Tuesday, July 21, 2015

20 Questions with THC's Under-25 Team: Exa, Mac, Spinner

The Hindu Crossword has, on its current setting team, three setters who are not yet 25 – but who show a maturity in their crossword construction that belies their relative newness to the game.

Exa, Mac, Spinner - Hindu Crossword Setters Get a peek into the minds of the three in question: Exa (Aakash Sridhar), Mac (Mohsin Ahmed) and Spinner (Srivathsan Santhanam).

The same set of questions were put to each of them, on topics such as their initiation into setting, their crossword-crafting methods and tools, their views on some controversial crossword techniques.

Here is what they had to say in response to the 20 questions.

Q1: How did you get into setting crosswords?

Exa: I was first exposed to a cryptic crossword in my second year of engineering (late 2011). I would solve a little, look at the solution the next day, and try to use the same techniques on paper to come up with original clues for other words. Later on I would give them to my friends who solved crosswords more often and gauge their reactions. Slowly I gained an affinity for setting clues, and eventually took part in few online clue-writing competitions (thanks to Crossword Unclued) when I had the time. Each day was a learning process. Around July 2013, I decided to e-mail Rishikesh sir (Gridman) regarding my interest in contributing as a setter and he was kind enough to guide me and empanel me immediately, despite my young age and limited experience. Some months later, around March 2014, my first crossword was published.

Mac: I'm sure most solvers try their hand at setting isolated clues. Thanks to a couple of active Facebook crossword groups that I had joined in around mid-2013, I would have set a fairly large number of clues over a few months. I then decided to compile the clues and see if I could fit them in a grid. With the advent of various crossword compiling software freely available online, grid construction and filling has become quite easy. It was then just a matter of setting clues for the remaining auto-filled words.

Having set an entire grid, I forwarded it to Rishikesh sir and Colonel for feedback, and the possibility of publishing in the paper and/or on Colonel’s blog. This was in early 2014, I think March. Meanwhile, I set a couple more grids. Now, with The Hindu's acceptance and a healthy (IMO) stock of puzzles, it was just a matter of cluing about a word a day, on average.

Spinner: I always had a thing for the English language and puzzles in general, so I took naturally to cryptic crosswords when I first came across them, in the year 2012. My college magazine Feeds had started carrying a cryptic crossword just around that time and being a part of the content team of the magazine, I gave setting a shot. After some positive feedback, I ventured into setting Sunday Specials for the Colonel's blog and after my second attempt there, I got a mailer from the Colonel asking me to contact Rishikesh sir if I was interested in setting for the Hindu. I sent him a new 15x15 set, and he liked it, and I got the coveted 'promotion' to THC.

Q2: Do you think your young age is any sort of disadvantage when you set?

Exa: No I don't, but I do believe that my limited experience with crosswords could prove as one as there are many more clue-writing techniques that I have yet to explore and there is so much more to learn. Day by day my thoughts on what exactly constitutes a good clue keep changing, and it's hard to keep up with other setters having a more matured way of writing clues.

Mac: No.

Spinner: On the contrary, I think our internet generation has probably bypassed the many years of solving experience required to get one's head around cryptic crosswords, thanks (in no small part) to excellent forums like the Colonel's blog and Crossword Unclued. I owe a lot of my crossword setting prowess to these two. So I don't consider my age a disadvantage.

Q3: Your crossword tools:

Exa: I started off with the free demo version of Crossword Compiler - it lacked an export option, so I would take a screenshot, crop the image, and manually type the clues on Word. However, recently I purchased the full version of Crossword Compiler which relieved me of that burden. I use Chambers and Collins online for references.

Mac: Sympathy for grid fills. Any of the various online dictionaries for definitions. Your website and a couple more, for indicators. I tend to stick to the fairly standard abbreviations. So no specialised crossword dictionaries.

Spinner: Crossword Compiler (for the grid fills, anagram generation, etc), Google (for synonyms, references and GK on the same screen) , Litscape.com (for word pattern searches when I want an exact type of word in a certain clue). I sometimes refer lists of indicators I've saved in addition to the ones you can find with a Google search.

Q4: The best thing about being a crossword setter:

Exa: You're often looking for opportunities to discover interesting wordplay and surfaces in everyday words and that can be a lot of fun. Especially at late night hours, it's like conducting experiments in a private lab, except you aren't really doing anything technical :-)

Mac: The added appreciation of clues with flawless cryptic grammar.

Spinner: The ability and opportunity to apply wit and language to entertain people.

Q5: Great clue surface, or flawless cryptic grammar?

Exa: I have yet to understand 'flawless cryptic grammar' completely as it's a vast subject and even the greatest setters make slips in cryptic grammar. So though I try my best to cover both aspects in the clues I write, I will safely choose 'great clue surface'. The clues I have set in recent puzzles have been fairly liberal.

Mac: Grammar takes precedence, for me. Surface is, of course, extremely important too.

Spinner: This is probably the worst answer I can give – both, ideally. If it's a challenge to clue a single word, it would be flawless cryptic grammar. But invariably any 15x15 set of mine will have clues that relax on one of the counts (and on bad days, both).

Q6: What do you identify more as: a solver who sets, or a setter who solves?

Exa: A setter who solves.

Mac: A solver who sets. Soon to be just 'a solver'.

Spinner: A year ago, I would have gone for the first option. Now, I would probably choose the second. I tend to pay more attention to the setting aspects even while solving puzzles these days. It's no longer about just being happy to solve a clue.

Q7: Nounal anagrinds are ___

Exa: Fine with me, though these days I find it more elegant to have a supporting word such as in 'fodder needing renovation' or 'renovation of fodder' for instance.

Mac: Perfectly fine, as long as they don't precede the fodder.

Spinner: Sensitive. I have not managed to completely avoid them, but after setting a clue, I see if the usage is justified. Whenever I write a clue with one, I modify it several times to see if the noun form can be avoided. I find some nounal anagrinds like 'design' okay.

Q8: Cryptic definition clues are ___

Exa: Fine with me.

Mac: Extremely tough to get right.

Spinner: Supposed to have some element of cleverness and preferably just one level of extrapolation to lead to the answer.

Q9: A clue treats ‘vent’ and ‘went’ as homophones. How do you react?

Exa: I wouldn’t bother :-)

Mac: As a solver, I wouldn't mind it, though I would probably avoid setting such a clue.

Spinner: Not my cup of tea. I believe the sounds should match, considering the most commonly accepted pronunciations of the words. I believe room can be given for accent-induced variations but not for wrong pronunciations that have developed over time.

Q10: Other than The Hindu Crossword, you solve ___

Exa: Nothing else at this time.

Mac: No other crosswords. Tried my hand at The Guardian. Didn't enjoy it.

Spinner: Currently nothing else, though I give Everyman a shot now and then.

Q11: How long does it take you to create a 15x15?

Exa: Around 5-10 days spread across night and midnight hours.

Mac: Maybe  5-6 hours, spread over 3-4 weeks.

Spinner: I like to set all clues for a 15x15 within a 2-3 day period involving 1-2 hour sittings on each day, to maintain consistency. The time taken for grid fill is the deciding factor – this ranges from anywhere between 1 hour to 8 hours, depending on grid features (theme, pangram, etc.) So, 8 hours on an average spread over 4-5 days.

Q12: One thing you wish changed in the Indian crossword scene:

Exa: A crossword editor at The Hindu, and more THC bloggers – it would be nice to have different bloggers airing their views, so that setters could get mixed perspectives from people with different tastes.

Mac: Youth awareness/interest.

Spinner: I wish more Indian dailies carried original crosswords, to provide a better connect with Indian solvers.

Q13: As a setter, what do you do best?

Exa: I'm not sure myself, but in my short venture with crosswords I find that I like to be expressive and stir interest in the surface stories for clues I write, sometimes by introducing familiar elements from TV shows, movies, institutions etc. that the solvers can relate to and hopefully, find refreshing.

Mac: Judge my own clues.

Spinner: I try my best to maintain consistency in style, so that there's a certain something you can expect from a Spinner offering.

Q14: The hardest part of setting:

Exa: There are many things, but I think the hardest would be to develop a consistent and original setting style.

Mac: Getting the grammar right, without compromising on the surface.

Spinner: The grid fill. It is time consuming and not as enjoyable as clue setting, although I feel that spending more time on it is crucial for ensuring you have a good set of clues for your puzzle.

Q15: Is there a dream puzzle that you aspire to set?

Exa: Not as of now.

Mac: No.

Spinner: When I started setting, there was an urge to do more and package more into a puzzle. I started off with themes, then pangrams and then clue acrostics and even all three in one. From my limited experience, I have come to realize the best clues are produced when I try to do less. So my dream puzzle would be one where each clue has flawless, entertaining, humorous surface and proper cryptic grammar and nothing else.

Q16: Favourite setters:

Exa: I have enjoyed most of The Hindu Crossword setters at one time or the other, but favourites are Buzzer, xChequer, Mac and Arden. I haven't picked any international favourites as I haven't solved enough.

Mac: Buzzer, xChequer,  Exa, Spinner

Spinner: Buzzer, and more recently, Mac. Incognito, for his no-frills puzzles that have most definitely led to an increase in the number of people who pick up cryptic crosswords. I've seen Spiffytrix puzzles years after they were published, and he/she is a favourite too.

Q17: Favourite clue of your own:

Exa: Toughest question:-) I'm sure others will agree that it's pretty unusual to list a favourite from one's own collection of clues. Either way, I have yet to come up with something that really stands out, so I will just share two clues that I enjoyed setting recently at DIY COW managed by Anax:
Stiff wind (5)
It's a tocsin to a navy at sea (6,8)

Mac: (twelfth of seventy-eight) + (fourth of five) + (eighth of eighteen) (3)
This one I came up with late last year.  I thought I'd try a numerical clue. I was decided on the clue type and structure pretty soon. It then took a good half an hour to come up with numbers that added up. A fairly productive day at work, I'd say :-)

Spinner: Once I had set a clue acrostic which was broken in the final print because of a clue being edited, as it did not conform to the norms at The Hindu that prevent certain words from appearing in clues. Though I was left frustrated because it wasn't brought to my notice, I silently accepted it because it was essentially due my own oversight.

So I set this clue as 1A in my next puzzle: Broken acrostic sequence? Properly sort out with silent acceptance! (12). Has to be my favourite.

[Answers to the clues at the end of the post – Shuchi]

Q18: What motivates you to set crosswords?

Exa: The solvers/setters who are kind enough to give feedback on my crosswords (via the blog, on mail, or elsewhere), solving good crosswords from fellow setters, the inspiration I get from seeing great clues on the internet, and the satisfaction I get out of churning out a good clue.

Mac: Nowadays, The Hindu's email reminder :)

Spinner: It is a great way to continue learning the English language.

Q19: Something about yourself that the crossword community may not know:

Exa: I conduct classes for keyboard and guitar at an institute in BEML layout, Bangalore :-)

Mac: So, I was egosurfing today, and I found out that I'm ranked amongst the top 400 scrabble players in the world!

Spinner: I used to be the cricket captain of my college team. I kind of owe my pseudonym to that, having been an off-spinner all my (cricketing) life.

Q20: When you are not creating crosswords, you are ___

Exa: Mostly playing a musical instrument, but also swimming, doing origami, reading unusual articles, messing with my 4x4 rubik’s revenge, seeing interesting TV shows, catching the latest movies, hanging out at some pub or just socializing at a party and oh, travelling!

Mac: Playing/watching football.

Spinner: Singing, listening to concerts, playing football, working at a digital solutions firm as a management trainee.

----------------------
[Thanks Aakash, Mohsin and Srivathsan for your enthusiastic participation. I enjoyed putting this together! – Shuchi]

Answers to the clues in Q17: SCREW dd; ACTION STATIONS anag &lit; TEN (works as fraction sum as well as letter charade); ACQUIESCENCE acrosticsequence* - sort*

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19 comments

Kishore said...

It was nice to read about the wunderkinder!

Kishore said...

Spinner can't clue complicated word for 'instil' (9)

Kishore said...

That's clue 17a from TAhC 11452 printed today

Kishore said...

Pardon me, that should have been THC. I loved the way he commented on himself!

vasant said...

Nice to read about these young setters...their puzzles are highly entertaining...nice to know about their varied interests...Thanx Shuchi for this..

Shuchi said...

@Kishore: I like the literal definition [word for 'instil'] joined smoothly with the wordplay. I love that if what the clue says is true, then what the surface says is not true.

Shuchi said...

@Vasant: Glad you enjoyed reading about them.

Lakshmi Vaidyanathan (LV) said...

Nice to know about the U-25 team . Thanks Shuchi for the post :)

Srivathsan Santhanam said...

Many thanks to Shuchi for the post. Enjoyed being a. part of this :)

Col_Gopinath said...

I can't forget the first time I met Exa. He walked in with Ajeesh for our mini meet and I was wondering why Ajeesh had brought his kid brither along till He introduced himself!!

raju umamaheswar said...


Interesting reads on the up and coming youngsters as new setters. Their fresh look and approach to cluing is welcome. Good work, Spinner , Exa and Mac. More power to your brains ! I wish that cryptic crosswords cluing and solving are made a compulsory subject in the schools and colleges curriculum !

ranger said...

It's nice and interesting to read the views of these extraordinary youngsters. I'm sure they would delight crossword lovers for years to come.

Mukundala Balasubramanyam said...

Quite an impressive interview on THE (U-25) THREE MUSKETEERS. Expecting to see many more delightful puzzles from them.

Ajeesh VM said...

Enjoyed reading this . Was lucky to meet these chotta guys together at IIT M :-)

maddy said...

Very refreshing interview with the young Turks. What impressed me the most was their candidness and no fuss approach to setting. I only hope and wish that they manage to continue setting in the years to come,unlike some of us who had to throw in the towel after sometime due to growing professional and family commitments.

Special thanks to Spinner for the Spiffytrix nod. For the record, its a He :)

Shuchi said...

LV: You are welcome!

@Srivathsan: My pleasure! All the best for your alternate career in music too :-)

@Col: From Aakash Sridhar's comments/clues on your blog, I too had expected a middle-aged gentleman.

@raju: Making something compulsory only serves to kill the fun, I think - I wish such mandates are not applied to cryptic crosswords.

@ranger, Mukundala: Amen to that!

@Ajeesh VM: Did you take a pic with the three of them together? Share it please if so :-)

Shuchi said...

@maddy: Splendid to see this post bring you out of hibernation!

Srivathsan Santhanam said...

Okay, so maddy is Spiffytrix!

vasant said...

We really do miss the Spiffytrix puzzles...hope you make a comeback soon