Monday, February 21, 2011

Interview: Neyartha

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[Introductory Post: Interviews with The Hindu Crossword Setters]

neyartha-hindu-crossword-interviewHow much of the artist does Art truly reflect? Take the case of Neyartha's crosswords. The offbeat choice of words, the propensity for specialist themes, the clueing style show a compiler with a distinctive scientific temperament, one who likes to blend entertainment with education. Is he really as we infer from his puzzles? Find out as Neyartha talks about himself, his approach to setting and the influences and interests that have shaped his art.

Q1: Welcome, Neyartha. Please tell us about yourself, how you got introduced to crosswords and how you got into setting for The Hindu.

Neyartha: Shuchi, thanks! I am an engineer in my late 20s, based in the United States. Designing and verifying silicon chips is my full time job now, but crosswords have always been a favourite pastime of mine since high school days. The advent of online social networks enabled me to reach out to crossword enthusiasts all around the world. I was in touch with one of the compilers for The Hindu as a fellow enthusiast and we even joked about me joining the compilers panel in the initial days. As many people who solve cryptics and want to move to compiling have realised, setting puzzles is a different ball game altogether. Experience with compiling some college fest puzzles and conducting some cryptic crossword workshops gave me the necessary confidence.

Around the end of 2007, one of the compilers in The Hindu’s panel bid adieu and I was offered an opportunity to fill in. My first puzzle was published on Dec 17, 2007 (The Hindu Crossword 9096). Since then, I have been contributing two puzzles every month (and occasionally, four).

Q2: What does "Neyartha" mean? It is sometimes mistaken to be a woman’s name. Is it?

When The Hindu offered to carry bylines, I wanted to choose something Indian in flavour and also convey something related to cryptic puzzles. “Neyartha” is a Sanskrit word with origins in Buddhism. It literally means “provisional intent”. In layman’s terms, it is something which requires interpretation, and shouldn’t be taken at face value (very similar to cryptic crossword clues!). In the literal sense, it is not a gender noun at all. As a crossword byline, I guess it adds a little bit to the cryptic feel of the puzzle.

Q3: What is your method of setting? Do you write all the clues in sequence, in one sitting or in spurts? How long does it take you to set a typical 15x15?

Neyartha: As evident in my comments on the guest post by Anax, I am a heavy user of technology for compiling crosswords. Before writing clues, I make use of Crossword Compiler to generate filled grids with thematic entries (more on this in the answer to the next question). I then filter out the filled words into a text file for further processing. After grappling around with many different programs, I have now settled down to a workflow which is most efficient for me.

At any given point of time in the compilation process, my computer workspace is similar to the screenshot below (click to enlarge):


The text file with the words to be clued is at the top left. At the bottom right, I have a spreadsheet to keep track of the number of times a particular cryptic device has been used in that puzzle. I wasn’t keeping track of this during my initial days. After compiling 20 or 30 puzzles, I realised that solvers like these devices to be present in a certain ratio. I use WordWeb Pro (with WordNet, Chambers and The Oxford English Dictionary) and Matt Ginsberg’s Clue Database (which is a database of clues found in the US newspaper puzzles) for the direct definitions. In addition, I also maintain a SQLite database of indicators for various cryptic devices. This database can be queried according to needed characteristics. As a last resort, I use WordPlay Wizard to get an idea of what cryptic devices can be used with a particularly difficult-to-clue word.

The spreadsheet has various cryptic devices in the order in which I find it difficult to write clues for. For example, I found that it is usually difficult to find words in the puzzle to be clued with a cryptic definition. In any puzzle, I get those clue types out of the way first (because I have a larger pool of words to choose from at that time). Anagrams, charades and embedded clues are comparatively easy to write, and often blend in with other clue types. I usually keep them for the last. By the time I finish up with the quota of other clue types, I find that around 50% of the quota of these clue types is also fulfilled. As is evident from the above methodology, I don’t set the clues in order.

I take a break (ranging from a few hours to a few weeks depending on how far away the puzzle submission deadline is) after finishing up with the first five or six clue types in the spreadsheet. Sankar, in charge of the crossword feature at The Hindu, is kind enough to send me a gentle reminder around a week before the due date. After receiving that email, I sit down to finish clueing the rest of the puzzles. Sometimes, I am able to clue five to ten words in a hour. When stuck with compilers’ block, I consider myself lucky if I can clue one word in that time. All my puzzles for The Hindu have 30 clues each, and, in a crunch situation, I believe I need at least 2 days to finish up a puzzle from scratch.

Q4: How does creating a themed puzzle differ in effort and approach, compared to a regular puzzle? I've noticed that you create different themes using the same grids. That must be very hard to do.

Neyartha: In my compilation methodology, the themed puzzles are no different from the usual puzzles except during the initial fillup of the grid. I usually finish up grid fills for 30 - 40 puzzles at a time. The process starts with trying to find good themes for crossword puzzles. My favourite method is to randomly browse Wikipedia till I hit upon a certain category or theme. However, I find that Wikipedia based themes are not such a great hit with solvers. In the last grid fill, I relied more on themes which came up in my day to day routine. For example, I was taking a print out at my workplace one day, and it struck me that the various types of printers could be a theme for a crossword puzzle.

Once I decide upon the theme, I draw up a list of at least 10 theme words. Crossword Compiler has got a nifty feature in which it can take words from a provided word list. I use the created theme list and it tries to fill up the grid with as many words from the word list as possible. Once I am satisfied with the fill for one of the five grids that I regularly use, I shift over to the default word list to fill up the grid. Sometimes, the theme fill renders any fillup of the remaining blanks with the default word list impossible. It is a back-and-forth process to identify the correct theme suitable for a particular grid while making sure that the remaining entries can also be filled up.

All in all, creating themed puzzles is not as difficult as it sounds if proper use of available software tools is made.

Q5: What, according to you, qualifies as a good themed puzzle?

Neyartha: As a cruciverbalist with an engineering background, I have been guilty many times of composing puzzles with engineering themes. I am not sure the general solver likes those type of puzzles. If the target audience of the puzzle is able to identify with the theme and get an ‘Aha’ effect separate from appreciating the individual clues, then I would term it as a good themed puzzle.

In this context, many of my own themed puzzles may have missed its mark with a majority of the solvers. However, this has probably got to do with the varied demographic that The Hindu caters to. Hopefully, there are a few techies out there who have enjoyed those specific themed puzzles that I compiled.

Looking at themed 15x15 puzzles from another viewpoint, I find that they can broadly be divided into the following categories:

  1. Starred clues with no direct definition
  2. Same short-form used in all the theme clues
  3. Same definition used in all the theme clues
  4. No indication of any theme in the clue wordings, but realisation by solver after completely solving the puzzle

In my opinion, the fourth variety is the best, if done properly. Often times, I have seen that solvers fail to cotton on to the theme even after solving the puzzle fully. This is disappointing for the compiler. (3) is not much of a challenge for the compiler, while (1) is what I used to prefer (but solvers again loved to hate!). I find (2) being used in UK puzzles, but I personally don’t prefer it.

Q6:You have been setting for a couple of years now. Do you see a change in yourself as a setter since your early days?

Neyartha: I have been a part of the compilers panel for more than 3 years now, and have set more than 80 puzzles for The Hindu. My presence online has helped me obtain direct feedback from solvers. Sometimes, when I look back at the clues in my initial puzzles, I can find obvious flaws in the surface reading and structure. For example, I am very careful about using ‘doctor’ as an anagram indicator nowadays; making sure that it is always placed before the anagram fodder. Usage to the contrary can be found in some of my early puzzles.

As a setter, I have seen myself composing clues with better surface reading and proper use of cryptic indicators. Overall, I believe my clues have become fairer.

Q7: Your grid fills are sometimes considered too "esoteric". Do you think you may be losing out on a large section of solvers due to this?

Neyartha: This is an unfortunate side-effect of my thematic grid fill methodology. I am trying to minimise the number of uncommon words in each puzzle. I understand that a large section of solvers are not comfortable with uncommon words. As a solver myself, I take up uncommon words as an opportunity to widen my vocabulary. But, the good thing is that the solvers see my puzzles only twice a month. Other compilers cater to a wider audience by adopting other grid filling methods which eschew uncommon words. I guess The Hindu caters to all types of solvers and gives them an opportunity to appreciate the handwork of various types of compilers.

Q8: Just as there is a "writer's block", is there also a "setter's block"? If there is, how does one overcome it?

Neyartha: Yes, and the setter’s block is very frustrating when a deadline is looming. The solution which works for me is being away from the computer (which is exactly what you can’t do when there is a deadline!) and returning after a break of 1 or 2 hours. Anything which takes the mind off crossword compiling helps.

I believe taking a break to someone else’s crossword might also help (and give clueing ideas), but I am yet to try this method out.

Q9: What advice would you give to solvers who want to become setters?

Neyartha: The ideal route would be to take part in the various clue writing competitions on various forums. Once you get feedback on 20 or 30 clues, you get an idea of what must be corrected in your clueing style. The next step would be to start compiling small 10x10 with 10 to 15 clues and posting them in a blog. Your participation in the clue writing competitions should ensure that you have a steady stream of visitors to your blog, giving you feedback.

Do note that being a setter requires more dedication than being a solver. Having been on both sides of the fence, I would say that being a solver is much more enjoyable. Compiling puzzles has its own charm, but it is very different from the satisfaction one gets as a solver. As a compiler, you also need to be receptive to constructive criticism.

Q10: Which puzzles do you solve yourself?

Neyartha: Before becoming a part of The Hindu’s compiler panel, I used to solve THC everyday. Since then, I have shifted to Financial Times and the occasional Guardian.

Q11: How important is solvers’ feedback to you? I remember you were the first setter of The Hindu to interact directly with solvers and address their queries. What an incredible surprise it had been in those days!

Neyartha: As I had mentioned in one of my previous answers, the way my compilation skills have shaped up is entirely due to feedback from solvers and the honorary crossword editor at The Hindu. I might have been the first setter to interact directly with solvers using my pseudonym avatar, but I am aware of at least one other setter who interacted with solvers online (albeit in a different avatar) even before I started compiling for The Hindu.

Q12: How well do the compilers of The Hindu know each other? Do you get to meet and interact, ask each other for a second opinion about a clue? Which setters of the Hindu do you most admire?

Neyartha: I have interacted (occasionally in person, and regularly online) with only one of the compilers (Gridman). He was the one who introduced me to the newspaper. I used to get a lot of feedback from him initially, but that has stopped now. Probably, he feels I am getting good enough feedback from the solvers themselves on the forums! That said, I do send in a few clues every now and then for his opinion on fairness and style.

I envy Gridman and Sankalak for churning out crossword after crossword with the same level of difficulty, while making sure that every clue is within the same boundaries of fairness.

Q13: Which compilers outside of The Hindu do you most admire?

Neyartha: Most of the FT puzzles that I like to solve with enthusiasm are from DANTE or NEO.

Q14: Is there a puzzle or clue of your own, which is special to you for any reason?

Neyartha: Back in 2008, I compiled a 25x25 cryptic puzzle for a workshop with a local theme. Till date, it is the largest puzzle (both in terms of clue count as well as grid size) that I have compiled, which is why it is special to me.  I do want to put the puzzle up online, but its local theme has always made me hesitant.

Q15: What are your interests apart from crosswords?

Neyartha: Outside cryptic crosswords, I like doing needlework (particularly, embroidery pieces). I also write reviews and analyses pieces for one of the world’s leading online technology websites. The latter offers me some scope for investigative journalism, something I had always been interested in doing since school days.

Q16: Needlework! Can you share a picture of something you've embroidered?

Neyartha: Here is one:


Q17: Please tell us some of your memorable crossword-related experiences.

Neyartha: Most of my crossword-related experiences are as a solver. I got the chance to meet up with a lot of interesting people online and in person too. Cryptic crosswords are a great way to make friends.

As a setter, I always remember the day my first crossword was published in The Hindu because it also happened to be the day I got engaged.

Q18: Your message for The Hindu Crossword solvers:

Neyartha: Don't get disappointed if you are unable to complete the puzzles, and be enthusiastic about widening your vocabulary. Solving puzzles as a group activity is fun, so try that out if you haven't done yet. Most importantly, enjoy your time with the crosswords!

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C.G. BHARGAV said...

Bullock cart! What better theme could there be for a jet-setter!

Shyam said...

One question from me:

Do you keep a count of how thematic your puzzles are? A measure like the proportion of constrained letters to the total letters in the puzzle? Or have you tried to stretch yourself to the zenith to add the maximum number of thematic entries, thereby making the grid infeasible? :)

Ravi said...

Excellent interview. Thanks Shuchi and Neyartha.

Amrith said...

Brilliant! What a start to the series :)
A few things I learnt:
One, there is a crossword editor, or a pseudo one at least at the Hindu.
Two, Neyartha is not an old erudite man sitting in his armchair and compiling crosswords :)
Three, boy! A lot of thinking and method goes into his clues.
Four, Neyartha is not 'Athrayen' backwards as I thought ... (or is it??)
And five ... I'm still nowhere near good enough to crack his puzzles (sometheings never change, eh? ;) )

Thank you for this fantastic interview, Shuchi.

Deepak Gopinath said...

Awesomw Neyartha,

Designing/Verifying Silicon Chips, Crossword setting and needlework what a combination.

By the way is your needlework hobby a fallout from SUPW(Socially Useful Productive Work) at school. My boys were not fond of their SUPW classes at school I think they had needlework also.

loveable mad said...

Thanks Shuchi for an excellent interview..I am surprised Neyartha is in late twenties as the puzzles covers a world of knowledge and rich in vocabulary.

He is the one gives me creeps when empty grids stared at me after an hour or so. But i am getting used to it now. I am amazed at the pain and attention the setters take for each puzzle. As he rightly said my happiness lies in solving atleast for now. May be i might try my hand in setting some day in future.

Shuchi said...

Thanks everyone for your comments!

@Amrith: What is "Athrayen"? This isn't the first one in the series by the way, there was Sankalak's interview last week. Do read if you haven't yet.

KISHORE said...

@ Shuchi: Excellent coverage!

@ Amrith: " 'his' puzzles ". Do you have a hint that it is 'his' and not 'her' given the embroidery talent, or are you just using the generic word ?

Amrith said...

@Shuchi 'Athreyan' as in a name thats all :) I was having a chat with our own Mr.SanHelmet a while ago when he had nothing to do and I asked him to do the THC which was set by Neyartha and he said that it was probably Athreyan in reverse and that he had heard of that name before :)
Also, #facepalm! Been off the webz fr a while and have missed Sankalak's (incidentally my favourite setter!) Thanks. will have a look right away :)

Cheers and thanks again for the epic interview series!

Amrith said...

@ Kishore sir, hahah! Never thought of it that way ...
Guess Shuchi can help us in that??

Also, Shuchi .. an awesome picture in the post :) Just noticed it!

SandhyaP said...

Thanks Shuchi for a fascinating glimpse of Neyartha.
Thanks Neyartha for a peek behind the scenes of crossword setting.

maddy said...

Thanks Shuchi and Neyartha for the interview. Never knew so much technology is involved behind setting.

@ Col sir, We used to call SUPW as "Some Useful Periods Wasted" when in school.

Navneeth said...

He uses Vim! w00t!

Neyartha said...

@ Shyam:

I try to accommodate as many thematic entries as possible. Many times, this leads to grids which can't be filled up. In this case, I cut down on the number of theme entries so as to get a legal fill.

@ Deepak:

I did have SUPW classes at school, and we did do a little bit of craftwork. However, my love for needlework came into being after I watched my sister work on a few pieces back when I was in 6th grade.

Btw, thanks for making me aware of what SUPW really means :) I didn't know it expanded to 'Socially Useful Productive Work'.

Shyam said...

Thanks Neyartha. Kudos to your idea of providing a snapshot of your workscreen when making crosswords. Except for Vim and WW, I am not aware of any of them, but you have really made me enthusiastic :)