Background. I began constructing crosswords in the late summer of 2004, after solving for about a year. The impetus to do so came about by accident, after joining the listserv at cruciverb.com (highly recommended). The list is home to a variety of conversations about language, which is why I joined, but it is difficult to hang out there and not want, eventually, to try writing a puzzle.
The first puzzle I sold was to USA Today in September 2004, which the editor told me would run in October. This was an incredibly exciting moment. I sold another to the LA Times soon after, which was to run on my birthday, November 9. I sent two puzzles to Will Shortz at the New York Times in November. Meanwhile, I was selling more and more puzzles to other outlets, including the New York Sun and the Universal Syndicate. I was something like 8-for-8, and feeling very confident.
It occurred to me that, while a lot of my friends enjoyed solving crosswords as well, the New York Times wasn’t exactly designed for us. While clues were hip from time to time, it wasn’t infrequently that a theme about old racehorses or a pun on the name of an actress from the 1950s would show up. I wondered if it wouldn’t be worthwhile to write a puzzle for a younger crowd?
So I pitched the idea to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, who amazingly and immediately bit. In mid-December, 2004, I began writing a weekly puzzle for them, first on a trial basis and then permanently. The clues were West Coast-centric, and stacked with references to bands and movies that had just come out and so on. I started pitching the idea to other papers, including the Chicago Reader, Detroit Metro Times, and Washington City Paper, who also signed on. For every city where the puzzle ran, the clues were geographically specific. This turned out to be enough of a hook to make the feature stand out.
Ink Well has continued to run since then, currently with 10 syndicated clients in the U.S. and Canada. There was a brief stint with the Village Voice,
which ended when the paper was bought out by a large conglomerate called New Times Media. Beginning in 2006, I also edited a separate puzzle in the
A.V. Club of the Onion, written by me and seven excellent young constructors on a rotational basis. This feature went independent and was renamed the American Values Club xword in early 2013. You can
subscribe if you’d like to receive the American Values Club puzzle every
By the way, Will Shortz eventually got back to me. He accepted one puzzle and rejected two. I’ve published many puzzles in the Times since then.
Constructing Opportunities. I write puzzles for a number of outlets and occasions. Wedding puzzles are a little different. If you have a friend or relative who is getting married and likes crossword puzzles, a custom puzzle can be a good gift and/or activity at the reception. The grid is of course filled with facts about the bride and groom.
Ethos. These days I am as committed to mild or explicit raciness as I am to contemporary references. Both are about equally important. My favorite clues are ones like "It might make you a new person" for SEX. I also prefer to bring up Savage Love when possible, even though Dan Savage will not return my emails.
The Need for New Young Constructors. Writing crosswords is possibly the most addictive and rewarding hobby on the planet. There is nothing like getting an e-mail from Will Shortz telling you that he’s accepted your first puzzle, which in turn pales in comparison to the feeling of seeing your name in the NYTimes. For the first year or more, I couldn't stop, and I’m still excited every time I sit down to write a puzzle.
I want to be as encouraging as possible to people my age who think they might like to construct. I don’t see it as competition; rather, I imagine that the more constructors and solvers there are, the more pressure there will be for papers and magazines to add crosswords. Plus, there really aren't a lot of people actively constructing overall - maybe 300 at any given time? So, if you’re interested, please feel free to email me and ask for advice.
General Comments. I am always happy to answer nitpicky emails about language.