Thursday, May 10, 2012

Q&A With Six New Hindu Crossword Setters: Part II

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HinduCrosswordNewSetters In the first instalment of Q&A With Six New Hindu Crossword Setters, our setters gave us fascinating glimpses into their approach to crossword setting - their tools, the time they spend crafting each puzzle, what they find hardest and what they like best about creating crosswords.

It was lovely to see the response to Part I of the Q&A. The post has become one of the top shared articles on Crossword Unclued. Thank you for all the tweets, likes, bookmarks and stumbles.

Here comes what you've been waiting for – the second half of the Q&A with Arden, Cryptonyte, Buzzer, Mover, Scintillator and Textrous.

Q7: Do you participate in online discussions about your puzzles?

Arden Arden: No. Once my puzzle is out in the public domain, it is for the solvers to air their opinion. I leave it to them and try to learn from my mistakes.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: Not too much, only if I feel that my cryptic grammar has been completely misunderstood. I feel discussions about the published clues are highly subjective and it's best to let the solvers' community enjoy it the way they see it.

Scintillator Scintillator: I do, but I rue the absence of a huge or a diverse online crossword community in India.

Buzzer Buzzer: Yes. It is hard enough to get any feedback before publication so why would I keep away from the very few who have something to say about my clues.

Mover Mover: I do not participate in online discussions about my own puzzles. As I am using a pseudonym as a setter, I do not feel comfortable about participating in discussions about my puzzles pseudonymously/anonymously.

Textrous Textrous: Not yet, but I am not averse to it.

Q8: Which crosswords do you solve?

Arden Arden: The Guardian daily cryptic and the weekly prize crossword.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: This is a little embarrassing – I do not solve any crossword regularly at the moment. But I used to solve The Daily Mail and The Hindu crosswords.

Scintillator Scintillator: Not much these days, rarely I spend a relaxed Friday afternoon with the day's Guardian or FT.

Buzzer Buzzer: Daily - THC, HT, FT, The Guardian and USA Today;
Occasionally - Independent, Times;
Whenever they appear - Mint, CrOZworld.

Mover Mover: Rufus's puzzles in the New Indian Express regularly; The Times crosswords and puzzles by Araucaria in The Guardian, occasionally.

Textrous Textrous: The Guardian and occasionally FT.

Q9: Favourite setters:

Arden Arden: Araucaria, Paul, Rufus, Boatman...et al.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: From the limited number of crosswords I've solved – Anax, Textrous and Spiffytrix.

Scintillator Scintillator: John Halpern, Don Manley, Neil Shepherd and Dean Mayer - setters characterised by extraordinarily clever and perfectly fair clues. In THC, Spiffytrix was very impressive as long as he was there. (Come back soon, buddy!)

Buzzer Buzzer: There are several whose clues I take pleasure in unravelling. Anax with his ingenious wordplay is one. Boatman's puzzles are hugely rewarding. But for the great skill of keeping things simple in puzzle after puzzle, year after year, I admire Sankalak and Rufus the most.

Mover Mover: Rufus and Araucaria.

Textrous Textrous: Anax, Rufus.

Q10: Crossword-solving aids are ...

Arden Arden: ...not for me. If people use them to solve crosswords, it is their business.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: ...to be used only when you've exhausted all possible angles of looking at a clue. They sometimes cannot be done without and have to be used to prevent excessive hair loss.

Scintillator Scintillator: ...fine, as long as you use them for anagrams and not for text search patterns.



Buzzer Buzzer: ...there for those who want to use them. If you look at crossword solving as an examination, then they might seem like cheating tools. If all you are after is how answers are derived, it doesn’t matter if you use a tool or ask a friend or look it up in a blog or press the cheat button.

Mover Mover: I have no issues with solvers using crossword-solving aids for completing puzzles. I do not normally use aids while solving. I use the internet to confirm a solution and to get background information relating to the clue solution.

Textrous Textrous: Don't use any. I look up Fifteensquared for clues I don't get.

Q11: Crossword-setting rules are ...

Arden Arden: ...a way of trying to be fair. (Presently there seems to be a gap between trying to be fair and being fair, but one keeps trying...)

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: ...what makes cryptic crosswords so enjoyable – because the solver has a fair chance to get to the answer and the setter has a good chance to entertain. The reason I stopped attempting things like Klueless is because there are no rules and it became very random and groan-inducing.

Scintillator Scintillator: ...welcome, as they bring orderliness to an esoteric trade.

Buzzer Buzzer: ...too many :) some are good to know, some good to follow, and the rest good to ignore.

Mover Mover: ...only means to an end and not to be considered as writ in stone.

Textrous Textrous: ...excellent guidelines to follow, especially when one is starting out as a setter. But over time, one evolves one's own style, and this may entail the occasional bending or relaxation of a rule, albeit without overly impacting the clues' fairness.

Q12: One thing you wish to change about the way you set crosswords:

Arden Arden: Spend more time on the clues – overcome the lack of doggedness in me to keep my nose to the grinding wheel till I get it just right.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: The last minute rush. I think I could do a lot better if I set a few clues every day instead of finishing them off at the eleventh hour.

Scintillator Scintillator: The way itself: if I had more time, I would love to forsake all software resources and return to the simple pencil-and-paper mode of setting. It is tough to do thematics that way, but I am sure it will certainly bring a charming simplicity to the clues and the puzzle.

Buzzer Buzzer: I feel I tend to be too brief with my definitions. They might be correct in the dictionary sense, but of not enough help for a solver.

Mover Mover: Nothing really. Maybe use fewer anagrams :).

Textrous Textrous: I hope to be able to throw in more CDs, DDs and Composite Anagrams than I do.


Q13: Favourite clue of your own:

Arden Arden: I have no favourites.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte:
Clean without water (4)
A tower which leads ships? (7) [CD]

Scintillator Scintillator: Just one? That's unfair! I have a few here...

When bud gets new life (10) [semi &lit]
One could be a Java expert (7) [CD]
Foremost thing arranged for newly-weds? (5,5) [semi &lit]
You’re very perverse and I'm no less (6) [anag]

Buzzer Buzzer: Keeps changing, but for the time being:

ABCDEF are set in bold (9)

Mover Mover:
Are transvestites angry with furniture items? (5-8)

Textrous Textrous:
Flying pigs off cue here? On the contrary (6,2,6) [anag semi-&lit]


[Answers available here. - Shuchi]

Q14: What is more important - a great surface or flawless cryptic grammar?

Arden Arden: A great surface.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: A great surface. The primary job of the setter is to entertain his solvers and he must try his best to give the solver a fair chance to solve the clue. This is why the balance becomes critical – because the solver is entertained only if he gets the answer or when he sees it, is able to think that he had a fair chance.

Mover Mover: I prefer a great surface.

Textrous Textrous: A great surface.

Buzzer Buzzer: As a solver I want both (managed to insert that answer you didn't want to hear :-) ). But as a setter I'm happy to sacrifice the grammar for surface (that statement might come handy defending future clues...or the ones like I mentioned above as my current favourite).

Scintillator Scintillator: Flawless cryptic grammar. A cricketing analogy will be splendid shots versus solid technique. A player with a solid technique will play splendid shots once in a while. People who play splendid shots without having a proper technique lose their way (or interest) in the game in due course of time. Moreover, 'great surface' is an ideal concept. 30 great surfaces can win you 30 clue-writing competitions, but may not group together to form one brilliant puzzle. You need to mix and match between great, good and easy clues in a daily puzzle.

Q15: Should The Hindu have a crossword editor?

Arden Arden: Yes, and enough has been said about this. It is for the people at The Hindu to do something about it. The sad truth is that the crosswords per se do not figure high in the list of priorities among the Indian dailies. For many it is just a space-filling exercise.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: I've never really worked with a crossword editor per se, but the clues I set on The I-do-it Box with Vinod were more refined because it passed through the Vinod filter (and Vinod's clues through mine) before they got published. It certainly helps, but we can live without an editor as well.

Scintillator Scintillator: Absolutely yes, as basic grammatical and phonetic flaws often crop up in the puzzles. The feature needs someone to choose the right puzzles to publish and also time them appropriately. No one wants to solve a toughie on a Monday morning (personal experience!) or a glut of amateur puzzles full of bland, software-generated anagrams or clues plumbing deplorable depths under the pretext of libertarianism. There is a lot of scope and responsibility for that to-be editor. If THC's to attain the high levels of standard set by British dailies, then having an editor is a good place to begin with.

Buzzer Buzzer: Should The Hindu have one?
Yes.

Will it have one?
Given the indifference with which the online puzzle is treated - no direct link on the main page unlike Sudoku, no space between clue numbers and clue text, previous day solutions are titled "related photos" – I could go on but the point is, if there is no intent to address such minor issues, talking about a crossword editor is moot.

Mover Mover: Mixed feelings about this one. A really good editor would be nice but a mediocre or opinionated editor may not be a great idea.

Textrous Textrous: If I understand it correctly, they already have a "listings editor" who is kind enough to go through enumerations, consistency between clues and solutions etc. But yes, it would certainly help to have someone dedicated to vetting our crosswords.

Q16: When you are not creating crosswords, you are...

Arden Arden: ...busy with other things. There is always something to do.

Buzzer Buzzer: ...surfing, snorkeling, sailing, paragliding, preparing for my helicopter license...no that didn't come out right :)

Out trekking or bushwalking or at badminton/tennis/golf depending on the day of the week.

Cryptonyte Cryptonyte: ...doing all sorts of things – I just finished my MBA from IIM Kozhikode and will be joining TAS shortly. I used to tweet and blog a bit, I like reading humour, love sports and at the moment I'm looking forward to a nice honeymoon.

Scintillator Scintillator: ...playing other roles in life: the fraction of time I spend on crosswords is very minimal.

Mover Mover: ...a senior bureaucrat belonging to the Indian Administrative Service. My other passion is playing Scrabble. I was the national Scrabble Champion for several years and was the first Indian to represent India in the World Scrabble Championship Tournament in 1999 in Melbourne. Since then I have been on the Indian WSC team in 2001 and 2007.

My other interests include wildlife and nature photography. I recently published a book Nature Rambles dealing with urban biodiversity.

Textrous Textrous: ...heading a software development team, singing, playing the harmonica, doodling caricatures, helping the missus with the cooking and most of all, playing with my daughter.

---
Hope you all enjoyed the interviews. Though I had read the answers before individually, putting the post together with six different perspectives laid out alongside was like seeing them with new eyes. Diversity, such a wonderful thing!

Many thanks to Arden, Buzzer, Cryptonyte, Mover, Scintillator and Textrous.

Have a go at the setters' favourite clues (Q13). Do post your answers and your thoughts in the comments section.

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20 comments

Venkatesh said...

Thanks for the informative interview with the new setters of THC. Here are the solutions for their favourite clues:

MOhan VERrghese Chunkath (‘MOVER’)
Are transvestites angry with furniture items? (5-8) CROSS-DRESSERS

Shyam (“Scintillator”)
When bud gets new life (10) {SPRI(N)G}{TIME}
bud – SPRIG gets new N + life TIME [semi &lit]
One could be a Java expert (7) BARISTA [CD]
Foremost thing arranged for newly-weds? (5,5) (FIRST) (NIGHT*) [semi &lit]
You’re very perverse and I'm no less (6) VOYEUR (YOU’RE+V)*; perverse - AnagrInd

Vinod Raman (‘Textrous’)
Flying pigs off cue here? On the contrary (6,2,6) FIGURE OF SPEECH
(pigs off cure here)*; flying - AnagrInd [semi-&lit]

Tony Sebastian (‘Cryptonyte’)
Clean // without water (4) NEAT (DD)
A tower which leads ships? (7) TUGBOAT (‘Tow’er) [CD]

Bhavan (‘Buzzer’)
ABCDEF are set in bold (9) BAREFACED (ABCDEF ARE)*; set - AnagrInd

Lakshmi Vaidyanathan said...

Both the parts of Q & A are interesting.
Buzzer( Mr.Bhavan) is sympathetic towards solvers it seems!
Foremost thing arranged for newly-weds? (5,5) [semi &lit]
Ans: First night
ABCDEF are set in bold (9)
Ans; Barefaced

Lakshmi Vaidyanathan said...

Are transvestites angry with furniture items? (5-8)
CROSS-DRESSERS

Kishore said...

They being as varied as can be, it was interesting to learn the rather skewed response to Q14 4:1 not counting the bee on the wall.

Also, nice to get a fix on Mover and note that two Mohans were setting for THC in the recent past.

Shuchi said...

Hi Kishore,

I was surprised with the almost unanimous preference for surface over cryptic grammar too.

Two Mohans - who? Let me guess...does the first M of MM stand for 'Mohan'?

anax said...

Q15 is an interesting one – a lack of crossword editorship is never a good thing but please don’t feel you’re in a uniquely bad situation.
Financially tough times seem to be almost global and, after only a short trial tenure, we almost lost Peter Biddlecombe as the editor of the Sunday Times puzzle page, due entirely to budget pressures. The only reason Peter is still there is that he agreed to the non-crossword content being unedited, thus reducing his working hours. Even so, it took some persuading to make the newspaper realise that a lack of crossword editing could be disastrous for the reputation of the series, especially so since it had recently moved from a pretty much unedited (and often criticised) puzzle to a new 3-man setting team.
I really hope that you end up with an editor, but I feel cost will be the problem. They won’t have anyone in-house with the sort of knowledge required, so they would have to start paying someone – bad news in such difficult global times.
PS - your 'favourite setter' comments have filled my day with sheer joy. I can't thank you enough for your kindness.

Shuchi said...

Hi Anax,

What a relief to hear that the Sunday Times did not lose its crossword editor. Earlier I would mostly skip the Sunday puzzle; since the last few months it has become one I eagerly await. The new setting team is doing a fabulous job, I hope external factors don't ruin it.

When I read Scintillator's comment on the scope and responsibility for the to-be crossword editor, my first thought was how hard it will be for The Hindu to find someone who can do all that. I also found it difficult to imagine a new person entering the current no-editor structure with the authority to ask for revisions in a setter's work, especially on subjective matters of style and fairness. Won't it lead to conflict when setters have grown accustomed to doing their own thing?

I wonder how these issues are handled in crossword setting teams that work with an editor - are there situations where the setter does not agree with the editor's feedback? What happens then?

raju umamaheswar said...

Yet another great interaction with the setters. I'm quite surprised to see that most of them are not regular solvers, yet they compile souch tough crosswords !!

anax said...

Hi Shuchi
None of the ‘serious’ publications here has an unedited crossword, so the setting team knows and understands that their work will be vetted before it appears in print. The editor is the ultimate authority, not just in terms of a single crossword but in terms of the overall balance and 'feel' of the puzzle series. Any setter who considers him/herself above the editor will have a short career.
Editors, like setters, are (pretty much) human and there are mistakes on both sides – between us we tend to iron out the errors/quibbles long before solvers have something serious to complain about. But there have been occasions (my own experience) where an editor has pointed out a forehead-slapper of a slip-up by me; and equally, they’ve questioned a clue which has had an explanation they failed to pick up on.

Shuchi said...

Thanks Anax. I'm thinking now of the difference between joining a setting team with an editor, with an established 'house style', vs. setting as one pleases so far and then having to adapt to a new crossword editor with ultimate authority over their work.

There could be a lot more conflict in the second scenario if the crossword editor has strong views that don't match with the setter's.

Bhavan said...

A fresh pair of eyes vetting your puzzle before publication is an invaluable thing to have.

In that regard I'm extremely grateful to Ian Williams at CrOZworld. Without his critique, the few puzzles I submitted there would have been poorer. And that makes me think if only there was someone like that at The Hindu...

On the bright side, setters are very generous in helping their colleagues. On more than one occasion Gridman and Sankalak have helped me refine individual clues by providing feedback when I asked them.

But these workarounds are just that and they can never equal the real thing. Plus it is unfair to expect my fellow setters to render a service that would/should be remunerated otherwise.

Scintillator said...

Shuchi

In my experience, I'd say having a laissez-faire system is as troublesome - the solvers will run into difficulties when decoding your clues and you are likely to turn unpopular.

Once I had "Got ready? (8)" for a CD. Tough to solve cold, but I'd reckon this should fall sooner than most CDs. After all, there are only two words, it is not a DD, so the trick must have to be with 'ready'. Unfortunately THC solvers were unable to figure out the anno even after getting the solution.

This is exactly the problem with a write-as-you-like system. The 'quick'([E]) clues from setters train solvers to consider this as a quick clue. They think about PREPARED or its synonyms and fail to see the CD.

Basic editorial decisions will be the ones that set the tone. Yes, both X and L camps must flourish in harmony, but how much X or L is the question. If a setter is L, should we allow his/her indirect anagrams? Or should we allow clues with some components playing dual roles? How about allowing clues with misleading prepositions? More importantly, if this is a cryptic crossword, should we allow straight definitions?

Solvability of puzzles is a different issue: in spite of errors people might solve a crossword. But having an editor 1) helps improve overall quality 2) obviates the need for solvers to adjust to vastly different cluing styles.

Scintillator said...

Another fact is you need a "bad habit" to solve many THC puzzles (and lib puzzles in general): You need to strip the clue into essential parts, remove the unessentials, work with the remaining to get the solution. Consider this (poorly) concocted clue:

Southern cold engulfs the Italian of an island (6)

You expect the solvers to get SICILY, but in the process, ignore the word 'of' which is unjustifiable without any abuse of grammar. Generally they do so without any complaint, but if you have this clue another time:

So the Scot arrested the Italian of an island (8)

You have written a perfect clue, but alas, solvers are trained to ignore this 'of' already. They will spend vital minutes thinking about 8-letter islands, and eventually end up saying, "SIC=So is too obscure for me!" In other cases, we find clues with a surfeit of the article 'the' which is unnecessary to both the surface and the wordplay.

Each day I see a handful of clues where this strip-and-solve process is necessary. Moreover I have myself faced this difficulty when I started to solve fab British puzzles - I was trained to look at the essentials, while the setter required me to consider every word of his clue.

Also solvers are unlikely to ever point out these sort of fine details. They simply cannot zero in on a reason they find a clue to be difficult. It is the overall restructuring which can make for a better feature, and consequently, better solvers.

Shuchi said...

@Bhavan: Thanks for sharing your first-hand experience of working in both modes, with and without editor. With knowledgeable crossword editor and setters receptive to feedback, there can be no doubt of the editor's role bringing a huge difference for the better.

@Scintillator: I'm all for a crossword editor actually but was just thinking aloud some consequences of introducing strict rules on matters that have no single right answer. Let's take your question of 'should we allow straight definitions'. What may seem like a bad habit to one type of editor may be a valid variation in the eyes of a setter and a section of solvers. Look at this poll: non-cryptic clues in THC - the opinion is divided.

A ban on E clues will be welcomed by you when you don't use them or like them. But what if the crossword editor thinks that 4-5 E clues in a crossword make it more accessible for new solvers?

When a crossword editor and rules are already in place, setters getting empanelled with the publication are aware what they're getting into. A setter too far removed from the house style will not join in the first place. When rules are imposed later and they differ vastly from the setter's perspective, there just might be conflict.

Which is not to say 'anything goes' is the preferred alternative, just that a new THC crossword editor will have enormous expectations to live up to and it may not be a smooth transition for each member of the setting team.

PS: Why is IAN = 'the Scot' and not 'a Scot'?

Scintillator said...

Shuchi, as I have noted, the editor first needs to identify certain basic issues and the answers to these issues cannot be got unilaterally. The policy decision of say, whether or not to allow indirect anagrams in libertarian puzzles must be taken by a team including the editor, at least one of each L and X setters, each explaining their position of why or why not.

Once these basic issues are resolved, the template is set. The editor can use these rules which have already been agreed upon. Whenever a new question crops up that is not covered in the rulebook, the ed makes another a joint decision and adds it to the rule list.

Rules in pretty much every sport are made just this way. For example, it is likely that cricket rules of the MCC would have resulted from 1) an original consensus, 2) a basic rulebook and 3) periodic review and updates.

Yes, life could be difficult for some setters if their opinion has been overridden in the consensus. We don't have a Pareto optimal solution, neither is it egalitarian, but we should be happy with it being utilitarian.

PS: Re IAN=the Scot, oh sorry, poorly concocted it was!

Kishore said...

Hi Shuchi,

Yes, you are correct as usual.

anax said...

Hi Shuchi
It should be the case that editors don’t have strong views as such, but it will be the case that an editor’s solving (or, ideally, setting) experience will mean they have a preference for clue style – Lib, Xim, or somewhere in between.
I can certainly imagine potential conflict if an editor is appointed to oversee a previously unedited series. To suddenly announce to a setting team that their work will be subject to pre-publication scrutiny doesn’t sound like it should be a problem (on the contrary, I think most setters would be glad to hear it) but, without control, we all develop bad habits.
What setters have to realise is that editing is there to ensure the newspaper runs a product of good, consistent quality which is entertaining and fair to solvers. The overall effect of editorial control is always good.
And, with slightly naughty hat on, the presence of an editor does mean that when a setter is criticised for a quibble-worthy clue they can always respond with “Well, the editor was perfectly happy with it”.
The best way I can put it is this: Thanks to editors, my clue-writing constantly improves.

raghunath said...

A tower which leads ships? (7) [CD]

I thought the answer could also be worked out as: TUG BOAT. Both are forms of ships?

Shuchi said...

Hi raghunath,

Do you mean ships = TUG and BOAT, and 'a tower which leads' is the definition? Doesn't work so well that way since TUG and TUGBOAT mean the same.

I think Cryptonyte intended it as a CD, and it's a deceptive one if you miss that 'tower' = 'one that tows'.

Roger Squires (Rufus) said...

Like my great friend Anax, I was also delighted that my name appeared under the "favourite setters" of these new compilers. Although I do feel I have a great advantage over Anax in that my puzzles are more accessible in India?

I should like to wish the very best of luck to all six of them - I hope they will enjoy the same pleasure I receive from this job.

As usual, I would like to express my admiration for Shuchi's comprehensive website. I save all the information!