FRIDAY PUZZLE — The idiom “You have to crawl before you can walk” is true of so many things, but it’s especially true when it comes to puzzle making. Some constructors may get the hang of things right away and immediately go on to both fame and untold riches. (Please ignore her. She’s hallucinating again. — Ed.) But for most of us, there’s a steep learning curve.
Once you’ve mastered that curve, however, there is little holding you back — except for maybe time, the need to earn a living and family care obligations — and the urge to make as many puzzles as possible is unrelenting. Once you’re walking, the longing to run is tempting, and you see possible themes and seed entries everywhere. You can’t wait to see if you can build a puzzle around them.
I get the feeling that this is the phase that Matthew Stock is in now. Mr. Stock debuted in the New York Times Crossword in January, and this is his fifth puzzle to run here. I can only imagine how many puzzles he is submitting elsewhere. So far, he has made a good mark on the later part of the week, and this puzzle is no different.
Mr. Stock is correct in his notes below when he says that the bar for themeless crosswords is higher than ever, so these puzzles really have to shine in order to get published. I think he succeeded, especially in that center stack, as well as the top 10-letter double stack.
If you hadn’t noticed, the words SETTERS (from 30A’s PACE SETTERS) and STREETS (from 35A’s MEAN STREETS) are anagrams. This was not done to give the puzzle a minitheme, but it was the kind of crossword serendipity that die-hard solvers and constructors may notice and appreciate. And MR. WORLDWIDE is a great debut. The rapper Pitbull started out by calling himself “Mr. 305” when he felt that he had achieved fame in his hometown Miami, but he changed it to MR. WORLDWIDE once his fame spread.
The masochist in me loved seeing INNER PEACE above DATA FORMAT, because never have I ever felt that when formatting anything having to do with computers.
And the clue for 1D — “Start to squat?” — is clue of the day for me.
Nicely done, Mr. Stock. Keep ’em coming.
1A. One of the reasons we are not allowed to use the word “literally” here at The Times — the spell check is yelling at me even as I type this — is that it is so often literally untrue. In this puzzle, the millennial’s overstatement is “I literally DIED,” which we all know is not true. “Mad TV” did a series of sketches about the over- and misuse of the word, which I would link to, but they are kind of rude. You can find them easily on YouTube.
19A. Wordplay! In this puzzle, “Manhattan” is not the island, it’s the DRINK. Here’s how to make one. They pair wonderfully with themeless crosswords.
23A. When comedians say, “Is this thing on?,” it is usually followed by a light TAP TAP on the microphone.
30A. I think the PACESETTERS in a race are referred to as “rabbits” in this clue because of the fable of the tortoise and the hare.
52A. STAIRWELLS may have lots of steps. It could also have been a user’s manual, but who reads those anyway? (Prediction: Product developers start writing me strongly worded letters in 3 … 2 … 1 …).
1D. Loved this. You could read this as the start to a squat that involves bending the knees, but we don’t have enough room for that. The “Start to …” type of clue also has trained many of us to think of the answer as a letter such as ESS, because that would be the start to the word “squat.” In this puzzle, however, the “Start to squat?” is a word that can be put before “squat,” and the answer is DIDDLY, as in “diddly squat.”
2D. Honestly, IN AREA is not as in-the-language for me as “in network” when it comes to being covered by insurance. Maybe the clue is talking about distance to the doctor’s office? Explain it to me in the comments.
27D. If you have put something “in hock,” you have PAWNED it. This, of course, is different from being “pwned.”
30D. This clue could almost be a tongue twister. All “Tot toter, in Totenham” is asking for is the British word for a “tot toter,” or carriage. The answer is PRAM.
39D. The “Long divisions?” in this puzzle are not the math problems that still, to this day, plague my nightmares. They are the long divisions on a plane or in a theater, and the answer is aisles.
46D. The question you would be asked after the shells are moved around in a shell game is “WHERE is the pea?”
This was the second themeless puzzle I made, and it was a bit of a lightning-in-a-bottle moment for me as a new constructor. Compared to other themeless crosswords I made in early 2020, this one has much more solid short fill (I probably wouldn’t jump to use RFK or EBOLA today, but they’re both very real things). Also, I feel that the cluing is noticeably more interesting, with a surprising number of my clues making it through to the final puzzle. 5-Across, 52-Across and 1-Down are some of my favorites!
It’s also the only one of my early themelesses that I made with a center stair stack layout — the puzzle editing team said they enjoyed the SETTERS / STREETS anagram “mini theme” in the middle, which was fun and also completely unintentional.
These days, I’d probably aim for a grid design with more than 11 entries of eight or more letters. In the spirit of the central seed, though, I think this one has a lot of good vibes, and I hope it was a happy solve. I’m always so excited to share puzzles that I make, and I’m really thankful that The Times chose to run this one, especially given how many phenomenal themelesses are being constructed and submitted these days (including tomorrow’s gem by two of my favorite constructors!).
If you enjoyed solving this one and want to find more of my stuff, or if you’re new to themeless constructing/puzzle making in general and want to connect, hop over to Twitter or my blog and say hi!
Want to Submit Crosswords to The New York Times?
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For tips on how to get started, read our series, “How to Make a Crossword Puzzle.”
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