Tuesday 1 May 2012

Infer a Treat

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with cluing. When I have the time and am feeling sharp I love it - I love free-associating, discovering interesting uses and contexts for familiar words, researching arcane trivia, and generally getting creative. On the other hand, when I've got an impending deadline and/or I'm not feeling all that inspired, a list of 70+ empty lines is a dreadful sight. At times like that, it can just seem like a real slog (mind you, even when I'm in the mood to clue I usually only get through about 30 or 40 in one sitting). Designing a grid is different - although I may proceed one corner or section at a time, I always have a sense that it's a single, unified thing that I'm working on, and my progress is always immediately apparent. Cluing, though, is just one word after another, each one entirely independent of the others (excluding theme entries, of course, but I usually work out how I'm going to clue them before even designing the grid), and at times it seems to never end.

In an effort to become better and more consistent at it, I've been doing a lot of thinking about the art of cluing lately. And there is an art to it. Elegant grids tend to get all the credit, but to me an eclectic, playful, and evocative set of clues is just as beautiful. Plus, since the same words pop up all the time in grids, it can require real creativity and artistry to take a word places its never been before in search of that new clue for ERA or ENO. Looking at the big picture, a set of clues seems more balanced and refined when it covers many disparate subject areas, uses many types of wordplay (alliteration, puns, etc), and is comprised of clues of varying lengths and forms. To top it all off, the cluing is a major factor in the difficulty of a puzzle, and it can even be employed to control the solver's flow around the puzzle, to ensure that longer answers, theme answers, and revealers or punchlines are not discovered too soon. A far cry from simply looking up definitions in the dictionary, no? At the end of the day, though, even if you ignore all of this you can't ignore one simple fact: the grid is just the solution; the clues make it a puzzle. Which is another reason why I've taken an interest in the finer points of cluing. My grids may have a few fun answers but they're nothing to write home about. However, if I can dress them up with great clues, they might have a chance at being great puzzles. Plus, there are so many constraints on grids that it can be frustrating to not be able to put everything I'd like in there. With clues, though, there really aren't any constraints (so long as they're fair), so I can let my voice come through and hopefully make the puzzle into something unique and different. More than ever before I'm taking note of what makes good clues work, what sort of clues I like, and how my clues have fallen short. For instance, I've noticed that I'm very fond of the Peter Gordon-style "she blinded me with science" trivia misdirection clue. These are clues that seem to ask you for an unreasonably obscure piece of trivia but in fact require you to identify one or two operative terms and use them and a few crossings to infer a fairly well-known answer. For example, getting a 3-letter answer for "He built Threepio" doesn't really require deep knowledge of "Star Wars" lore, but rather that you know that both Threepio and ANI are informal names for characters in the "Star Wars" universe. Plus, you learn something along the way. Now, I've really latched on to this style, and you'll see a number of clues like this in today's puzzle. In fact, I've been so stoked on "inferrence over knowledge" type clues that I've put a few long marquee answers in there that you'll likely have never heard of, but I think you'll have fun piecing together from the clues.

Speaking of today's puzzle, it's a 14x15 themeless. Nothing noteworthy on the construction front (69/32 in a 14x15 probably corresponds to a 70 or 72 word 15x15 puzzle, which is generally the upper limit in an American-style themeless, and there are unfortunately 20 3-letter answers in there. Plus, I cheated and made the grid 14 blocks wide to accommodate the long answers), but I definitely had fun with the cluing. It's a bit tougher than usual, but I am thinking of making "tough themeless/moderate themed" the rule around here, a la BEQ. Hopefully (btw, this is now a perfectly legit usage of "hopefully") you like it.

More words, crossed and otherwise, next Tuesday.

Puzzle: Themeless #10 (not really a mini-themeless, but I've continued the numbering scheme)
Rating: XW-14A

Download the PDF and PUZ files here, or solve or download the Across Lite puzzle and/or software from the Java app below.

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