and polishing crosswords, working on clues, interacting with his assistants, and takes us into his workplace itself, including his reliance on book sources over Internet verification. He also namedrops his table tennis club (always table tennis, never ping-pong), and gives a well-deserved shout-out to XWordInfo.com as a world-class database of NYT crossword data.

But there’s one line in particular from the interview that stood out to me, and I suspect it stood out to other puzzlers as well. When discussing the editorial process for each Times-approved crossword, Shortz stated:

“I don’t think any other puzzle in the country goes through such rigorous editing and testing before publication.”

Now, I like Will. I do. I’ve interviewed him, and chatted with him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on more than one occasion. Hell, this year, I purposely lassoed him and pulled him aside so fans could grab photos with him before the tournament started AND still managed to work in a joke or two about the Crossword Mysteries movie.

But, man, there’s putting over your own product, and then there’s just stepping in it.

There are SO MANY great editors in the crossword market today. Off the top of my head, I can mention the editors at The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Edition, The American Values Club, The Universal Crossword, and The Crosswords Club, not to mention special projects like Women of Letters and the Indie 500, all of which provide wonderful, insightful feedback and attention to detail during the editorial process.

Sure, those puzzles might not all get the attention of ten test-solvers before publication, as Will claims each NYT crossword does. But then again, if you ignore those test solvers, as Will did in January when he used the word BEANER in a grid, that number doesn’t really matter much.

No, this isn’t always the case, obviously. Just two weeks ago, the Twitter account The Truth About Nursing praised Shortz “for allowing Howard Barkin’s description of nurses as ‘Pro caregivers, for short,’ implying expertise & autonomy. This contrasts with the 2007 clue ‘I.C.U. helper’ & the 2009 clue ‘hospital attendant’.”

nursingtruth

If you click through to the actual article, Howard does get the lion’s share of the thanks, as he should, given that the tweet shortchanged him a bit. But you also get more backstory on how the team at The Truth About Nursing spoke out against tone-deaf cluing regarding nurses:

Both of those clues led the Truth to protest to longtime Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. We explained to him in detail why the common misconceptions of nursing that the clues reflected were damaging, in light of the global nursing shortage and the proven influence that the media has in shaping public attitudes toward the profession… Shortz never responded directly to our concerns.

Yes, the NYT crossword gets more criticism because it is the flagship. But if you’re the flagship, you’re also supposed to set the tone, and with a track record of tone-deaf entries like ILLEGAL and HOMIE, as well as clues like “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM or “Exasperated comment from a feminist” for MEN, criticism is well-deserved.

The line between tooting your own horn and overplaying your hand is a very fine one, and undoubtedly, people are bound to disagree on which side of the fence this statement lands.

Some may say that Will deserves all the accolades and horn-tooting he wishes, given the subscriber numbers the NYT crossword garners. Others may take umbrage at Will seemingly dismissing the terrific work done by crossword editors around the country (with fewer resources, it must be said). I mean, Will himself mentored some of those editors!

I can’t speak for any of those editors, and I won’t. But, for me, as someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know so many of those creative, qualified, hardworking, and giving editors, methinks he doth toot a bit too much.


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Two Upcoming Crossword Tournaments for Summer 2019!

boswords3

If you’re a crossword solver, the next few weeks will have loads of opportunities for you to show off your puzzly chops and meet some fellow cruciverbalists!

Next weekend, the third annual edition of the BosWords crossword tournament will be running on Sunday, July 28th from noon to 5 PM!

With three divisions to choose from — Red Sox (Expert), Paw Sox (Amateur), and Pairs — puzzlers of all ages and experience levels will have the opportunity to test their puzzly wits.

Tournament organizers Andrew Kingsley and John Lieb have gathered a murderer’s row of talented constructors for this year’s puzzles. The five themed puzzles in regular competition (as well as the championship final) will be constructed by Laura Braunstein, Claire Rimkus, Finn Vigeland, Ross Trudeau, Paolo Pasco, Joon Pahk, and David Quarfoot.

You can click here for more information!

But that’s not all…

Just a few weeks later, the twelfth edition of Lollapuzzoola will be held in New York City on Saturday, August 17th from 10 AM to 4 PM!

Yes, the greatest crossword puzzle tournament ever held on a Saturday in August returns once again to challenge solvers with some of the most innovative and creative crosswords of the year.

Tickets for solo competitors (Express for top solvers, Local for average solvers, and Rookie for newcomers) and Pairs Division are available here (as well as the at-home division for solvers who cannot attend).

And for those who reach the top of mountain, “winners in each division are awarded prizes, which could range from a box of used pencils to a brand new car. So far, no one has ever won a car.”

Are you planning on attending either BosWords or Lollapuzzoola (or maybe both)? Or will you be solving either from home? Let us know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!


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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Four years ago, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered topnotch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The fifth edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 1, and this year, the theme is “Going Around in Squares.”

This year’s tournament follows the same format as previous years: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a final puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

[There’s also a fair amount of slapstick.]

Registration is open for the tournament! They’re at capacity for attending in person (there is a waiting list in case anyone drops out!), but worry not, because solving from home is only $10!

Not only that, but there’s a travel-themed meta suite that lets you name your own price, as well as access to the previous tournament bundles for $5 apiece. Those are super-affordable prices for some outstanding puzzles!

Andy Kravis, Erik Agard, and Neville Fogarty all make their fifth appearance as veteran constructors — understandable, since they’re also event organizers — and they’re joined once again by Angela Olson Halsted and Peter Broda, as well as tournament constructors Jenna LaFleur, Bryan Betancur, Janie Smulyan, Rebecca Falcon, and Yacob Yonas!

And, of course, there will be pie.

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing, or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


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