Writers Talk About Writing
Visual Thesaurus Crossword Puzzles!
Today the Visual Thesaurus launches an exciting new feature for you, our fine subscribers: Our very own -- original -- Visual Thesaurus crossword puzzles! And not just any puzzles, but crosswords conjured up by Brendan Quigley, a veteran puzzlemaster who contributes regularly to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Onion. We're very excited to have Brendan create custom puzzles for the Visual Thesaurus community. How does he do it? In our conversation below, Brendan cracks the mystery. Well, sort of...
VT: How do you get your ideas for puzzles?
Brendan: The key to crosswords is that all the long entries have a theme to them. That's really the meat of it. It's coming up with something you haven't seen time and time again. How do I do it? I have no idea. It might be something like reading about a name in the news or mishearing something someone says. I don't know. If we all knew where themes for crosswords came from we wouldn't have "writer's block." Now, as far as the rest of the puzzle goes -- the filling and the cluing -- I've been doing it for so long, it's easy for me.
VT: Hmm. Okay, can you explain the mechanics of puzzles for us?
Brendan: The long entries are the themes. Anything that's not the theme is the "fill." You want to try to have a wide variety of colorful phrases or names in the news or things like that for the fill.
VT: How do you come up with the fill?
Brendan: I carry a moleskin notebook to write ideas down as they come. For example, there was an ad during the recent Academy Awards that featured Danica Patrick. I looked her up on the web and saw that no one had used her yet in crosswords. This is the kind of stuff we crossword constructors like to do: Be the first person to use someone's name or a new word or neologism or new phrase or something like that, because it's a way to show off! But as a puzzle solver those are the kinds of things that are interesting because you don't see them all the time like, "Oreo" and "oleo" -- repeaters.
VT: Have you ever written a puzzle that's unsolvable?
Brendan: Yeah, and that one was unsellable. The whole point of making a puzzle is that it's intended to be solved. It's not supposed to be some arcane thing, with the puzzle writer hiding in a tall castle saying, Hahaha, I've stumped all of the Western Hemisphere with my wit and genius! -- that's not the point. Crossword puzzles are meant for public consumption; it's not an ego thing. People write books so they get read, right? Well, except maybe Thomas Pynchon...
VT: Do you use computers to help you?
Brendan: There are a lot of computer elements that help with construction. But it's still very much a human enterprise, because a computer can't generate themes and can't be up to date with new names and current events. Also, a computer won't have a sense of humor or know 20 ways to think of things. There are programs that can just crank out a fill. Push a button and they spew one out. But their results are basically junk because a computer's not going to know, say, this crossing is impossible because you have a European river going one way and a silent movie actress going the other way. The one letter that you need to solve is not going to come easy without doing research. But humans know that you don't want to cross obscurities.
Crosswords should be like Jeopardy, where everything's fair game -- but also all the answers should be fair. Can it be misleading? Sure it can. All we want you to do is to think differently and take a new look at the world around you.