If you think trying to solve Sunday’s New York Times crossword is a challenge, try making one yourself.
Writing crossword puzzles is way harder than solving them, says Aimee Lucido, a Berkeley writer who knows. Not only is she an avid puzzle-solver, but she writes about 30 puzzles a year.
She had always been a mystery buff and loved puzzles and games of all kinds, but she was relatively new to crosswords when she entered Brown University to study software engineering.
For reasons she couldn’t work out, she mostly spent time with a group of classmates who were all passionate about crossword puzzles. She participated in some of the crossword tournaments on campus, but when a friend taught her how to do the puzzles, that’s when all the bells started ringing.
Lucido, who lives in Berkeley with her husband and dog, quit her tech job in 2019 to focus on her writing. She is the author of two books for young adults, “Emmy and the Key of Code” and “Recipe for Disaster”. His crossword puzzles appear in The New York Times and The New Yorker, as well as the American Values Club Crossword, an online subscription service.
Q So why write crossword puzzles? What attracts you?
A. I’ve always liked solving puzzles, just in general. I love mystery, but I also love having that “aha moment”, the thrill of figuring it out when I bumped my head trying to figure it out. With crosswords, (the call) wonders how to make these words fit together.
When I first learned to do them it was such a challenge – I had to do it. It’s also less about the puzzle and more about my voice – having words that matter to me in the crossword puzzle. I love coming up with a new pun or a different angle, and it’s fun to see my name printed. I’ve never been a journalist, so seeing my name in the paper is really cool.
Q What is the first step you take in writing a puzzle?
A. The first step is to decide what type of puzzle I’m doing. Will it be easy, difficult, will it have a theme or will it be a puzzle without a theme? Then I choose a few words that I really want to use. It can be an actress (name) or a familiar phrase.
If it’s a themed puzzle, I might start with a revealer. For example, I did a puzzle where the theme was “mind over matter”, and in the crossword there were states of matter under the synonyms for mind, so it was mind on matter.
From there you kind of work backwards to write the rest of the puzzle. The last part is the reveal, which is a question that is also a clue to the other clues. In this case, it would be “something you tell yourself before the big game or a clue to solving the eight starred clues.”
Q Do you have a particular crossword style?
A. I have a style. I always have technical references, but I also end up referring to books for young adults. I’ve written two books myself, and I love referencing children’s books. Children’s book authors aren’t as famous as other authors, so I like to give them some attention.
I also love Taylor Swift so there are a lot of song references too. Sometimes it’s just simple words from a song, but it’s a way to liven up the puzzle. I also like musical theatre, so I use a lot of musical references.
I also like to include a lot of women and women of color. And because I’m Jewish, I use a lot of Jewish slang. I try to make my crosswords reflect who I am.
Q Is there a crossword clue you’ve been dying to use, but haven’t done yet?
A. I don’t want to say it, because I still want to use it. There is one who will never make it because it would be too hard. The clue would be an electric chair, and the answer, Elon Musk. But it’s just too hard.
Q Do you use a computer to write your puzzles?
A. It’s all on a computer with software that helps, but I do a lot of curating to make sure the best words come in. I have my own personal dictionaries and lists.
Q Are you still working crosswords?
A. Not as much as before. I was solving so many every day that I had to reduce it. I’m not a fast solver, and I don’t have that kind of time anymore, but I do a few every week, and I do a lot of quizzes that are sort of crossword-adjacent.
Q I have to admit, I do pretty well on Mondays and Tuesdays, but until Thursday’s crossword, I have to cheat a little.
A. There’s nothing wrong with cheating – looking for the answers. Just make sure you learn too.
Q Do you have any advice for those who want to write crossword puzzles?
A. Keep your voice in the puzzle. If it’s a puzzle anyone could do, it won’t be much fun.