A New Venue to Publish More Women!

Long-time readers know that one of my favorite things about the blog is that I can use it to spread the word about different worthwhile projects.

In the past, we’ve proudly provided a signal boost to folks adapting popular games for the visually impaired, game shops that could use more support, and campaigns to encourage and recruit constructors from more diverse backgrounds.

So when I heard about the Kickstarter campaign for The Inkubator, I knew it was another worthwhile project to put a spotlight on.

The brainchild of crossword constructors Tracy Bennett and Laura Braunstein, The Inkubator is a by-email subscription puzzle service where 100% of the puzzles will be constructed by women. (It follows in the footsteps of the wonderful Women of Letters project from last year.)

From the public announcement:

The editors invite women — cis women, trans women, and woman-aligned constructors — to submit themed and themeless crosswords or queries in any stage of development. (If you think you may be eligible to construct, but you’re not sure, you’re eligible to construct. Still not sure? Ask us!) If you’re new to constructing, we’ll make every effort to connect you with a collaborator.

Yes, The Inkubator is not only a publishing outlet for anyone who identifies as female, but it is intended to help and encourage new and inexperienced constructors, providing resources and advice in the hopes of publishing more women.

The Kickstarter has only been up for two days, and they’ve already passed their initial funding goal, proving that there is not only a market for women-driven puzzles, but a lot of support for female constructors as well. They’re currently brainstorming stretch goals for the project right now!

I wish The Inkubator not only luck, but success, and I can’t wait to see what new voices the project helps bring to the fore.

For more details or to donate to The Inkubator, check out the Kickstarter page for the project here.


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Women of Letters: Doing Good with Crosswords!

The puzzle community is awesome. I have chronicled numerous examples of this fact during my time writing this blog, and yet, I am endlessly stunned by the generosity and thoughtfulness embodied by so many puzzlers I know, as well as others I hope to meet in the future.

Today, I have the privilege of sharing another marvelous charitable puzzly project with my fellow PuzzleNationers.

Crossword constructor and friend of the blog Patti Varol, alongside constructors Angela Halsted and Amy Reynaldo, assembled a who’s who of top constructors for a project called Women of Letters.

The idea is as simple as it is marvelous.

If you donate to one of the worthy causes pictured below — including Girls Who Code, Sanctuary for Families, Girls Not Brides, Planned Parenthood, and others — you can send a copy of your charitable receipt to WomenofLettersCrosswords@gmail.com.

And in return, you’ll receive a PDF loaded with 18 pages of original puzzles by topnotch constructors like Robin Stears, Lynn Lempel, C.C. Burnikel, Laura Braunstein, Tracy Bennett, Andrea Carla Michaels, and more!

It’s a little extra incentive to do a bit of good in the world, plus it highlights the hard work and boundless creativity of women in the puzzle community. Kudos to everyone involved in this venture.

[You can click here for full details on Women of Letters.]


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Puzzles for a Good Cause!

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

The puzzle community is really amazing. It’s an incredibly open, friendly, and welcoming band of creators, miscreants, wordsmiths, and trivia buffs from all walks of life, united by a love of wordplay and the satisfying discovery of a solution, be it to a puzzle or a problem.

Basically, if you’re in a bind, if you need help, there’s usually a puzzler there by your side to back you up.

This blog has given me plenty of opportunities to detail wonderful charitable programs spearheaded by puzzlers in the past, and today, it’s my pleasure and my privilege to bring another to your attention, my fellow PuzzleNationers.

Like last year’s Puzzles for Progress (which inspired it!), Queer Crosswords is all about providing a small puzzly incentive to do some good and reach out.

Once you’ve donated to one of the worthy causes detailed here — including the ACLU, PFLAG, The Trevor Project, the Trans Women of Color Collective, and others — you can send a copy of your charitable receipt to Nate Cardin at queerqrosswords@gmail.com.

And in return, you’ll receive a PDF loaded with 22 pages of original puzzles by great constructors like Tracy Bennett, Todd Gross, Mark Halpin, Andrew Ries, Trip Payne, Jenna LaFleur, Andy Kravis, and more.

It’s a little puzzly thank you for playing your part in building a better world, and I applaud everyone involved in this venture.

[You can click here for full details on Queer Crosswords.]


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An Amazing New Resource for Aspiring Constructors!

Just yesterday, I mentioned the accessibility of many modern puzzle constructors thanks to the Internet. Of course, I was referring to access to their puzzle content, but a new project has reminded me that many constructors are also very accessible when it comes to advice and encouragement.

Deb Amlen wrote an article about a new Facebook page, the Puzzle Collaboration Directory, that is encouraging new and aspiring constructors to reach out to established names in the industry and build an interactive community. This is an amazing resource for puzzlers whose enthusiasm might be undercut by lack of confidence or experience in crafting themes, building grids, and creating clues.

From the introductory post:

If you’re a puzzle constructor looking to collaborate or to be a resource to those seeking one, kindly add your name, contact info, and puzzle specialties to the file entitled “constructors list.”

If you’re here looking for someone to collaborate with, ask questions of, or something in that general vicinity, you can peruse the aforementioned file and reach out to any of the constructors listed – we’ll be happy to hear from you. If you have a question that everyone would benefit from hearing, or if you want to work with someone and you’re not picky about who, feel free to post directly in the group to that effect.

Terrific, innovative, and generous puzzlers like joon pahk, Erik Agard, Robyn Weintraub, Andy Kravis, Doug Peterson, Tracy Bennett, and more have all signed up to mentor aspiring constructors and answer questions.

This is just one more example of how awesome the puzzle community is. We’re all fans of puzzles and we’re more than happy to encourage others with the same passion. (Heck, a few years ago, we also shared some constructing advice right here on the blog.)

You never know where the next great puzzle theme will come from, or who will be wowing you with crafty clues and brain-melting themes in the future.

Good luck to all the constructors getting started there, and a hearty thank you to all the constructors who have already signed up to share their time, insights, and knowledge. I can’t wait to see what comes from this marvelous new resource.


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My Favorite Crosswords from 2017!

One of my New Year’s Resolutions last year was to solve more crosswords.

I wanted to sample as many outlets as possible, really immersing myself in the tricks and techniques that constructors use to create really topnotch puzzles. And I definitely solved more crosswords from more publishers than ever before.

And any time a puzzle really impressed me, or made me laugh out loud, or presented an enjoyable challenge that lingered in my mind after the solve, I put it aside in a little folder.

So now, I’d like to give those puzzles and their constructors a little love as I share my favorite crossword puzzles from 2017.


My collection started early in the year when David Steinberg celebrated the 125th anniversary of Stanford with a crossword that not only wished the university “happy birthday” in circled letters in the grid, but spelled out the number “125” when you connected the circles!

Peter Gordon marked 7/7/17 on the calendar with Fireball Newsflash Crosswords #7, and went all in on the 7s, placing three entries in the puzzle that were clued as “capital of a seven-letter country/state.”

Patrick Blindauer’s “End of the Summer” puzzle from the first edition of Piece of Cake Crosswords celebrated Labor Day with shaded entries that clued multiple down entries, depending on whether you filled the shaded space with LAB or DAY. So, for instance, you could have LAMP and BEAR or DAMP and YEAR reading down for their particular clues.

[Image courtesy of TV Tropes.]

For brazen acts of punnery, it’s hard to top Patrick Blindauer’s “For Fudd’s Sake” Piece of Cake Crosswords puzzle. Theme entries like WOOKIE MISTAKE definitely had me laughing. Then throw in clues like “Instrument that becomes a dessert if you change its first letter to a J” for CELLO and “What my fiancee said to me on September 16, 2011” for I DO, and you’ve got a great solve.

Then again, there was COOLIO JETS in Brendan Emmett Quigley’s “No Big Pun Intended” crossword from March 30th, MOSTLY ARMLESS from Patrick Blindauer’s “True ‘Liza” Piece of Cake Crosswords puzzle, and entries like PIGNORAMUS, LAMBITION, and SQUIDDITCH from Patti Varol and Dave Cuzzolina’s June 30th LA Times puzzle.

And how could you resist the wordplay in Quigley’s “Next Level Shit” puzzle from November 2nd? Entries like LAKE TITICACA and SKYSCRAPER AD were purposely broken up onto ascending rows, so that CACA and CRAP(ERAD) read out on the “next level.” It was shameless and very inventive all at the same time.

[Image courtesy of Scientix Blog.]

Nobody keeps it current like Peter Gordon with his Fireball Newsflash Crosswords, and #20 from March 3rd had a lot of fun with the snafu at the Oscars, first giving us “Winner of the Oscar for Best Picture at the recent Academy Awards” as a clue for LALALAND and then correcting itself later with “There’s been a mistake! Actual winner of the Oscar for Best Picture at the recent Academy Awards” for MIDNIGHT. Beautiful trolling there.

He did something similar in the “Themeless 107” Fireball Crosswords puzzle that had HARRY ANGSTROM as an entry, and then referenced it in another clue — “Film character whose last name is roughly 95 septillion times longer than 23-Across’s?” — for BUZZ LIGHTYEAR. The science/math nerd in me popped for that one.

I’m a sucker for ladder puzzles, so when Mary Lou Guizzo and Jeff Chen snuck one into their May 5th puzzle in The Chronicle of Higher EducationAPE, APT, OPT, OAT, MAT, MAN — and an evolutionary one at that, I very much enjoyed it. The cluing only added to the fun, with clues like “Member of a Latin lover’s trio?” for AMAT and “Kiddie or chick follower” for LIT.

The Chronicle of Higher Education struck gold again on April 21st with Ed Sessa’s puzzle “That Boxed-In Feeling.” Not only did the puzzle feature several confined spaces like MRI MACHINE and PHONE BOOTH as theme entries, but CLAUSTROPHOBIA was jammed into the center of the puzzle — two letters per square — to really bring the theme home. Really nice, tight gridwork there.

(For the trifecta, I also enjoyed George Barany and Michael Hanko’s July 21st puzzle in The Chronicle, “Side Order,” which used BERMUDA TRIANGLE, TIMES SQUARE, and THE PENTAGON to complete a themed GEOMETRIC SERIES.)

Another puzzle with a lot of interplay between cluing and theme answers was Jacob Stulberg’s “Two Descents’ Worth” Fireball Crosswords puzzle. This one had entries like DRESSING, STRIPPED, and UPSIDE, which were referenced in clues for CENSURE, BASIC, and FLIPPED.

You see, the theme here was DOUBLE DOWN, so a double DRESSING down would be CENSURE, something doubly STRIPPED down would be BASIC, and being doubly UPSIDE down would be FLIPPED. I confess, it took me a while to parse out the relationships between these entries, but once I did, I was very impressed with the imagination and constructing skills necessary to make the puzzle.

[Um, no, not THAT Double Down. Image courtesy of YouTube.]

There were also some grids that really played with word placement and omission in super-clever ways.

Tracy Bennett’s “To Everything There is a Season” puzzle from the Indie 500 tournament offered a grid with four-way symmetry built around the four seasons, which all appeared within the grid. Having the clues set at 90-degree angles to coincide with word placement in the grid was a nice touch.

Timothy Polin’s “A Prynne String,” the January 13th puzzle for The Chronicle of Higher Education, had four As in the grid that “concealed” the letters RED both across and down, so LEERED AT and HUNDRED ACRE WOOD became LEEAT and HUNDACREWOOD. It took me a while to figure out the game here, and when I did, I was really impressed with the grid construction and creativity.

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Ed Sessa makes his second appearance on the list with a March 24th Los Angeles Times puzzle that played nicely with a classic idiom — Leave no stone unturned — by hiding stones within the other theme entries. For instance, AGATE read out backwards in TILL WE MEET AGAIN. He let us in on this clever hook with the revealer NO ENOTS UNTURNED. Nicely done.

(Brendan Emmett Quigley did something similar with his “Halfbacks” puzzle from June 8th, with entries like HIGH GERARD, RADIO SIDNEY, and ALFRED PANTS, as did Erik Agard with the “Bottoms Up” puzzle from the Indie 500 Meta puzzle pack, sneaking drinks like OJ and DECAF into the down-reading entries JO WALTON and FACED THE TRUTH.)

Quigley took it a step further with his April 6th puzzle “Catch You on the Rebound,” as the themed entries required you to fill in the boxes one letter at a time, then place the rest of the letters backwards on the same line, forcing two letters to share squares. For instance, THE POINT OF NO RETURN spelled out THEPOI(NN)(TR)(OU)(FT)(NE)(OR), with RETURN reading backwards in the boxes.

Alex Eaton-Salners did a tough variation on this idea in Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords with “Kicking Off the Fourth,” as his theme entries started backwards and then doubled back on themselves. For instance, POTATOPEELER was written as ATOPEELER, with the POT reading backwards, “kicking off the fourth” letter with the A, then reading forward with the rest of the entry. NRUBBER for BURNRUBBER, EDISHES for SIDEDISHES, and AVAVOOM for VAVAVAVOOM were just some of the NINE entries that fit the pattern. A top 5 puzzle of the year for me, easily.

[Image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

And I have to close out today’s post by mentioning Alex again for his “Read the Fine Print” Fireball Crosswords puzzle. This one actually used some of the numbers within the grid as part of the entries. Box 1 was filled with a 1 for 1 CUP and 1 PIN, Box 50 helped form 50 FIRST DATES and 50 CENT, and so on. I’ve never seen the actual cluing numbers incorporated into the answers like that before. Really terrific stuff.

There were so many great, creative, well-constructed puzzles that a post like this just scratches the surface. (Especially since I’m behind on my solving for The Crosswords Club and a few other outlets!)

I’m sure I missed plenty of worthy puzzles from constructors all over. Feel free to let me know your favorites in the comments section below! (And come back tomorrow to learn some of the favorites from others in the puzzle community!)

I’m continually amazed by the innovation, reinvention, and endless possibilities clever constructors can mine from these curious collections of white and black squares.

I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us in 2018.


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Tackling the 2017 Indie 500 Puzzles!

indie5002017

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

June 3 marked the third annual Indie 500 Crossword Tournament, hosted in Washington, D.C., by constructors Erik Agard, Neville Fogarty, Andy Kravis, and Angela Olsen Halsted. The first tournament had a racing theme, the second had a prom theme, and this year was time-themed!

While I couldn’t attend the tournament, I did download the tournament puzzles, and after a few weeks, I had the opportunity to sit down and tackle the six puzzles prepared for the event. And today, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on those puzzles, for any interested PuzzleNationers who might be considering participating in the future.


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[Image courtesy of IW Magazine.]

Puzzle 1: Before and After by Angela Olson Halsted

The opening puzzle got solvers off to a quick start with a well-constructed grid and some very accessible cluing. The theme had phrases where both words were connected when the word “TIME” was placed between them. For instance, HAMMER BANDITS combined HAMMER TIME and TIME BANDITS.

The hook made for a terrific introductory puzzle, setting the stage for more challenging crosswords to come. It was an excellent way to set the pace.

Interesting grid entries included SLIM JIMS, LAPDOG, and FAJITA, and my favorite clue was “Fourth name on a typical list of Santa’s reindeer” for VIXEN.

Puzzle 2: Jam Session by Paolo Pasco

The second puzzle of the day was all about CRUNCH TIME (as the revealer explained), and solvers had to figure out how to “jam” the correct theme answers into the limited grid space. Savvy solvers glommed onto the fact that each compressed entry (placing two letters in a single grid box) included a period of time (WEEK for FASHION WEEK, DECADE for THE ME DECADE, etc.).

Pasco’s CRUNCH TIME wordplay was well-represented in the cluing as well, as the last ten down clues were “rushed” — printed with spelling errors and other shortcuts. It was a fun way to reflect the theme further, and added a lot of personality to the cluing.

Interesting grid entries included NOT SO FAST, ALL THAT, LAUTRECA, and ALI PASHA, and my favorite clue was either “Connecting words?” for I DO or “The few, the proud (and the abbreviated)” for USMC.

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[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Puzzle 3: This Mashup’s for the Byrds by Tracy Bennett

Tracy Bennett brought a lyrical touch to the proceedings with this puzzle which not only namedropped a few time-based song titles, but also had punny themed clues written in the style of The Byrds’ song Turn Turn Turn. For instance, the clue “a time to be borne” led solvers to THE RAPTURE.

There was also a very impressive bit of wordplay involving how the 4 themed clues were written. Each was modified with a single letter — “a time to trend” instead of “a time to rend,” for example. These extra letters spelled out the answer RENT in 80-down (which was cited in another down clue). That’s some quality construction right there.

Interesting grid entries included BROAD CITY, TOE TAP, ISSA RAE (across two answers) and FEMINISTA, and my favorite clue was either “Cheap but inviting letters” for BYO, “Change one’s locks?” for DYE, or “Norman patronymic with ‘Gerald’ or ‘Hugh'” for FITZ.

Puzzle 4: Non-Linear Narratives by Erik Agard featuring Allegra Kuney

The toughest puzzle of the tournament thus far, Puzzle 4’s theme entries involved phrases which included animals, but not only were the animals replaced with their younger or older versions (KANGAROO for JOEY in PAL JOEY, for instance), but the animal portion of the phrase also read backward! So in the case of FROG IN ONE’S THROAT, the actual answer read ELOPDAT IN ONE’S THROAT.

Those entries were supported by the revealers GETTING UP THERE (for KANGAROO and RABBIT, since they were progressing from baby to adult) and BUTTONING UP (for TADPOLE and HATCHLING, since they were progressing from adult to baby like Benjamin Button). And all four were cited in the answer JUMPING AROUND IN TIME, offering a final touch of wordplay for solvers to enjoy.

Interesting grid entries included LENINIST, AM I HIGH, TIRAMISU, RING SIZE, and CHEERIO, and my favorite clue was either “Spot for a banjo” for KNEE or “Poet hidden (not very well) in this clue” for POE.

time

[Image courtesy of tutsplus.com.]

Puzzle 5: In Search of Lost Time by Neville Fogarty

The manipulation of time and space continued in Puzzle 5, as the word ERA was removed from some themed entries and inserted in others, giving us answers like OP(era)TION DESERT STORM and (ERA)SURE THING.

The construction is topnotch and the fill interesting, making for a nice palate cleanser and a really fun solve after the more strenuous efforts of Puzzle 4.

Interesting grid entries included MR. MOTO, NABBIT, HEE HAW, and FIERI, and my favorite clue was easily “Word clued as ‘Modern messages’ in a 1995 New York Times crossword” for FAXES.

Puzzle 6: Downs Only? by Andy Kravis

The closing puzzle of the tournament was offered in two difficulty levels: the Inside Track (designated for solvers who finished in the top 25% of the field in a crossword tournament with published standings in the past 5 years) and the Outside Track (designated for everyone else). I opted for the Inside Track, then looked over the cluing for the Outside Track.

The closing puzzle of the tournament is usually the most difficult, but this year, they threw a curveball at the competitors:

You will not receive all the clues at the start of this puzzle. Instead, you will start the puzzle with only the down clues. However, you may be able to figure out what happened to the rest of the clues while you are solving the puzzle. If you think you have figured out what happened to the rest of the clues, tell the official standing next to you. If you are correct, you will immediately be given the rest of the clues.

Some solvers make a habit of attempting to solve a crossword with only one set of clues, so using only the down clues wouldn’t trip up the most elite solvers. But for the rest of us, what a diabolical twist! (The theme entries spelled out that the missing Across clues were on the back of the whiteboard the competitors were filling in.)

The grid itself was packed long entries, but the tight construction left little room for crosswordese or obscurity to throw you off-track. It’s a great grid with some brutal cluing.

Interesting grid entries abounded in this one, including CAIMAN, MIND ERASER, YUCATAN, GESTAPO, and OSSO BUCO, and my favorite clues were either “The planets, e.g.” for OCTET (alas, poor Pluto), “Part of many a wedding toast” for ANECDOTE, or “Sea whose eastern basin dried up completely in 2014” for ARAL. (That area so often clued as a sea is in fact now referred to as the Aralqum Desert, and it’s nice to see crossworders picking up on that.)


Overall, this was the best Indie 500 yet. The puzzles mixed the inventiveness of the first two tournaments with a steadier hand and some really clever cluing. The constructors made the most of the time theme, resulting in some super-impressive wordplay and theme ideas. All in all, this was an engaging and worthy series of puzzles, designed to delight and challenge solvers in equal measure.

I look forward to its return next year, and hopefully some of you will join me in accepting the Indie 500 challenge!

Note: There were additional puzzles included in the puzzle packet, but since they were outside the regular tournament puzzles, I didn’t review them. But believe me, they are worth your time, particularly Tracy Bennett’s immensely fun “To Everything There Is a Season” companion puzzle.


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