5 Questions for Crossword Constructor and Wordplay Blogger Deb Amlen

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 Deb Amlen as our latest 5 Questions interviewee!

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[Deb in the center, flanked by her fellow Musketeers.]

Deb is a talented crossword constructor, but these days, it’s more likely you know her for her role as the head writer and senior editor of Wordplay, the crossword blog and educational/humor column associated with The New York Times crossword puzzle.

One of the most public faces associated with the crossword, Deb entertains and informs across both the blog and its associated Twitter account, as well as hosting a live-solving show on YouTube with fellow constructor Sam Ezersky and celebrity guests!

Deb 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 Deb Amlen

1. How did you get started with puzzles?

Word games like “Ghost” were always my favorite things to play when I was a child, but I didn’t really get into puzzles until I was a young adult. I watched my father solve the New York Times crossword when I was really young, but I didn’t start solving on my own until I bought myself a subscription to New York Magazine after college and discovered Maura Jacobson’s puzzles.

I started constructing crosswords when my own kids were young because, as a stay-at-home mom, I desperately needed a creative outlet that didn’t involve Pokémon or Elmo. I read everything I could about puzzle making and learned how to make crosswords from Nancy Salomon. Nancy has mentored hundreds of constructors to publication.

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2. As the flagbearer for crosswords in the public eye, The New York Times crossword is often the most scrutinized when it comes to cultural sensitivity regarding entries and clues, and more than once, that has depicted the Times puzzle in an unflattering light.

As a very public figure for the brand — not to mention the de facto social media gatekeeper — this puts you in the unenviable position of being between the audience and the editorial team. How do you handle these situations, and as an enthusiastic solver yourself, how do you think the Times is doing in this arena?

The crossword does get a lot of flack, doesn’t it? Honestly, some of it is warranted, some of it is not.

There is definitely a need to bring the flagship puzzle into the 21st century in terms of diversity and representation. Like most large companies, however, sometimes change happens slowly at The New York Times.

A lot of work is being done by the company and the puzzle editors behind the scenes, though, to increase diversity on their team and to be more aware of content that is inflammatory, and I think the recent puzzles reflect that. They have a ways to go, but the conversation is active and ongoing, and I’m very optimistic about the future of the crossword.

As far as social media goes, people tend to conflate “the Wordplay Twitter account” with “Everything The New York Times Does With Regard to Puzzles and Games.” So, since I run the Wordplay account and the puzzle editors are not really on social media, I tend to be the target of people’s complaints, which is hilarious because I’m just the columnist. Luckily, The Times has allowed me to expense a thick skin, so I’m doing OK. When I’m not, I take a break from social media, which I highly recommend and think everyone should do.

On the other hand, most people are well-wishers and are a lot of fun. They tweet their solving victories to me and I give them a gold medal emoji, which people really respond to. It’s very satisfying to be able to lift people up and encourage them, especially on social media, which can be very negative.

3. For the 75th anniversary of the New York Times crossword, constructors and celebrity guest puzzlers collaborated on numerous puzzles. Which celebrity constructors surprised you the most with their work, and who would you like to see as guest constructors in the future?

I’m not sure I was surprised by this, but I believe that Rachel Maddow’s crossword was one of the most popular, most downloaded puzzles we’ve ever had. Neil Patrick Harris’s puzzle had a very cool trick to it. And I can’t leave out the one I did with Natasha Lyonne, who was just brilliant to work with.

[Author’s note: When asked about her puzzle, Natasha said, “Working with Deb Amlen to create this puzzle has quite literally been a lifetime highlight for me.”]

4. What’s next for Deb Amlen?

Dinner, probably.

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

Enjoy yourself. This is not like sitting down to take the SAT; it’s a game. And games should be fun. Life is too short to sweat the crossword.


A huge thank you to Deb for her time. You can follow her on Twitter for updates on her puzzly and creative endeavors, and be sure to check out her work on the Wordplay blog and her very entertaining live-solving videos on YouTube. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

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.

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[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.

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[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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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!

Let’s Play Crossword Bingo!

Crossword.

If you solve enough crosswords, you’re bound to encounter some words more often than others.

Maybe the word has grid-friendly letters or a letter pattern that facilitates editing. Maybe it’s an otherwise obscure item that crosswords have kept in the zeitgeist.

Or maybe it’s a just three-letter word with vowels on either end, be it a female sheep, a tavern drink, a mine find, or fury, and that corner just won’t be completed without one of them.

Some solvers find fault with those words, the constructors who use them, or the outlets that publish puzzles featuring them. Other solvers, however, find fun ways to acknowledge their ubiquity.

For instance, a reddit user under the handle “atleasttheresmusic” created a bingo card based on words that crop up regularly in The New York Times crossword:

xwd bingo 1

Not only did they hit some classic examples of crosswordese, but they even managed to categorize their entries, highlighting crossword tropes like “short, poetic words” and the frequent use of abbreviations.

Between the bingo card itself and the many suggestions shared by fellow puzzlers in the comments, I couldn’t resist taking a crack at making a crossword bingo card of my own:

xwd bingo 2

As you can see, I’ve also organized the columns by category; from left to right, there’s abbreviations, names, vowel-heavy words, 3-letter entries, and non-U.S. terminology.

I couldn’t fit every entry I wanted to — EKE/IKE fell by the wayside, as did EWER — but I managed to jam a fair amount of crosswordese and personal pet peeves onto the card. Plus, given how often ALEE and ALOE appear, they’re basically a free space in the center of the card.

So how did I do, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? What words should I have included? Did the cleaner card created by “atleasttheresmusic” win out over mine, or did we both succeed in having some fun at the expense of crosswords?

And, most importantly, how quickly would you get BINGO if you used one of our cards? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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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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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: Where Is The Line?

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A few days ago, an entry in The New York Times Crossword caught the eye of a solver. That solver posted about it in the Facebook group “The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory,” which is dedicated to encouraging new constructors to make and submit puzzles.

That post kicked off an intense debate about problematic entries and how to handle them. Not only is this topic far from settled, but it’s emblematic of a larger question: where is the line?

You see, one of the advantages of our modern Internet-savvy culture is that feedback is virtually instantaneous now. If someone is offended or troubled by an entry or clue in the Monday crossword, it doesn’t take days for a letter to the editor to arrive at the paper. It takes seconds to post online and reach a potential audience.

Of course, that rapid response is a double-edged sword, because hot takes and rush-to-judgment commentary are just as quick to spread.

Both sides of that double-edged sword were in full effect as the replies piled up on that original Facebook post. As those in agreement with the original poster offered their support, counterpoints rolled in, either in defense of the entry or the clue.

(Naturally, given that this is the Internet, some chose to expand on the topic in general disagreement with a culture they claimed was too sensitive and quick to condemn every little thing that offended them. But since those people are an incredible waste of time and energy and have little interest in genuine discussion, this will be my last mention of them.)

Other posters focused on the mechanics of the puzzle itself, pointing out easy fixes that would have prevented the potentially problematic word from appearing at all. Some of these folks sided with the original poster, pointing out that a word that is potentially problematic should be edited out, and it’s part of a constructor’s job to think of these things.

And that’s the question. How much should constructors and editors be taking the potentially problematic aspects of words into consideration when constructing?

True, it’s not always possible to anticipate every negative response to the words filling your grid or the accompanying clues. (Heck, we have numerous examples of words and clues slipping through that catch fire with part of the audience in the worst possible way.)

But is that part of a constructor’s job?

In my opinion, yes, it is.

Crosswords should be inclusive. They should be an engaging activity that evokes occasional frustration but eventual satisfaction, whether you’re completing a grid, unraveling a particularly tricky theme, or besting your previous solving time. It should be fun. It should be entertainment, a distraction.

It should NOT be a place where people feel excluded, or where personal or historical traumas surface because of cluing or grid fill.

For example, I don’t believe CHINK should appear in crosswords, even as “flaw in one’s armor,” because anyone casually glancing at the grid will only see that word, not necessarily the context.

We can do better.

[Image courtesy of Bogoreducare.org.]

Originally, I wasn’t going to mention the specific clue/entry at all, because the issue is larger than this one example. But knowing the word that offended our original poster adds context.

The entry was NOOSE, and the clue was “End of a hangman’s rope.”

For the poster, the associations surrounding both clue and entry were troubling. But, for the most part, the main reason for posting appeared to be twofold:

1. Pointing out that the word’s inclusion in the grid was easily avoidable
2. Asking if other constructors/aspiring constructors found the entry as problematic as she did

She wasn’t calling for peoples’ heads. She was opening a dialogue and inviting discussion. She made her personal feelings clear — by using the word “appalled” — but made the discussion about something larger than her individual reaction.

Problem-solving-crossword

Some replies concerned the clue more than the entry, pointing out that the noose was used for many other, non-negative uses. The general association of nooses with lynching was brought up, with some instantly making the connection while others felt it was unfair or hypersensitive to make that association. Others brought up the word LYNCH, asking if the entry was problematic even if the cluing was about director David or actress Evanna.

These aren’t easy questions to answer. This is obviously not a debate that will be concluded anytime soon. But it’s one worth having.

And when it comes to conclusions to draw from all this, I think the original poster said it best in one of her replies: “In my opinion, it’s better to err on the side of empathy.”

Amen.


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More Puzzle Discounts, Freebies, and Links!

Hey there, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.

We know it can be hard to keep yourself engaged, distracted, and entertained during these trying times, so we’ve compiled a few puzzly links and options for you!

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A lot of companies, creators, and puzzlers are putting their products out there at a discount or on a Pay-What-You-Want basis (and sometimes for free!) to help distract home-bound bodies from the unpleasantness and uncertainty going on around us.

There’s the awesome team at DriveThruRPG (and the many marvelous contributors who post there), the brilliant crew at Lone Shark Games, and hey, even your friendly neighborhood puzzle app makers at PuzzleNation are throwing the digital doors wide open.

The New York Times is offering free access to its Spelling Bee puzzles, as well as up to eight free solves a day for their Tiles puzzles. The website PZZL has a bunch of free puzzles for solvers as well.

Plus numerous constructors are putting their creations out there for you to solve. One example is T Campbell’s monstrous comic book-themed puzzle with Stan Lee drawn in black squares! Check it out:

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Do you know of any other puzzly folks or companies that are offering discounts or freebies right now? Let us know so we can help spread the word!

And remember: be sure to support puzzlers, or local businesses, or artists you love online, or any other small businesses or entrepreneurs during this trying time.

Happy puzzling!


Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!

You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!