A Crossword Mystery Movie?

It’s 2018, and these days, it seems like crosswords are everywhere. They’re in the paper, on the newsstands, and even in your pocket.

And now, they’re making it onto TV with a Hallmark Channel original movie!

Oh yes, check out this snippet from the recent press release:

Hallmark Movies & Mysteries has greenlit development for new mystery movie, The Crossword Mystery starring Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott. The movie is co-created by Will Shortz, crossword editor of The New York Times, puzzle master for NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” editor of Games magazine and founder and director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Lacey Chabert and Brennan Elliott are no strangers to Hallmark themselves, having starred in three movies together since 2015: All of My Heart, A Christmas Melody, and All of My Heart: Inn Love.

Now, they’ll reunite for a new puzzly mystery.

Here’s a sneak peek of what you can expect from the film:

A brilliant crossword puzzle editor (Chabert) finds her life turned upside-down when she is pulled into a police investigation after several of the clues in her recent puzzles are linked to unsolved crimes. Proving her innocence means leaving the comfort of her sheltered world and working with a tough police detective (Elliott), puzzling through clues together in order to crack the case, as the two are fish out of water in each other’s worlds.

As far as we know, there’s no airdate scheduled yet for the film, but we’ll keep you posted when we know more.

Perhaps Will himself will have more details for us by the time the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament rolls around in March.

Still, what an unexpected bit of news for puzzlers everywhere. 2018, what other surprises are lurking up your sleeve?


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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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Celebrity Constructors Galore!

[Bill Clinton enjoys a puzzle and a snack. Image courtesy of The New York Times.]

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of collaborations between established constructors and celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought with culinary wordplay.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

None other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

Tuesday, June 6th saw musician Lisa Loeb duet with crossword gentleman and friend of the blog Doug Peterson. Their theme involved concealing one-word #1 hit songs (including one of Loeb’s!) in larger phrases, leading to a Rihanna reference with UMBRELLAPOLICY, for instance.

And big names continue to appear.

Comedian and Tails of Joy pet advocate Elayne Boosler teamed up with Patrick Merrell for the July 12th puzzle, where they did modern day versions of classic films. For instance, Taxi Driver became UBERDRIVER and Holiday Inn became HOLIDAYAIRBNB. It was an excellent collab that made the most of Merrell’s gift of grid fill and Boosler’s wit and wordplay.

Clothing designer and television host Isaac Mizrahi joined forces with constructor David J. Kahn for the July 30th puzzle, employing crafty clues to put a spin on DIY construction phrases like “Cut and dried” and “On pins and needles.”

Tying a given puzzle’s theme to the guest constructor has been a recurring theme with the 75th anniversary puzzles, and the duo of Mizrahi/Kahn produced arguably the best examples thus far this year.

Most recently, constructor David Steinberg paired off with host, comedian, magician, and performer Neil Patrick Harris for the August 24th edition of the puzzle. Their magic-themed puzzle not only incorporated different parts of a standard magic show, but it concealed the name of a famous magician by hiding him among the down answers. (Or it would have, if he hadn’t escaped!)

Brilliant execution makes for a clever puzzle that Jeff Chen of XWordInfo declared one of his favorite puzzles of the year. (Of course, readers of the blog shouldn’t be surprised after solving the crossword Neil included in his autobiography.)

With more celebrity constructors still to come, including “a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others” (according to Will Shortz), I am definitely looking forward to seeing what other tricks these constructor/celeb duos have up their sleeves.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords

crossword-newspaper

Last summer, I wrote a blog post discussing an article on Slate by Ruth Graham. The article was entitled “Why Is the New York Times Crossword So Clueless About Race and Gender?”

So, what sort of progress has been made over the previous 365 days? Clearly not enough, given the title of an article published last week on The Outline, entitled “The NYT Crossword is Old and Kind of Racist.”

Adrianne Jeffries makes a strong case for how out-of-touch the crossword often seems these days:

…the Times crosswords, which have been edited by the famed crossword giant Will Shortz since 1993, are vexing for how outdated some of the clues and answers are, especially since in some cases the terms have been abandoned by the paper itself. The puzzle clearly isn’t seeking new talent or a new audience, and in its stodginess, it becomes clear that it is composed for a very particular reader with a very particular view of the world.

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[Image courtesy of New York Magazine.]

She backs up her supposition with numerous examples of tone-deaf cluing and grid fill, like ESKIMO, Oriental, and SISSIES.

There is some overlap with Ruth Graham’s points from last year — including the reductive use of HOMIE regarding black culture and the clue “One caught by the border patrol” for ILLEGAL — and Jeffries went on to include examples of the issue I raised last year with the objectionable “This, to Juan” cluing style that abounds in crosswords.

But she takes things one step further than previous efforts by pointing out how the crossword is out-of-step with the rest of the New York Times newspaper, citing the year that various terms were marked offensive in the Times style guide. (“Oriental” as a descriptor, for instance, was banned in 1999.)

64207-c4090678

[This is oriental. People are not. Image courtesy of Rashid Oriental Rugs.]

It’s disheartening that articles like this are so necessary. Women and people of color deserve better representation in the Times puzzles, both as contributors of puzzles AND as subjects of clues and entries themselves.

Jeffries offered another damning example of dubious Shortzian editing:

I also found an exchange from 2011 illuminating. Shortz asked puzzle constructor Elizabeth Gorski to change an answer on her submitted puzzle. “There was one thing about the construction I didn’t like, and that was at 35 Down,” Shortz told The Atlantic. “The answer was LORELAI, and the sirens on the Rhine are of course ‘Lorelei,’ with an ‘e-i.’ Liz’s clue was Rory’s mom on Gilmore Girls, and I didn’t think solvers should have to know that.” He had the constructor revise the answer to make it 1) more old and 2) refer to mythical women who are so distractingly beautiful that they cause men to crash their ships on the rocks, instead of, a cool mom from a television show that millions of women (and some men) love.

6358790824238732801426659592_tumblr_mfc1fvm21i1qhewe3o1_500

[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Even as a (relatively) younger voice in puzzles, I can’t deny many of her points. Puzzles should do a better job of acknowledging modern culture, of serving as a tiny, daily time capsule of our world.

As I said last year, crosswords are a cultural microcosm, representing the commonalities and peculiarities of our language in a given time and place. They represent our trivia, our understanding, our cleverness, our humor, and, yes, sometimes our shortcomings.

One year later, I wonder if progress will continue to feel so gradual, or if, sometime soon, we’ll begin to feel the cultural quakes and shifts that indicate real change is approaching.


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Presidential Puzzling

crossword-newspaper

The New York Times Crossword celebrated 75 years of puzzles back in February, and ever since, they’ve been commemorating that puzzly milestone with a series of established constructors collaborating with celebrity guests to create special monthly puzzles.

It started on February 15th, the 75th anniversary, with a collaboration by Patrick Blindauer and actor Jesse Eisenberg offering some food for thought.

On March 20th, astronomer and affable Pluto slayer Neil deGrasse Tyson joined Andrea Carla Michaels in creating a punny look at the stars.

Classical pianist Emanuel Ax teamed up with Brad Wilber to pen a music-minded puzzler on April 19th.

And for the May installment of this celebrity series, none other than former president Bill Clinton tried his hand at creating a crossword alongside judge and constructor Victor Fleming for the May 12th edition of the puzzle.

clintonandhume

The puzzle was offered free online by The New York Times. Although the Friday puzzle is usually themeless, there was a link between three of the main answers, DON’T STOP, THINKING ABOUT, and TOMORROW, which of course spell out the title of his campaign song.

Will Shortz offered further details on the creative process:

In the case of today’s puzzle, Judge Fleming constructed the grid, with some input from Mr. Clinton. The president wrote most of the clues. When the judge proposed tweaks to certain clues, Mr. Clinton objected: “Too easy and boring. Might as well print the answers in the puzzle.”

I found it to be a pretty fair solve, although there were a few outlier answers that were much, much tougher than the rest of the field. (Either that or I need to bone up on my Indonesian geography.)

Shortz also offered a glimpse of the celebrity constructors to come, teasing readers with mentions of “a pop singer with a No. 1 hit, a noted fashion designer, a standup comedian, a venerable TV journalist, a morning TV host, a six-time Emmy-winning actor, and a sitting U.S. senator, among others.”

It’ll be interesting to see which celebrity solvers have accepted the challenge of constructing a puzzle of their own.


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Delving into the 2017 ACPT puzzles!

acptlogo

One of the highlights of the puzzle year is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and the impressive, challenging, and well-constructed puzzles awaiting solvers there rank among the craftiest you’ll ever see.

So let’s put them under the microscope and see how I did!


Puzzle 1: Mystery Initials by Bruce Haight

The opening puzzle in this year’s tournament was certainly an interesting way to kick off the event. Puzzle 1 usually eases solvers into the experience, but this time around, it was more challenging than I think anyone expected. The theme of MI phrases (MORE INFO, MENU ITEM, etc.) was accessible and clued in a straightforward manner.

Interesting grid entries included MWAHAHA, DASH CAM, UHURA, and HI MOM, and my favorite clues were “Option from a list” for MENU ITEM and “’All ears’ or ‘lay eyes on’” for IDIOM.

Puzzle 2: One Dozen by Patrick Berry

Berry’s contribution to the tournament was a very smooth puzzle with great fill and fun wordplay. The theme of sound-alike phrases, but where the T is dropped (AMBIEN NOISE instead of AMBIENT NOISE) was very clever. My only issue with the puzzle was that the two long down entries didn’t adhere to the theme, so I found them tougher to unravel than expected. Otherwise, this was a great hook executed nicely.

Interesting grid entries included LAB RAT, ONESIE, COOLIO, and FABIO, and my favorite clues were “Scientific subject” for LAB RAT and “Shipping order?” for AVAST.

Puzzle 3: On the Table by Brendan Emmett Quigley

Much like Puzzle 1, Puzzle 3 was more challenging than many solvers expected, but the theme — common items or phrases where the initials are swapped for the element on the Periodic Table using that abbreviation (like PLATINUM CRUISER for PT CRUISER) — was really tough, but pulled off with great style.

With elements like Erbium, Moscovium, and Praseodymium getting namechecked, your knowledge of high school chemistry was really put to the test here. That being said, one or two fill entries really flummoxed me, particularly DO TO A TEE, which I had a hard time parsing out even with the section filled in.

Interesting grid entries included ASTARTE, OY VEY, MR. ROARKE, and ABSENTIA, and my favorite clues were “Makes calls” for REFS, “Title that’s shortened by removing its middle letter” for MADAM, and “It takes the edge off” for EMERY.

puzzle3

Puzzle 4: Body Doubles by Julie Berube

This was a nice break after the challenge of Puzzle 3, and several tournament competitors suggested that this should have been Puzzle 1. A relatively smooth solve with body parts hidden in larger entries (revealed by black boxes in the grid), there was one crossing that gave me pause, as ALII crossing ERIE PA was much tougher than any other crossing in the puzzle.

I was also surprised at allowing two phrases starting with “I’m” both reading down in the same corner, with I’M GONE and I’M A LOSER together. But other than that, this was a quick solve with plenty of French offering an international flavor.

Interesting grid entries included ANTIMATTER, ASAHI, and EYE CHART, and my favorite clues were “Prepare to race” for GET SET and “Apple standard” for IOS.

Puzzle 5: Splice of Life by Mike Shenk

At last, the always daunting Puzzle 5 arrived, and this one did not disappoint. Once you’ve figured out that each themed entry has the letters DNA stuffed into a single box, you really start rolling on the puzzle.

But not long after that, you realize there’s something else at work here as well, since parts of the themed answers are jumbled with each other. Instead of BORIS AND NATASHA, you get BORIS AND NAMES, since NATASHA is paired with UNITED in another entry. (This is confirmed by the revealer RECOMBINANT in the lower left corner.)

The two-step hook makes for a challenging solve, but a very satisfying one, once you’ve sussed out Shenk’s tricks.

Interesting grid entries included ZAPPA, SUSPENSE FILM, OVIEDO, and SUN RA, and my favorite clues were “Hit close to home” for BUNT, “One might be responsible for a reduced sentence” for EDITOR, “Dressing for bowties, e.g.” for SAUCE, and “Give up possession of, in a way” for PUNT.

Puzzle 6: Field Trip by Lynn Lempel

The final puzzle on Saturday was a nice palate cleanser after Puzzle 5, employing a hook based more on cluing wordplay than any trickery in the grid. All of the clues played with baseball terminology: “One touting pain pills?” clued RELIEF PITCHER, for instance. This was a solid way to close out the day’s solving, with very little crosswordese and a balanced fill.

Interesting grid entries included SOIREE, IRON MAN, CORONET, and KANSAN, and my favorite clues were “Apple on a teacher’s desk” for IMAC and the themed clue “Two square dancing needs?” for SWING AND A MISS.

acptswimsuit

Puzzle 7: Rebranding by Joel Fagliano

Sunday morning’s puzzle was all about the cluing as the constructor peppered the grid with the names of famous companies and offered alternate sales pitches for them in the clues. (For example, “Now we sell chess pieces!” was new advertising for WHITE CASTLE.) The associative cluing style felt different from all of the other puzzles in the tournament, giving this one a fun energy and making for an enjoyable solving experience.

Interesting grid entries included I’LL PASS, CARNITAS, ROGER MOORE, NBA TEAMS, and SENESCED, and my favorite clue was “Woman’s name that sounds like two letters of the alphabet” for EVIE.

Puzzle 8: Last Words by Michael Shteyman

And then, we were down to one. The final puzzle of the tournament offered three sets of clue difficulties (A for the top performers, B for the solid performers, C for everyone else). And with no theme and plenty of long entries crossing in this grid, there were fewer giveaway words to get you started.

I attempted the A-level clues, but I struggled mightily with them. I did successfully solve the puzzle with the B-level clues, but honestly, that just gave me more respect for the B-level finalists who were mistakenly given the A-level clues at the tournament this year, because they all still managed to complete the puzzle! Wow.

With unusual entries like AQUAPLANE, INDOJAZZ, LEO VI, and FLESHPOT, Shyetman did an impressive job cramming all 26 letters of the alphabet into this pangram puzzle.

Interesting grid entries included PUZZLE MUG, MOON UNIT, and AL-JAZEERA, and my favorite clues were “50/50, e.g.” for ONE — very nice math cluing there — and “Knife handle?” for X-ACTO.


Overall, I think this year’s tournament puzzles were tougher than those in previous years. That being said, there was a lot of ingenuity and creativity involved in these eight puzzles, and I never cease to be amazed at how fast and how clever so many of my fellow puzzle solvers are, blasting through these crosswords at unbelievable speeds.

ACPT, I’ll see you next year.


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