The whole mystery of the crossword was unveiled to me when I read her explanation on understanding the themes. I loved the part on how those constructors try to trick us. And I got immense help from the chapters on "100 Must-Know Words" and "Word Bank".
I started my blog before I finished her book, that's how excited I was!
Amy Reynaldo (Orange) writes a daily blog Diary of a Crossword Fiend, where you can find tons of information on anything crossword related.
I am so happy that Orange agreed to answer a few questions for me. So, please get your cup of tea/coffee, sit back, and learn a few more things about this expert crossword solver.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I grew up in the Chicago area as a shy, quiet nerdy kid. I attended college in Minnesota (Carleton College), and I was probably solving the Strib puzzle when I had a copy of the paper, but I don't recall it specifically. I've lived in Chicago since graduation, and have a husband and a son in second grade.
Who got you started at crosswords and when did you realize that you were really good at solving them?
I started doing crosswords when I was a kid, following my grandparents' lead. They liked to work the New York Times puzzle syndicated in the Chicago Sun-Times. When I was about 12, my mom or grandma got me a gift subscription to Games magazine, which was where Will Shortz and the "New Wave" of crosswords kicked into high gear. So I've been doing crosswords for about three decades now.
Ten or 15 years ago, my assistant and I would race each other on the NYT crossword--and I always beat her even though she was an incredibly smart University of Chicago graduate. That was one inkling. Then in early 2004, I started subscribing to the NYT's online crossword service, which gives access to the puzzle the night before publication, and also lets you access a decade of archived puzzles. Solving the crossword online in the NYT's Java applet let me compare my solving time with others', and it gave a clear indication that I was a fast solver.
How would you describe a typical day for you in terms of crosswords solving and blogging? I noticed that you solve 4 or more crosswords a day.
I usually solve the NYT and NY Sun crosswords in the evening and then blog about them. The LA Times and CrosSynergy puzzles aren't released early, so I do those in the morning and update my blog post. Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, there are several other crosswords I like, so I pack those ones in where I can. Now that the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is just a few weeks off, I'm trying to do more crosswords in book collections, too--but I don't get to them every day.
How have blogging and writing the book (How to Conquer the NY Times Crosswords) affected your solving speed and accuracy?
Blogging helps me to remember the new things I learn. If I see an unfamiliar word in the crossword and just go on with my life, I might not remember it. But if I Google it and read a dictionary definition or a Wikipedia article about it, I'll learn a bit more. And writing it down helps cement it in my memory. It's like jotting down a list of things to get at the store. You might not even need to consult the list--you'll remember what you need because you wrote it down. But going to the store without making a list? I think it's harder to retrieve those items from your memory.
I don't think the process of writing the book improved my crossword skills much, but it was valuable to distill what I've absorbed over the years into concrete advice. If nothing else, it helps me to give better advice to other solvers.
How do you prepare the coming 2008 American Crosswords Puzzle Tournament?
Puzzle books! I try to focus on the sorts of crosswords that will be used at the ACPT. That means putting aside the tough Saturday themeless puzzles I love so much, and working on themed crosswords of various sizes. I also choose puzzle books with crosswords by the constructors who've been hired by Will Shortz to make tournament puzzles, since their style may pop up again at this year's tournament. These include Merl Reagle, Patrick Merrell, Maura Jacobson, and Cathy Millhauser.
What advice would you give to novice solvers like me to improve ourselves and keep motivated?
Try to focus on good-quality puzzles, which will be less likely to contain woefully obscure words. It's hard to stay motivated if the crosswords you're doing aren't fun, aren't clever, and aren't rewarding, or if they're boring because they're too easy.
Learn the basic crossword vocabulary--those words that contain common letters and show up again and again in crosswords. And pay attention to the sorts of clues that recur for these answers--answers like ERIE, ARIA, ERA, EON, ERN, and ESE. There's a reason there are two different sections in my book with word lists--because it really is key to absorb these words. Soon enough, those will be the gimmes that you can fill in right off the bat.
If you just can't finish a puzzle, check the answers the next day or Google some clues. Isn't it better to learn things than to give up and avoid learning them? Some people call Googling "cheating," but the goal is to look things up and remember them next time, gradually being able to finish without looking things up.
When you're stuck, don't give up too quickly. Put the puzzle aside and come back to it later in the day, or the next morning. Quite often, something that made no sense at first suddenly "clicks."
Thank you, Orange.