Three across, eight letters for–"NBA MVP's alma mater."
That's a crossword puzzle answer every Wildcat fan would know! However, the members of this year's crossword club at Davidson will attest that creating a real crossword is never that easy.
Diane Girling '15, Marcus Bailey '15 and Stephen Mershon '17 formed their small group last fall after a talk by crossword guru Vic Fleming '73. They set a goal of creating a puzzle from scratch, and Fleming agreed to mentor them in their effort. Meeting once weekly for most of the school year, they wrapped up their work and revealed their creation just a couple weeks before exams.
"It's a lot easier to solve them than to create them," said Bailey. "When we started I figured it would take a little while to get the hang of it, but I didn't imagine it would take seven months to create a single one."
Bailey was the most experienced "cruciverbalist" of the trio. He was in a high school crossword club, and tackles The New York Times frequently. "It does get easier with experience," he said.
The trio gathered in the Union's Davis Café every Wednesday evening to push a little farther on creating a standard 15-by-15 puzzle. After most meetings, they sent Fleming a screen shot of the puzzle in progress. He responded with thorough comments about their word choices, but didn't give answers. "He was good about being a teacher and mentor without being a solver," said Girling.
They couldn't have had a better mentor. Fleming is an Arkansas district court judge, teacher, humor writer and prolific wordsmith who has published about 45 crosswords in The New York Times. In addition to creating and solving them, Fleming gives presentations to civic and professional groups about the history of the genre. He said an estimated 50 million people worldwide regularly work on puzzles. The first ones appeared in newspapers in 1913, and first appeared in The New York Times in 1942. An annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament debuted in 1978.
Fleming himself began solving crossword puzzles in the early 1960s in junior high, and created his first puzzle in 2004.
He tells audiences that the first requirement for puzzle publication is persistence. When he began creating his own puzzles and sending them to The New York Times, he received 13 rejection slips from the paper's puzzle master, Will Shortz, before one was accepted. And that one was not published until 14 months later.
Furthermore, competition is fierce. Shortz receives about 100 submissions a week for the seven available spots.
To increase their chances for publication, Fleming advised the Davidson students to begin by concentrating on a unifying idea, typically executed by some repeating element. It usually provides the "bones" of the puzzle, appearing as two or more multi-word phrases that stretch the full 15 spaces across the puzzle grid. "That idea is the biggest determinant of publication," said Fleming. "You need to submit something clever or unusual that hasn't been done before."
The Davidson team did well with that crucial aspect of the challenge. They settled on "clubs" as a clue for the 15-letter phrases "layered sandwich," "diamond relative" and "something to join."
Fleming advised them next to the empty boxes with eight- to 10-letter words, then fill in the rest of the puzzle with shorter words.
In attempting to make all the words fit and make sense, they used a software program called "Crossfire" that suggests legitimate words that fit available spaces. Fleming also gave them access to an extensive list of words and clues that he has amassed over the years.
"I learned how difficult it is," Bailey said. "It's difficult to do because every word or letter you use has an effect on other words and letters."
Mershon continued, "So you have to be flexible, too. We came up with a lot of clever words and clues that eventually we had to give up. We spent a lot of time looking at the screen in quiet contemplation of numerous possibilities. Our meetings are probably the quietest on campus!"
The club's future is unclear. Girling and Bailey are graduating, and Mershon will study abroad in Australia in the coming fall semester.
In the meantime, the "puzzling students" wrapped up their work in early May with a combination of relief, pride and resignation. The initial goal was to create a puzzle worthy of The New York Times, but they recognized their efforts fell short. However, they're happy to make the puzzle (PDF) and its solution (PDF) available so anyone can access them.