I sometimes wish crosswords could be like National Novel Writing Month, where you have to write 50,000 words of original fiction in 30 days. I did NaNoWriMo in 2009 and had a blast (I made it to the 50,000-word finish line, too). It’s virtually impossible to write the Next Great American Novel in that short a period of time, so what makes NaNoWriMo fun is that you give yourself the freedom to make mistakes, write not-so-great fiction and just be creative. The hardest part of any writing project, I find, is getting started. Too many people avoid writing the story they’ve got in their minds because the prospect is too daunting, or they have writer’s block and don’t know what to do. With NaNoWriMo, you turn writer’s block off and just let your muse take flight.

Crosswords are like writing a story too — you have lots of characters and (often) a theme that ties them all together, and hopefully it will all make sense when you’re done. Just like fiction writers, I get writer’s block a lot too. In fact, that’s how I came up with this puzzle’s theme. When I complained to my wife a few weeks ago that writer’s block was setting in … that’s when the a-ha happened. Then I got to work.

Solution to July 17, 2016 crossword, "Writer's Block" Solution to July 17, 2016 crossword, “Writer’s Block”

There are two parts to this puzzle’s theme. First, there are five symmetrically placed book titles:

  • 27A / 115A: [With 115 Across, 2014 novel in the “Vampire Chronicles" series] is PRINCE LESTAT by Anne Rice.
  • 41A: [1983 horror novel nominated for a World Fantasy Award] is the oddly spelled PET SEMATARY by Stephen King.
  • 68A: [15th installment in the “Goosebumps" series] is YOU CAN’T SCARE ME by R.L. Stine.
  • 82A: [2015 novel originally completed in 1957] is GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee, released to great fanfare last year (though with mixed reviews, I’m told).
  • 99A: [Children’s book about a mystical woman who grants secret wishes] is THE MOON LADY by Amy Tan.

The trickier part to this puzzle is what to make of several answers that, on the surface, don’t appear to make much sense. 1A: [Looking bad?] is RING — how does a wedding band signify looking bad? 18D: [On the safe side] is WARD; shouldn’t that be ALEE?

I included the following hint above the clues to help you see what’s going on: “If you get stuck on this challenging puzzle, try thinking inside of the box.” It turns out that there are some letters hidden behind some black squares, which represent the authors’ last names:

  • 1A / 18D are (LEE)RING / (LEE)WARD.
  • 13D / 28A / 30A / and 37D are AVA(RICE) / BEAT(RICE) / (RICE) BELT / (RICE) CAKE.
  • 55D / 70A / 72A / 78D are ARC (TAN) / TRIS(TAN) / (TAN) LINE / (TAN)DEM.
  • 86D / 110A / 113A / 120D are LION (KING) / SPAR(KING) / (KING)PINS / (KING)DOM.
  • 109D / 132A are ERNE(STINE) / PALE(STINE).

Here, I’ve color-coded it so it may be easier to see. The colors represent the authors’ names in the single block and their corresponding titles elsewhere in the grid.

Color-coded solution to "Writer's Block." Color-coded solution to “Writer’s Block.”

Like I said, this puzzle was borne from being stuck thinking of other theme ideas. After that it was a matter of finding enough phrases where I could remove the authors’ names and come out with legitimate words, and finding titles to match the authors. Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of “YOU CAN’T SCARE ME”. In fact, I couldn’t name any of R.L. Stine’s books since I don’t recall having read any of them when I was younger. But I needed that title here, as well as “THE MOON LADY”; I just couldn’t get “THE JOY LUCK CLUB” in there cleanly. Alas.

Some other notable answers and clues:

  • 13A: [Tempest creator of 1981] is not anything to do with meteorology, but ATARI. I never played it but it looks like pretty decent for a 35-year-old game.
  • 38A: [La Liga’s record holder for most goals scored, familiarly] is LEO MESSI. He recently announced his retirement from international play after Argentina lost to Chile in penalty kicks in the Copa America Centenario final, but I’m guessing he’ll reconsider.
  • Related clue echoes with 53A: [Word to a waiter?] for “NEXT!” and 43D: [Words from a waiter?] for “ABOUT TIME!” I wonder where these clues were when they started talking to each other. The DMV?
  • 102A: [Admiral Ackbar’s warning in “Star Wars"] is IT’S A TRAP. Among the best three-second YouTube clips out there.
  • 37D: [Low-calorie snack] is the thematic answer (RICE) CAKE, though it appears as just CAKE in the grid. Oh what I’d give for a delicious low-calorie CAKE.
  • 52D: [Put together] is JUXTAPOSE. I love that word. There’s a coarse term in the crossword industry for when you try to jam in words with unusual letter combos at the expense of the rest of the grid’s fill quality (click here and scroll down to the review of Brendan Emmett Quigley’s crossword to find it), but believe me, I didn’t drop this in here just to get a J and X in one fell swoop. I did it because, amazingly, it fit better than any other option I had.
  • 68D: [Court VIP shown in “O.J.: Made in America"] is LANCE ITO. If you haven’t watched this five-part ESPN documentary, I strongly recommend it. It’s very, very good.

That’s all for now. See you next week!

**Special thanks to Erik Agard, Neville Fogarty, Bruce Ryan, Jeffrey Schwartz, and Marc Zigterman for test-solving this puzzle, and to my copy editor Jenny Abella for her thorough fact-checking and proofreading of clues.**