New Year, New Look. :) This post is #not-a-crossword. Be warned: lots of sap, spoilers, and wordiness ahead. 2022 was so special for me in many ways. Joining the Lil AVC X roster was really a game changer - I gained the experience and confidence to expand my goals and it opened so many doors for me. And speaking of Lil, I'm so happy to be passing the torch to some really excellent folks. Please make sure your AVCX sub is in good shape! There are (good!) changes on the way and even more puzzle content coming in the new year. You might even see me again. ;)
I've learned that one doesn't have to be a genius (I am not!) nor have a special instinct for wordplay (I do not!) to learn how to build a publishable theme. [Facts: I get half of mine from saying "hey that could be a cool revealer/theme entry" while solving themeless TNYs and much of the other half by actively searching for phrases with directional or action words in them, like front, out, mixed, etc. That is to say, nothing just "comes to me" naturally... (yet?)]. I learned too that I'm much happier when I make the puzzles *I* want to make and someone happens to want to run them, rather than making things with the intention that they'll fit into someone else's idea of what crosswords should look like. If I collect a handful of rejections from a single person/outlet, I'm not likely to submit there again. This isn't spite; it's about knowing that success (for me!) means learning where what I want to make fits in and sticking to it.
On to the high points:
My favorite indie puzzle of the year:
Spring Kiss by Zaineb Akbar. I will not be surprised when this turns up near the top of many round-ups. It continues to earn praise for its vibe, which is the perfect mash up of crossword, poetry, and visual art. Zinna blends an underused feature of amuselabs with her unique voice to create a puzzle that does indeed look and feel like a kiss of spring. It maintains its indie flair with entries like [pi__ / pika__ / rai__ / smoo__m] for CHU, ["you may be ___ to financial compensation"] for ENTITLED, and ["wasn't my mom a total ___?"] for BETTY but the poetic cluing here is really the star of the show: [simple act of charity in islam] for SMILE, [a sense of control over one's actions] for AGENCY, [a time for peach blossom décor in hanoi] for TET, [a calm eyed chaos] for STORM, ["if you ever need a shoulder to cry on, ___"] for IMHERE, [___ out (survives in the style of a flower cracking through concrete)] for EKES, [targets in therapy] for GOALS are just *some* of the best. Throw in a little more fun stuff like [ascended amphibians] for TREETOADS and [te ___ con todo mi corazón ❤] for AMO, and you really get the perfect solving experience. Zinna's publishing has picked up with recent lovely turns in Inkubator and AVCX. (See also her work at USAT) I'm really looking forward to seeing more of her in the coming year.
Honorable mentions to:
Remedial Chaos Theory by Paolo Pasco | Themeless XXVII "Ghost Type" by Brooke Husic | Again by Will Eisenberg (ft. Alex Boisvert) | Alt Accounts by Kate Chin Park, Lil AVC X | Standing Okay by ??? (honestly there are really too many to mention; do more indies™)
My favorite tournament puzzle of the year:
ACPT Puzzle 5, BEQ. I did bad, oh so very bad. (I was not alone.) But this is the kind of puzzle that becomes the talk of the tournament and this one will be remembered for years. If you haven't done it, Brendan and the powers that be at ACPT have been kind enough to re-release it on his blog for free.
Honorable mentions to:
The puzzles I'm most proud of this year:
Well-Kept Secrets, with Rose Sloan, at bewilderingly puzzles. This one blends everything I love about indie crosswords - its theme was born out of a dumb joke in a twitch stream, it exists only because Rose is smart enough to know how to code for such a theme, and it saw more traffic than anything on either of our own blogs thanks to the generosity of a certain crossword superstar. Not to mention, I just think it's neat.
Lemon Zest, with Will Eisenberg, here at Norah's Puzzles. Find a collaborator who's not afraid to tell you when your ideas are not good and does their best to make them better and simply knows lots of things you don't. Will and I have made a bunch of stuff together this year so it was hard to pick just one but this one is special because we got the chance to finish it up together in person which was super fun. I'm also choosing it because it happens to represent a turning point in my themeless construction, in which I'm finding the sweet spot (for me!) of 68-70 words. I needed a home for Will's 12 letter seed, and went looking for some examples of center stair stacks that would accommodate. I was inspired by Brooke's themeless xx which in her words, "the layout is inspired by some of brian thomas's extremely smooth themelesses in the high-60s." (Here is one such recent example)
Company Potluck, AVCX+. I was so fortunate to write the very first AVCX+ puzzle. (Don't @ me, Quiara) This one belongs on this list for several reasons, the first of which is that it simply would not exist without Sid. Before I made this puzzle - a little over a year ago - I did not think I was good enough to submit anything to anywhere, and I had a couple of emails from the NYT rejection bot to "prove" it. I was going to let that invitation from + slip right by. But Sid encouraged (urged, insisted) that I send something. This was the first puzzle I had accepted anywhere, and I'm so so grateful to the AVCX+ team for their trust in me. This puzzle is another solid example that (for me!) a themeless grid doesn't have to have especially "ambitious" architecture, a super low word count, or a super high word length to be enjoyable or publish-worthy. Having this successful first experience gave me the confidence to submit more puzzles - and things are going surprisingly well. Sid, thank you.
I made six Lil AVC X puzzles this year, and it was hard to pick a favorite, but ultimately I went with the one that earned me the spot on the roster and was the first to run, Second Chances. This puzzle is built around a pair of seeds that at that point represented my "failures" in puzzle construction and publication, but to me it carried a message of hope for what 2022 could bring.
LA Times, 8/31/2022. My first puzzle to appear in print media. Strangely, as much as I love collaborating, it was important to me that my first print puzzle was a solo effort. As it turns out, LAT happens to be my happy place under current management, with four in 2022 and more on the way!😍
My favorite crossword podcast episode of the year:
Playing the Hits, Crossnerds, 1/21/22. Brooke and Rebecca go deep on puzzle statistics in regards to gender diversity at the New York Times.
Honorable mentions to:
My favorite clues I wrote this year:
IHEAR [How some rumors get started?]
BAR [Place to make a round trip?]
AGORA [Antique mall?]
PAWS [Print sources?]
STIR ["hooha," according to nytxw editors, probably]
LAMB [Who's baby? Ewe's baby!]
LUNABAR ["Men, too, can enjoy ___." (Quote from a snack brand's FAQ page)]
BOUNCYCASTLES [Party venues to enjoy in leaps and bounds?]
USERERROR [PEBCAK (Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard), in tech lingo]
UPEND [Flip over, like a card table three hours into a family game of Monopoly]
STILLIRISE [Angelou work with the lines "Does it come as a surprise / That I dance like I've got diamonds / At the meeting of my thighs?"]
BEEDANCE [Hivemind communication?]
PACMAN [Fruitatarian video game protagonist]
VIRTUAL HUGS [ooo??]
OCEAN ["On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" novelist Vuong]
ALTO [Matron Mama Morton in "Chicago", for one]
ACNE [Why is this always clued as [teen affliction]? I still get zits at 40 ???]
DANTE ["Aristotle and ___ Discover the Secrets of the Universe" (YA queer lit novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz)]
STL [Home to Citygarden and City Museum, for short]
RIO [2011 film where Anne Hathaway and Jamie Foxx soar]
THE ["So Long and Thanks for All ___ Shoes" (1997 NOFX album)]
MATE [Engage in some next-gen development?]
CLAD ["Mimi Marquez, ___ only in bubble wrap will perform her famous lawn chair-handcuff dance to the sounds of iced tea being stirred" (lyric from "La Vie Boheme", "Rent")]
GAY ["We're gonna prove that in this day and age being ___ isn't a crime, this is our moment to change the world one lesbian at a time" (lyric from "The Prom")]
DINERO [J. Lo music video in which she cooks meat on a grill while wearing lingerie and singing "I just want the green, want the money, want the cash flow"]
WEPA [Cheer for puertorriqueños]
POOH [Bear wearing no pants and one earring backwards? (4)]
EMAILS [Avoids a meeting, perhaps (🙏)]
ALOT [Fictional animal in a "Hyperbole and a Half" cartoon with the caption "I care about this ___"]
BOOSTERSEAT [Child support?]
FARBEITFROMME ["I'm no expert, but ..."]
READY [Word said by Will before each round, which was followed every time by Sam shouting "No!" and racing back to the big clock]
TANGY [Having a bite?]
CHA ["Don't ___" (song that was translated into Simlish and retitled as "Doba")]
ECHO ["HELLO! Hello! hello! hello"]
MEN ["___ explain things to me" (essay collection by rebecca solnit)]
PMS [Periodic reminder?]
KNITTED [Made some amigurumi, maybe]
CODED [Add a bit of data to a program in a secret language (5)]
SEXSCENES [Doing shots?]
WIIG [Kristen whose character had a weirdass progression in "WW84"]
2022 by the numbers, I:
- solved at least 1500 puzzles. My tracking fell off for several weeks in the fall and I failed to count most puzzles that I test solved (a lot!) so it might be as many as 1700 or so.
- continue to be a relatively mediocre solver compared to the elite, though with a marked improvement in the second half of the year: Boswords: Fall 106/400 (choppy), Summer 55/300 (choppy), Spring 175/250 (accidental stormy), Winter 269/300 (blizzard); ACPT: 349/474; Lolla 24/121 (local) [E division, I'm coming for you]
- published a total of 25 puzzles on this blog. Of those, 22! are collabs or group projects
- contributed to or wrote 17 puzzles for other blogs. Of those, 16! are collabs or group projects
- published 15 crosswords for paying outlets, including: Lil AVC X (6x), AVCX+ (2x), LAT (4x), Universal, Inkubator, and Crucinova. Of these 15, six are collabs.
- was paid $2,975 in total to make and write about crosswords.
- teamed up with 11 new collaborators: Howard Barkin, Ben Bass, Matt Forest, Lila Goldenberg, Rebecca Goldstein, Matthew Gritzmacher, Joe Pasini, Carly Schuna, Dan Schwartz, Brian Thomas, and Abigail Rapp. I close out the year with a total collaborator count of 32.
- appeared on Fill Me In twice: June 21 and October 25
- co-hosted the STL tournament in June - and we'll be back in March 2023!
- joined Sally's Take as a guest blogger with six posts this year
- joined the team at Crossword Fiend with ... lots! of reviews of the Universal puzzles
- Matt and I took Daily Crossword Links from (only) a mailing list to a full-fledged website. There is still a lot we want to do, and we need more people on the team! If you're interested in contributing in any way (we're looking for help with the daily emails plus ideas and writers for new features) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org