An Interview with a Master of Puzzles: Blake Slonecker, Professor of Heritage, Creates Crosswords for Major Publications | Local

Blake Slonecker first tried creating a crossword puzzle after several years of solving them. It was harder than he expected.

“It took me two weeks (and) many hours in those two weeks. I was an unpleasant person to be around. It was really, really hard, ”said Slonecker, history professor at Heritage University at Toppenish, noted in a September 2020 online presentation with colleagues. “Today, however, there is software that has fundamentally changed the construction of crosswords. “

Solving crosswords published in newspapers, books, online, and via apps is a daily routine for people all over the world, including Slonecker. He’s also part of a much smaller group of people who build these puzzles, with his first released in 2019.

All 23 puzzles published by Slonecker appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal (one was posted on November 24), the Los Angeles Times, Universal Crosswords and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Two more have been accepted and are awaiting publication.

Building a good crossword puzzle takes time, even with crossword maker software and online word lists, and Slonecker is busy. In addition to teaching history at Heritage, he holds the Ted Robertson Chair in Humanities and Interim Chair in Psychology. Slonecker is also a father of two daughters who enjoys reading fiction, especially novels by Patrick Modiano and Philip Roth.

Tackling the New York Times crossword puzzle when it first released on the daily app, Slonecker makes crossword puzzle solving and integration into his schedule. And his puzzle creation software is always open on his computer. He never knows when inspiration – whether it’s a puzzle theme, an unusual layout, or clever anagrams – might come in a spare moment.

“It’s fun,” he said. “It gets a little addicting when you’re working on a puzzle. “

One puzzle per day

His grandmother, Joan Martin, introduced Slonecker to the crossword. She lived nearby as he grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and he visited her often.

“She solved a daily crossword puzzle,” Slonecker said. He started working on crosswords, occasionally trying the New York Times puzzle, “and failed miserably,” he added.

“I did them regularly for about 10 years and haphazardly before that,” added Slonecker, who is 40. He started building crossword puzzles for publication in 2018.

While studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Slonecker and his wife, Andie, would work together on the New York Times Sunday Puzzle. As crossword enthusiasts know, newspapers usually publish the simplest puzzle of the week on Monday, with the puzzles getting more and more difficult each day until the Sunday newspaper, which has the most difficult puzzle and the most difficult puzzle of the week. bigger.

The New York Times crosswords are among the most difficult, if not the most difficult, published in any newspaper – or anywhere. Solving a New York Times puzzle, considered the gold standard among newspaper puzzles, is an accomplishment. The same goes for having one accepted by its puzzle editors. The New York Times ran two of Slonecker’s crosswords on March 4 and June 17 of this year.

Due to the volume of submissions, its guidelines are rigorous. The New York Times pays well, which is a big incentive to keep trying. The publication also comes with bragging rights. For every crossword published, several dozen were likely submitted, Slonecker said.

“I guess they rejected 50 of my puzzles before I published one,” he said. “By that time, a dozen had been published elsewhere. “

Cruciverbalism 101

British-born journalist named Arthur Wynne created the first known published crossword puzzle, according to a brief history of crosswords by George Eliot on the American Crossword Tournament Website. Wynne’s Puzzle was published on December 21, 1913 in the New York World. It was shaped like a diamond and had no internal black squares

In the 1920s, the crossword puzzles began to resemble today’s versions, Eliot wrote. This includes internal black squares that are symmetrically gridded.

“The puzzles weren’t written with computer media back then, just written by people with huge vocabulary,” Slonecker said. “They would draw a grid, put black squares and then think about how to fill it. Today there is software to help you with this process.

“With software as a helper, you can do it in 24 hours,” he said.

He mentioned two crossword puzzle software, Crossfire and Crossword Compiler. Purchasing the software and the accompanying wordlist costs $ 300 to $ 400, Slonecker said. “The software is as good as the wordlist. There are people who run wordlists “which puzzle builders can subscribe to for an additional cost,” he said.

Once someone has chosen a theme for a crossword puzzle, it’s time to build the grid and write down the clues and answers. This is when having the biggest wordlist possible is crucial, Slonecker said.

“A good puzzle is not going to rely heavily on factual knowledge,” he said. “It’s going to rely on a good vocabulary.”

Some good advice

Above all, the crossword should be worth solving. They should be stimulating, but also fun. “Playful and interesting is the goal,” Slonecker said.

As stated on its website, The New York Times “searches for clever, literate, entertaining, and well-designed crosswords that appeal to the wide array of Times solvers.”

Crosswords all start with basic grid rules that include symmetry, and words must be at least three letters long. No section of the grid can be cut off from the others and words cannot be repeated, although there are rare exceptions.

“There are a lot of rules,” Slonecker said, although “you can break any of them if there is good reason to break them.”

All puzzle builders have their own approach to puzzles according to various rules and guidelines. For example, Slonecker generally avoids using proper names. “Words that are not proper names are going to be more accessible,” he said.

One aspect of thematic puzzles that is fairly consistent is the “reveal”, which is the key to the theme. The revealers are usually found at the bottom right or the exact center of a puzzle, Slonecker said. And the question for that word will often include a clause, he added.

However, not all crosswords have titles or themes. The crosswords used in USA Today are one of the most frequently completed crosswords, Slonecker said, and do not have a theme.

Reading goes a long way to helping Slonecker create and solve puzzles, while staying on top of popular culture. Reading at large is more important, however, to learn more words and their meanings.

“When someone is solving a puzzle, the best advice I have is to always pay attention to the multiple meanings of the words,” Slonecker said. “Especially in the more difficult puzzles that take place later in the week, clue writers very often try to mislead solvers by using secondary meanings of words.”

Those who want to hone their crossword puzzle solving skills should also attempt a puzzle every day, Slonecker said. He recommends the USA Today puzzle for those just starting out. The New York Times Puzzle requires a paid subscription, just like Crucinova, another online option. Some online puzzles are free, including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and Universal Crossword.

Although he made money from his crossword, Slonecker will not quit his daily job. Famous puzzle maker Will shortz, the editor of the New York Times, is one of an even smaller group of people who make a living from crossword puzzles. Slonecker has been in contact with the editorial staff at Shortz, but never Shortz himself.

“The number of people who make a living building crosswords is maybe a dozen,” he said.

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