Our whole life is solving puzzles
Get the basics
If youíre new to cryptic crosswords, the first thing to understand is that almost all clues have two parts: a definition and some form of wordplay, possibly with a couple of neutral connecting words. Working out how the wordplay works, while subconsciously testing possible definitions, is what cryptics are all about. Most of the wordplay that youíll see falls into one of these categories:
ANAGRAMS Yes, of course thereíll be anagrams. All the letters of the solution should be there, with an indicator word to tell you that youíll need to unscramble them:
TRAINSPOTTERS They observe transport site movements
CHARADES Another staple, where the solution is split up into other, smaller, words. Instead of the letters, youíre given synonyms for these components. There may be an indicator to tell you how to put them together, or they may just follow naturally one after the other:
CAR PARK Where to find transport for a fish? On a boat
REVERSALS The fun comes from spotting the indicator that tells you to read something backwards:
RENNET Money back due to substance in milk product
HOMOPHONES You know, where one word sounds like another. Sometimes, itís surprisingly hard to spot the indicator:
ATISHOO Evidence of virus disputed in report
HIDDEN WORDS The solution is there for you to see! These tend to be a bit easy, so I try not to have more than one in a puzzle:
ENTRAINMENT Railhead activity leads to accident - rain mentioned in covering letters
DOUBLE DEFINITIONS Instead of wordplay, thereís an alternative definition, usually quirky:
SPOONERISMS I love Spoonerisms, and hear them everywhere. Itís debilitating, really. Not everyone likes these, so I limit them to one per puzzle:
DRAGONFLY No drink in the pot for Spooner's former nymph
TICHY (TONGUE-IN-CHEEK) The anarchists of the clueing world, they follow no-oneís rules but their one:
TROLLEY You may find gateaux on it, but not fruitcakes
CONSTRUCTION KIT Where nothing else works, you can always put a clue together from odds and ends:
FINAL Last of its last in first: first of last?
Now have some fun with them
So, if youíre happy with the basics, itís time to start playing with the form Ö
MIXED-UP INDICATORS Most setters take pride in finding indicator words that sound as if they have a completely different purpose. I really like using words that are part of the definition in some clues and part of the wordplay elsewhere. If I can find two or three different ways of doing that, Iíll be quietly grinning to myself:
BUTTER Milk product from a goat?
LAMBKIN Ban milk product from a sheep?
SUBTRACTION ANAGRAMS Some people have kindly attributed these to me as a signature device, but they come from a perfectly respectable tradition:
DIE HARD Careless dispatch rider loses script for film
According to the classical rules, Iím cheating here, because there should be a word in the clue to indicate that itís the letters of SCRIPT, not in their normal order, that are subtracted. I reckon that my cavalier approach works, as long the result is clear.
REVERSE DEFINITIONS This is where the solution sounds like the wordplay for a clue. It can be tricky, but itís great fun when it works:
ORDER ABOUT Clue to U-boat command?
&LITS This is a special class of clue, where the whole of the clue is the definition and the whole of the clue is also the wordplay Ö you donít see true &Lits very often, but theyíre very satisfying when you do:
CARTOON No actor playing here
SEMI &LITS I like to use a treatment where the definition spreads out to take over the whole clue, but the wordplay doesnít. This isnít the same as a true &Lit, but itís fun Ö well, it is for me:
AMISH Community in bosom of Abraham is holy
PUNCTUATION Itís not there to help you Ö thatís all Iíll say!
From 1 Across to the Guardian
In the work that Iíve done for 1 Across, youíll find all manner of tricky theme devices: mystery words, partial definitions, long key phrases, links between clues and structural methods (I think I may have invented a new form in the Alphabetical Takeaway, in which a different letter of the alphabet is ignored in the wordplay for each clue) Ö anything goes, in other words, andócruciallyóyou have to solve the theme in order to complete the puzzle.
Now, I like compiling that way, but itís a high-risk approach: make a key phrase too hard, and too many people will give up without finishing the puzzle; too easy, and half the puzzle is done in one go. For weekday puzzles, in particular, itís just not fair.
When I started compiling for the Guardian, I wanted to do something in which the theme adds to the fun (thatís from my point of view, as well as yours) without getting in the way of finishing the puzzle. From that, my style developed into the strange thing that you now know.
Look carefully, and you may see a subdivision between two types of theme: those that explore related words (milk products or football, say) and meditations on an individual word or phrase (ďheadĒ or ďin a senseĒ, for example).
You may have noticed that my puzzles normally have either one or two Boatman references in them. Iím not the first setter to use my name to stand for ďIĒ or ďMEĒ, but Iím usually playing a different game Ö or rather, one of two different games. Have a look at these two examples:
WAIVER Boatmanís got involved in fighting for release
SPAB They protect our heritage from worsening odds. Boatman backs them
My compiling process
STEP 1 I review my notebook of ideas-that-may-lead-to-themes-one-day. Some of them have been there for ten years, waiting for an interesting collision of images or wordplay.
STEP 2 Meanwhile, a word or phrase Iíve heard or read somewhere may suggest a clue, and parts of that clue suggest other clues, so weíre off.
STEP 3 On to the laptop to type up ideas so far and copy synonym lists from WordWebís excellent implementation of Chambers. Now the game is to find more words that fit the theme with the potential for clues that appeal to me. At the same time, I work in the opposite direction by taking phrases that sound as if they ought to be clues and seeing if I can solve them.
STEP 4 Now I have an A-list of a dozen or so words, which I sort by length and colour-code for variety. Oh yes, itís organised!
STEP 5 The hard bit: finding a Guardian grid thatíll take as much of my A-list as possible without forgetting that this is meant to be fun.
STEP 6 Itís time to write some clues (Iíll have a pretty good idea of how the A-listers will work already). With a bit of luck, Iíll have come across some lucky bonus connections between words at the grid-filling stage.
STEP 7 A quick check of spellings and citations, then must leave well alone for a few days to see how the clues read with a fresh brain.
STEP 8 I export all the clues in approximately the Guardian format, check the line count and prune without mercy. Always works better with fewer words.
STEP 9 The entire Crossword Compiler file goes to Hugh by e-mail. How did the great old setters do all this without computers?
STEP 10 Just Hughís Qs to answer. A few edits, and weíre there.
© Copyright Ashley Knowles 2011-2013 | all rights reserved† | colour design by Bernadina Lloyd www.bernadinalloyd.co.uk