Now that I’ve been part of the AVCX cryptic editing team for a few months, my mind is always on looking out for people who have potential to make cryptics. There’s a lot less material out there if you’re trying to figure out how to construct an American-style cryptic than for vanilla crosswords. I think back to my own first attempts at cryptic-making and they were pretty cringe-worthy. (I would like to publicly apologize to Joon Pahk and Patti Varol in particular for what I sent them back in the day.)
Here’s the second in a series of posts to crystallize my thoughts on cryptic construction so that new constructors can learn from my mistakes. You’ll notice I’m putting this info up here on Tough as Nails, not anywhere affiliated with AVCX: That’s because these are my personal thoughts, not to be taken as editorial standards, and not everything I do will apply to every constructor. YMMV.
Picking your seeds
Filling a cryptic is a very different experience from filling a vanilla crossword. In a vanilla puzzle, the solver’s joy comes both from figuring out clever clues and from seeing lively entries, where “lively” often means “I’ve never seen that in a puzzle before, yay!” You might want to introduce the solver to your favorite opera, fashion designer, drag queen…well, I might. But you know what I mean. And as a solver of (so many!) vanilla crosswords, I enjoy learning a new name or fact from a puzzle. In fact, plenty of times I’ve read a book or watched a TV show because I learned about it from a crossword, looked it up, and decided I had to know more.
The cryptic solver’s experience is different. An unfamiliar entry in a vanilla crossword has about twice as many crossings as that same entry in a cryptic to help a solver get there, and the cryptic solver needs to have that confirmatory “Yes! This is the right answer!” moment at the end, which is not going to happen if she’s never heard of that answer before.
On the other hand, the great joy of a cryptic solver’s experience is figuring out tricky wordplay in the clue. An answer word that someone would consider not so interesting in, say, a themeless can be great in a cryptic if it’s clued right. (As evidence, check out this #crypticcluecontest from 2020, in which the kinda meh word COMPETENT generated some fun clues.)
All this is to say: Your seed entries, of which I usually start with two to four, should be chosen based on already having a good clue in mind, more so than whether the entry itself is extra lively. That being said, if you have a lively entry that you can also clue well, have at it! Just try to choose entries for which “lively” does not equal “fact that is likely to be new to a decent number of solvers.” As noted in the AVCX audition process, entries I’ve seen that fill this bill include TRASH PANDAS (Francis), LEATHER BAR (Nate), and VIBRATOR (also Nate).
I keep a running Google doc of words I’ve thought of a good clue for, separated by whether I think they’re #crypticclueaday fodder or worthy of seeding a puzzle I want to get paid for. That way I’m never short of seeds!