Variety crossword time! I mentioned last month after the “Spell It Out” meta hunt that you should always be on your toes in case I gave you another nonstandard puzzle for your solving weekend; today’s puzzle is a reason for that warning. This is a kind of variety puzzle originally pioneered by Merl Reagle and Henry Hook, and Trip Payne has written several of these puzzles that you can try for free (there are four of them on this page). I find them to be immensely fun to solve and create, but different strokes and all that.
If you’ve seen the other stories in the Sept. 16 issue of the Magazine, you’ll notice that they are all written in nontraditional storytelling formats. The same applies to this puzzle. The intro reads: “Most of the answers in this odd crossword are nonsensical. For example, a clue like ‘Trousers worn by a sluggish mammal’ may lead to SLOTH PANTS. Start with the shorter answers as those tend to be normal words and phrases. Keep an open mind as you solve, and have fun.” Take a look at the blank grid:
How on earth can anybody fill a monstrous crossword grid like that? It’s drowning in a sea of white squares. It must be impossible to fill this grid using normal words and phrases. (A few statistics to illustrate the point: Most of my themed puzzles typically feature 144 words, 70-76 black squares, and an average word length between 5-5.2 letters long. For themeless 21×21 puzzles, I’ll usually have 128-132 words, 60-64 black squares, and an average word length of 5.6-5.8 letters long. In this puzzle, however, there are just 106 words, 43 black squares, and an average word length of 7.51.)
So what do you do? You don’t fill it with normal words and phrases. You make most of the answers up out of whole cloth. But the idea (or the hope, anyway) is that you can still solve the puzzle because the short answers tend to be legitimate crossword entries and every clue, for both wacky and unwacky answers, is meant to be straightforward and right-over-the-plate. You just have to let go of your typical thinking process and accept that many answers aren’t going to be everyday phrases.
Start at 1A. The clue is [Outback bird’s kissers]. You may know from doing other crosswords that an EMU is an Australian bird that shows up regularly in puzzles. Maybe you won’t get that answer right away, but look at the first few crossing Down clues. 1D: [McGregor of “Haywire”] is EWAN. 2D: [Horse’s or zebra’s hair] is MANE. 3D: [“Do ___ others . . ."] is UNTO. A-ha, you’ve already got the start of 1A with an EMU! And “kissers” . . . could that be MOUTH? Or maybe LIPS? It may take some work to figure out the other bizarre answers in that corner, but the answer is EMU’S LIPS. Now look at the clue right below it at 21A: [“Care to snooze?"]. If you got EWAN/MANE/UNTO in rapid order, you’ll see it begins with WAN?????. The clue appears to be hinting at napping, but the start could be WANT, or maybe WANNA. That could be a tough sticking point if you enter WANNA NAP, but the answer is WANT A NAP.
Here is the full solution grid:
This puzzle also features a theme and an unrelated mini-theme. There are six clues that end with the same question-marked phrase:
- 24A: [Series of bloody, cheerful songs . . . or an alternative form of storytelling?] is TEN GORY LILTS.
- 37A: [“How about we attempt to use jargon" . . . or an alternative form of storytelling?] is LET’S TRY LINGO.
- 69A: [“Jeepers, we’re about to watch the ‘Light My Candle’ musical!" . . . or an alternative form of storytelling?] is “GOLLY, IT’S RENT.”
- 85A: [Actress Liv misplaced martini liquor . . . or an alternative form of storytelling?] is TYLER LOST GIN.
- 4D: [Streetcar carrying the lead singer of the Police . . . or an alternative form of storytelling?] is STING TROLLEY.
- 51D: [Sick but still powerful . . . or an alternative form of storytelling?] is ILL YET STRONG.
Those six phrases are all anagrams of the word “storytelling.” The Post did say this was the “Alternative Storytelling” edition, so that’s my spin on it.
The mini-theme is a pair of presidential puns, found in the two longest bizarre answers in the puzzle:
- 29A: [Nickname of the first U.S. president when he ate a gourd family fruit] is GEORGE SQUASHINGTON.
- 75A: [Nickname of the 26th U.S. president when he imitated a cornfield bird] is THEODORE CROWSEVELT.
That mini-theme exists because I thought of GEORGE SQUASHINGTON and it amused me, so I went to work trying to find another presidential pun that matched in length. Good ol’ Teddy to the rescue.
And though I didn’t plan this at all when I began the puzzle, I thought these two bottom-dwelling answers worked out well next to one another:
- 91A: [Dweeb triumphs] is NERD PREVAILS.
- 92A: [Amazes dweeb] is WOWS GEEK.
Just a bit of serendipity, that.
How difficult is it to create a puzzle like this compared to a normal crossword? Just like a normal crossword, it depends on what answers you begin with and how friendly the crossings are, but the trickiest aspects about it for me were twofold: 1) You have to make sure that your bizarre answers can be reasonably clued and can evoke a funny image. That can be easier said than done when you’re dealing with an ocean of made-up answers; you can end up with a bizarre string of words that don’t make much grammatical sense, and it becomes impossible to clue it in a good way. 2) You have to give solvers enough toeholds in the short answers to help them get the strange ones. I made every 3-, 4-, and 5-letter word in this puzzle a real word; some but not all of the 6-letter answers are real, and there are a few real 7-letter answers as well. I think there are 44 normal answers in this puzzle out of 106 total entries; they’re probably not all instantly solvable, but my hope is that was enough of a solid footing for you to work with.
A dirty little secret is that the “Spell It Out” meta hunt was originally going to be for the “Alternative Storytelling” issue of the Magazine, but the issue was delayed as I was writing that puzzle. So after it was rescheduled, I decided to concoct this madness.
Next week we’ll return with a normal crossword. You made it through the wacky gauntlet, friends.