“Split Screen”

[.puz][PDF][Solution] 📺💥🤯

“Did you ever get the feeling you was bein’ watched?” asks a certain Looney Tunes character to the orange monster holding him in its clutches.

“PEOPLE!?” screams the monster, after it realizes we–the cartoon watchers–are *out there,* watching it. It shrieks and runs directly away from us, leaving its cartoon silhouette in a series of increasingly distant brick walls.

Now that we experience almost everything via screens, this kind of meta gag has lost a whole lot of its charm for me. Yes, I’m audience. Yes, I’m viewer. Of Looney Tunes, House of Cards, and now, ugh, my niece’s and nephews’ birthday parties. :*(

Today’s puzzle–a 21×21 grid for the holiday weekend–was inspired by the screens we’re all various degrees of desperate to put aside for something realer. Spoilers after the jump!

“My turn.”

*SPOILER ALERT* Building a crossword puzzle grid with five “screens” in it presents a bunch of headaches. On the one hand, I wanted each character who BREAKS THE FOURTH WALL to “break” it in the same direction. This meant that a grid with traditional rotational symmetry wouldn’t work, since whatever “screen” ended up in the lower right corner of the grid could only be “broken” by a character with a super short name.

The layout you see here compromises a couple of standard 21×21 conventions, namely the number of black squares (this puzzle has 84), the number of 3-letter words (45), and the number of answer words (143). These are all higher than usual.

This is one of those puzzles where it’s really hard for me to predict what the solving experience will be like. Fun? Satisfying? Sloggy? I’m curious to hear your reactions. Leave a comment… and have a wonderful holiday weekend!


“Tear Jerkers”

[.puz][PDF][Solution] 😭😭😭

I’m shipping this week’s puzzle with a little bit of bonus content. The embedded video below is a glossary of crossword constructing jargon that my colleagues and I often toss around casually, leaving novice solvers/constructors potentially scratching their heads.

Oftentimes, for me, the best part of solving an indie puzzle is getting to read a little bit about what went into building the grid. And such insidery reflection is often rife with opaque jargon. I’ve been guilty of this in the past with how I write about my own work.

So: enjoy the puzzle, watch the glossary video, and *then* dig into the constructor notes below. Which notes, of course, contain hella spoilers. YE BE WARNED!


There were actually a number of potential arrangements for this theme set. Other material that didn’t make the final cut included SOB STORY, TEAR JERKER, FIVE ACT TRAGEDY… plus you can imagine a bunch of even darker possibilities: OBITUARY COLUMN, EVICTION NOTICE, etc. I generally think puzzles have less of a responsibility to be emotionally neutral (or even upbeat) than some other folks do, but also… read the room.

I went with DEAR JOHN LETTERS, LAMENTATIONS, AND GREEK TRAGEDY because they interlock neatly in a grid with mirror symmetry (see the the glossary above!). I am an absolute *sucker* for a fun interlock. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an interlock grid of mine that took forrreevveerrr to make, simply because the placement of the theme answers really limits where you can put black boxes.

In the case of this puzzle, I was seduced by the squint-and-tilt-your-head implications of the resulting grid art. Does the placement of the theme answers and black boxes make you… see anything? Rorschach test!

Happy solving!


“Dropdown Menu”

by Alison Ohringer and Ross Trudeau

[.puz][PDF][solution] 🧵

Until pretty recently, the only puzzles I’d co-solve were the big ‘uns. Sundays. The grids two people can really sink both their teeth into at the same time.

It turns out that collaborating on 21×21 grids yields similar returns. I think this particular puzzle sounds like me at times, and at other times it’s distinctively what I’ve come to know as Alison’s voice. She both filled and clued 55-Across, for example, which is an entry/clue pairing that never would have found its way into my puzzle.

As I write this, it’s brilliantly sunny here in Cambridge, MA. Yesterday we woke up to flurries of big, cottonball-size flakes of snow. I’ve given up trying to make predictions about 2020, but I expect you’ll dig this puzz… no matter the weather.

String a few answers together


This puzzle got its start when the revealer phrase–HANG BY A THREAD–caught my eye in a magazine article. Initially I submitted a version of this puzzle to the NYT, with theme answers that simply were placed vertically in the grid. They passed, because it was an inelegant/inapt connection. Then it sat on the shelf for a while, until Alison and I got connected via social media and we hammered out a version with the pictographic element you see here.

I’ve been on a kick of these sorts of puzzles, and I think it’s all thanks to this charming Patrick Blindauer puzzle from last summer. We opted for mirror symmetry on this grid so that the answers that HANG BY A “THREAD” could be arranged in a sort of chandelier fashion.

“The Four Corners”

by Wyna Liu, Aimee Lucido, Amanda Rafkin, & Robyn Weintraub


Note: Each of this puzzle’s constructors built one quadrant of the grid. When the puzzle is complete, each constructor’s initials will occupy the circled boxes that bracket the corner she authored.

Eeeeeeeee! Look at those NAMES.

A few weeks ago I did the crossword equivalent of writing fan fiction. I came up with a puzzle concept wherein the grid revealed to you the authorship of the four quadrants via a simple meta element. And then I went about dreaming up combinations of my most-admired constructors whose names would interlock appropriately to make the concept work.

At the time, this was all just an exercise in fanboy exuberance. But I Tweeted about the idea, tagged the legends whose names I grouped, and lo and behold… a fanboy’s dream came true. It really is a fantasy draft of names: a Constructor of the Year nominee; a New Yorker grid all-star; a Clue of the Year nominee; the author of *today’s* giant NYT insert puzzle.

If you enjoyed the grid, or any of the puzzles that appear on this site, I strongly encourage you to show your appreciation by making a donation to COVID-19 relief. It’s a special puzzle worthy of a special gesture.

Read commentary from the four authors below.

Wyna, Aimee, Amanda & Robyn

Normally I edit guest puzzles on this site for difficult/content. I didn’t end up changing any of these women’s work at all, because part of the fun of solving this puzzle is hearing four distinct voices come through clearly… and trying to anticipate what style belongs to whom! Here are their notes (spoiler alert!):

Amanda: I seeded my section with CHOPIN, because when I’m trying to personalize a 6 letter slot, that’s about as good as it gets. I then added ENSLER, because I love her work, particularly “The Vagina Monologues.” BILLIE is also a force to be reckoned with and I suspect we’re far from seeing the end of her talents. And DECALS I “stuck” in there because I’ve been sitting on that clue for a while 🙂 Happy solving!

Robyn: This was a fun project and I was thrilled to work with Wyna, Aimee and Amanda (and thanks to Ross for realizing that out circular initials would inspire a great collaborating).

There’s a lot of cute Robynesque stuff shoved in my little NE corner. I’ve got not one but two food entries–COOKIE and TOMATO. I often have a lot of food and cooking terms, since I enjoy food and cooking. And I’m always happy to include a good Sesame Street reference, so COOKIE did double duty for me there.

The clue for SHE is a throwback to one of my favorite clues of all time: “Mollusk exoskeleton vendor, in a tongue twister.” It was a new (and delightfully nerdy) way to clue an overused entry. I wasn’t going to reprise that original clue here, but i think this SHE clue is a nice callback. BOOBOO–I’m a mommy. I also like things that can be fixed with a kiss. I wish that were the solution for more problems in life. DOGEAR–I like clues that have a repeating element… I didn’t know that I did, but an editor pointed in out to me and I realized that I do it often. So “Bookmark… when you don’t have a bookmark” is very me.

And in many of my puzzles I’ll have one bit of crosswordese that I absolutely hate and I’ll debate for a while whether or not to nix it. My usual compromise with myself is to leave it in but remove it from my word list so that it never shows its ugly face again. I’m looking at you, EEO. Consider yourself banished.

Wyna: I received the grid after Amanda and Robyn had filled out their quadrants—the bar was set high. I seeded my section with CHAKRA and KVETCH (perhaps channeling my grumpiness for being out of touch with my yoga practice?). I really liked the G-rated vibe of HECK NO, though its terminal O made me momentarily concerned about leaving Aimee with the awkward ??LDO.It’s so cool to look at the finished grid and see how our entries play off each other’s. HEAVEN/SATAN and THROB/DILDO are particularly delightful pairs. I gotta say overall my favorite thing in the grid is DILDO (thanks, Aimee!). Thank you to Ross and my fellow constructors for making this thing happen! Would do it again in a heartbeat.

Aimee: Filling a grid is an optimization problem. I want to maximize the words that I love in a grid while minimizing the words that I dislike, It’s almost as if every possible word that might go in a grid is given a value in my head -1 to 1, where a 1 is a debut marquee entry that is exciting and fun and draws attention to something I think is important, and a -1 is something that is offensively bad. Most words that are lower than -.5 I simply cut from my dictionary, but most of the struggle with filling a grid is figuring out what words are bad vs. just unknown, ungettable, uninteresting. Sometimes there’s a word you particularly find interesting, but that no one else has heard of before, and it’s uninferrable (e.g. YLEM. Google it! It’s cool! But I would only be able to put it in grids at certain publications, and in a very carefully constructed corner.) Sometimes there’s a word that I loathe and would never put in a grid, but most people think it’s totally fine (e.g. any Roman numeral. I don’t know why but they really rub me the wrong way!). Sometimes there’s a word that I have never heard of before, but for the vast majority of people, it’s common knowledge (e.g. most sports names).

So, for me, I tend to prioritize stuff that makes me laugh or that can be given a pop culture clue. That is what I would rate as closest to 1. In my corner, that’s SELFIE, SATAN, DILDO, BEATS, SENSEI, and even maybe DIALED, just because it makes me think of smart phones, and that’s kind of fun. On the other end of the spectrum, there are words that I would normally try to avoid, like ADE and RESEED. Those are both words that I would rate negatively. But in both of these cases, the words aren’t too crummy. Maybe a -.1 or -.2. ADE is common crossword-use and it mostly gets ignored when someone is solving the puzzle, and even though RESEED (and, arguably many words with the prefix RE) isn’t 100% a thing, it’s totally gettable, and I can see someone saying it when referring to their garden or field.

In my experience, the tricky bit tends to come with the words that you feel like people *should* know, but maybe don’t. DESREE is one of those for me. I think she’s awesome but she definitely not prominent in the public consciousness the way she once was. But I feel like she’s someone people should know, and so I put her in puzzles a lot. So, to me, she might be a .5, but to other people she might be a -.5. That’s what gives me a distinct voice in my puzzles. It’s my rating system that I’m optimizing for, and I get to showcase the people in words that I think are worthy.