Although my first attempt at setting a puzzle was not a success, describing the steps taken might be helpful to other would-be setters. The method was not very efficient but that was unimportant as I was under no time-pressure. My aspiration was to set one crossword this year, very much in odd hours here or there.

The puzzle needed a 13×13 grid preferably with a space for STILL somewhere centrally where it would be spotted easily. I do not like prolonged periods of grid-staring and had no wish to inflict one on solvers. Having little idea about requirements for unchecked letters and entry length distribution, a grid from a previous Crossword Centre puzzle was re-used. Bars were adjusted a little, but high marks for recycling or condemnation for plagiarism?

Qxw, a piece of free software towards which Derek directed me, was used to fill the grid. It is a wonderful tool. Required words (SWAN, MILDRED etc. and JULIANNE MOORE on the leading diagonal) were entered. For the remaining entries Qxw gives a list of possibilities. I tried to avoid proper nouns, plurals ending in ‘s’ and past tenses, and didn’t worry at all about how easy entries would be to clue; the naivety of the innocent! Five different grids were going at one point. The final one had the fewest plurals/past tenses and included some unusual words. It also had REYNARD and ISEGRIM which, coming from the same fable, might have worked as a very pale pink herring.

Having got the answers, I first cantered through them all in two stints of a couple of hours and noted the definitions in Chambers which seemed useful, along these lines:

Where there were many definitions, those which would misdirect;

ATTIRE – rig (fix a contest) or clobber (hit)

BLACK – Boycott (cricket) or unlucky (wretched)

IMPEND – loom (weaving) or threaten (intimidate)

ANGEL – spirit (alcohol) or radar echo (Watson-Watt/aircraft)

ANEMIC – spiritless (depressed) or livid (angry)

With few definitions, or only one, misleading alternatives;

RYPE – grouse (complain)

RAGEE – Millet (French artist)

JOTTER – rough pad (grotty flat)

MAREMMA – Tuscan wool-gatherer (day-dreamer)

Unusual meanings;

DRUID – competition official

CONSORT – accompanying ship

CORN – something old-fashioned or to preserve with brine

ROTE – mechanical performance

Some answers offered limited freedom (PLATEMAN, MENINGEAL, PILA, RAZEED). For the rest, the definitions were just listed next to the answer.

Answers were also annotated as candidates for particular clue types, notably:

Homophones: ROTE – wrote (penned); RYPE – ripe (ready)

Hidden: PILA, EWER, ROUT. These answers could be partitioned into useful fragments (p I la, e we r, r out), while others (RHUS, DUDE) could not.

Hidden reversed: CNIDA (ad in c)

Going through the answers like this provoked ideas and one complete clue:

INTERN (PUPIL): detached retina [with N for A]

JOTTER: Rough pad [JOE] kept dry [TT] with [R]

THYMI: Chopped herb in sweetbreads

GHAZI: Scourge of infidels and bully [HAZE]

EUPHROE: Power advancing in Europe [+H]

And produced some ideas for definition/wordplay confusion:

ISEGRIM: Wolf Island

PIERCE: right drill

DIVORCE: rupture joint

I decided to write normal clues. Somewhere I had read that extra letters in the wordplay or a redundant word in the clue made life easier for the setter and harder for the solver. But for a tyro setter the additional degree of complexity given by these clue-types seemed daunting. So, straight clues with every word having a duty. Of course, solvers may condemn this as too simplistic. Further, added flexibility may have made clueing easier.

The admissibility of indirect references was sometimes unclear. Indirect anagrams are no-noes, but what about Ends and Hidden clues, for example? “RE” might be clued directly by wingless prey or indirectly by wingless quarry. When in doubt, a direct reference was used. That may have made clues boring for solvers. All Hidden clues were direct, but while working on them I noticed an indirect example in Pending Solution by Chalicea: Oppressive tyrant periodically cross (3): [D E S P O T]. Perhaps I missed an important guide explaining direct/indirect issues.

When writing clues I concentrated on surface readings. Fodder was matched to the subject of the surface. This was done mainly by using Chambers. Word Matcher was used to explore anagrams (partial, or the answer +/- 1 or 2 letters) though I didn’t want too many of those. Examples:

Lillee’s third [L] bowled [B] and Boycott

Beloved one [JOE] and Romeo [R]

Probes (spaceships) and fly [RACE] right [R] inside core of [something convincing!]

Centre of ganglia and brain membrane

Indicators were also selected according to the subject of the surface. For this The Chambers Crossword Dictionary is indispensable with its lists of indicators for anagrams, containment, insertion, deletion, ends, heads, middles, tails, hidden, juxtaposition, reversal etc.:

Jumping (anagram indicator) with event and athletics

Clip (end deletion) Viren (in the sense of tripping) in fixing a race

Close to underground and outskirts of city (end and head-and-tail indicators)

Theatrical backer “breaks (anagram indicator) a leg”

Bastard (anagram indicator) pretender

Adjoining (juxtaposition indicator) ends of Tudor open gable

Jonathan Crowther’s essay The Art of the Crossword Setter in The Chambers Crossword Dictionary explains that he writes clues in the order in which they appear in the puzzle, and tackles no more than nine or ten clues in a sitting to keep fresh. I adopted the former practice, but more often than not a session of couple of hours would yield only meagre fruit. I had no pressing deadline, so could afford to take my time. My common practice was to lodge in my head the details of the next couple of answers on the list (definition meanings, fodder, indicators) and then go about life as normal. An impressive number of ideas occurred to me while out walking. As an aside, I was reading during the summer The Strangest Man, a biography of Paul Dirac, who used to walk and think, as did philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “I have walked myself into my best thoughts”. Gratifyingly, lots of ideas and complete clues came to me while cycling or rowing at the gym: never let it be said crosswords are bad for one’s health!

This informal method worked better for me than regular sit-down sessions, but these too were necessary for some answers which proved stubborn. RAZEED, in particular, took a long time to conquer and almost defeated me – thanks heavens for cricket in Western Australia. JASMINE, RYPE and RHUS came down to long sessions of muttered abuse and scribbling.

I think it is important to keep an open mind, even when being quite keen on a particular surface reading. For a long time I wanted the Tuscan wool-gatherer to have endless weird dreams about his mother, the walrus to take a bite but miss the heart of a mollusc and to plant heroin in Russia. I was fortunate to realise when these horses had died and didn’t waste time flogging them, instead turning to new subjects for surface readings. Sadly, some surface readings which I did fixate on meant taking cruciverbal licence: Sir Geoffrey would be bowled during Dennis Lillee’s third spell (not by it) (if indeed, he would ever be bowled at all!) and a heatspot has nothing to do with space.

Naturally, I must stress the importance of thorough proof-reading. I failed to double-check the accuracy of wordplays. When checking clues I concentrated on making sure the surfaces were rendered accurately and forgot to check the entry lengths, which resulted in some 11th hour editing. Derek was very supportive and patient throughout, and I thank him for his help and unfailing good humour.

Despite the occasional frustration, compiling a crossword was great fun. My career as a setter will be brief for I can imagine the reaction to a second puzzle: “Ah, yes, Yimin; I wonder which clues are defective in this one.” Although hardly ever mentioned, solvers having confidence in the setter is vital. When stuck solving a crossword, and perhaps this is even more true of a numerical, that assurance underpins the solver’s continuing efforts when prospects look bleak. But, enough of this. Much more importantly, I hope these notes help to encourage other solvers to jump over the fence and spend time on the setters’ lawn.

Richard Harvey

Solution to Top Shoe by Yimin