Mar 23, 2009

Interview with Rich Norris

Rich Norris is the editor of LA Times Daily Crossword, which replaces TMS Daily edited by Wayne R. Williams in many local newspapers starting today.

He is also a very accomplished crossword constructors. His puzzles have been published by NY Times (186, second only to Manny Nosowsky, stunning!), NY Sun, Newsday, CrosSynergy, Wall Street Journal, etc.

I asked (via email) Mr. Norris a few questions that had been burning in my mind for two weeks. I hope you enjoyed the interview. I did.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? How did you start crossword constructing and then editing?

I've solved puzzles since I was a teenager, but didn't try to make one until many years later, in the '90s. I sent two puzzles to Will Shortz at the NYT. Will's policy of crediting the constructor, which was a new policy at the Times, was certainly an incentive. Luckily, he accepted one. I did a lot of constructing for about six years--as many as 200 puzzles per year in a dozen different markets, including frequent NYT themeless puzzles. I heard in late 1999 that the LA Times editorship was about to be vacant, so I applied and was fortunate enough to land the job. I had learned a lot about editing from my association with Will, who wrote me a nice letter of recommendation. No doubt that helped. ;-)

LA Times puzzles get progressively more difficult as the week goes, while our old TMS Daily are randomly placed. Is that the major difference between the two puzzles? Do you also shun partial fills and "cheater squares" like Williams? What kind of fills are you trying to include or exclude?

I don't know enough about Wayne Williams' TMS puzzle to compare it to mine. I'm aware that he didn't use graduated difficulty, which is a concept I strongly believe in. Solvers come to the newspaper with a broad variety of solving skills. I think graduated difficulty provides the most amount of enjoyment and challenge for the largest number of solvers each week. I also think it helps puzzlers improve their solving skills.

I don't exclude partial phrases, but I do ask constructors to use them in moderation--usually no more than two in a 15x15 puzzle. As for fill, I like contemporary words and phrases. I ask constructors not to overload a grid with proper names, and not to allow two tough names to cross each other. When there is popular culture in a puzzle, I think it should be spread around: music, TV, movies, sports, science, literature, etc.

Can you describe to us what a typical editing process looks like? What percentage of the grid/cluing do you normally rework?

On average, I probably change anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the clues. The majority of these changes are to adjust difficulty, avoid repeats of recent clues, and improve accuracy. I don't change that many grids, but if there are obscurities or answers that I think are too tough for a particular day of the week, I'll ask constructors to make changes. If they're unable to do it after one or two tries, then I'll help out.

You seem to have a core group of constructors who work for you on regular basis. How do you assign the puzzles to them? Or do they just submit a puzzle and then you rework to decide the difficulty level & allot to a different day?

I hardly ever assign a puzzle. Constructors send me work whenever the Muse visits them. I guess with some, she visits more often. (I think of the Crossword Muse as a "she" in honor of Margaret Farrar.) Constructors are a pretty savvy bunch. Most of them know when they're making a puzzle whether it's a Monday or a Wednesday or a Friday, and they try to clue accordingly. Puzzle placement during the week usually depends on theme difficulty. The simplest, most obvious themes will occur earlier in the week. Wordplay and trickery are generally reserved for the end of the week.

While it's true that some constructor names appear fairly regularly in our puzzles, it's still a wide-open market. I publish an average of 100 different constructors' work every year. This year, in less than four months (I edit about a month ahead), I've already published the work of more than 50 different constructors. You'll also see new constructors regularly. Last year there were 22 debuts.

I saw some of your ACPT photos, you look so serious. What do you do for fun? What would people find one thing that's most surprising about you?

LOL. I'm terrible in front of a still camera. I'm certainly serious about my work, but I don't think of myself as an overly serious person. I think you'll see plenty of playfulness in LA Times clues, especially later in the week.

When I'm not puzzling, I'm probably spending time with my wife, golfing, playing the piano (love Beethoven and the Romantics), shooting pool, or just walking outdoors. My wife also loves the same things I do: puzzles, golf, pool, the outdoors.

Hope this was helpful, and thanks again for asking. I hope you enjoy the puzzles.

Thank you, Mr. Norris.

10 comments:

Sallie said...

Great interview. It's so interesting to find how editors work the puzzles. I would say, however, that all Muses are women.

Razzberry said...

Well this looks like we have a quality, caring editor with the change. I remember how many times you sent questions to Williams without the courtesy of a response.

Great work CC. Good interview questions.

Razz

Orange said...

Rich Norris is a terrific constructor and crossword editor. I think the old TMS solvers will love the switch.

I think it was Rich who told me last year that he doesn't call 'em cheater squares, he calls them helper squares. They help the constructor avoid horrible compromises in the fill or impossible-to-fill grids, and 99% of solvers never notice the added pair of black squares. They would notice horrible fill forced by a "no cheaters" rule.

Clear Ayes said...

That's was really nice of Rich Norris to take time for an interview. It is very helpful to know a little bit about what is in store for us. Thanks a lot to both C.C. and Rich Norris.

LOL, Sallie, right on!

Sam said...

As a newbie constructor, I can vouch for Rich's excellence as an editor. Rich has given extensive feedback on every puzzle I have submitted to him. He takes the time to explain in detail why he accepts or rejects a puzzle, and this is very helpful for those of us still on the steep side of the learning curve. I am proud to have a couple of puzzles in the LAT pipeline and I hope to have more in the future.

Marj said...

The more difficult puzzles (later in the week) are usually filled with entertainment "biggies" like Stars, Directors, and Producers--and I don't like those fill-ins. I'd rather deal with other subjects.

wolfmom said...

C.C. and Mr. Norris...What a great way to start with a new editor and new challenges...an insightful interview.

I actually just worked one of Mr. Norris' puzzles in my NYT puzzle book and even though it was a bit tough...the cluing was such that I could use the crossing words to finish it. A very enjoying experience. I am very much looking forward to having progressively more difficult puzzles as the we go through the week.

Thank you to you both for a great interview.

Dr.G said...

C.C. Tremendous interview. I am continually in awe of the knowledge and expertise that is required to construct puzzles.

larry said...

I always enjoy your incite and comments ...thanks for your interview ...is "tootle" really a word

Anonymous said...

Puzzles with increasing difficulty level over the week days suit us folks from other countries who are not familiar with geography/culture of your country.I am able to solve monday and tuesday puzzles only, which have less number of proper nouns!