You may have seen a very long anagram of the latest version of government advice on the coronavirus. It was written by Tim King, who sets as Encota for such tricky puzzle series as the Listener, Enigmatic Variations, the Inquisitor and in the Magpie magazine.
Tell us about that long anagram and how it became part of a puzzle.
I’ve always enjoyed creating longer anagrams and had been looking at the revised government advice, STAY ALERT. CONTROL THE VIRUS. SAVE LIVES.
Then a certain Downing Street adviser was in the news and I couldn’t resist. I thought I’d better get it published in a crossword and cheekily asked the owner of Big Dave’s crossword site if I might have Saturday’s slot for a topical puzzle. Luckily, he said yes and I had less than two days to create a puzzle, including review and publication – a process that sometimes takes months.
Oh, and the clue read:
Government counsel easily survives travel North to castle after liberal interpretation (4,5,7,3,5,4,5)
Lovely. Where do you create your puzzles?
Around the house or garden here in Suffolk, sometimes with a locally brewed Adnams Ghost Ship beer to hand!
When did you get the crossword bug?
When I was about 10, my mother and I started attempting to co-solve the Telegraph. It never stopped. I solve over 1,000 each year, including 200 thematics and hundreds of back-page cryptics.
What makes successful clues?
Very precise wordplay, accurate but deceptive definitions and believable but misleading surfaces. It’s as simple as that!
What makes for unsuccessful clues?
Where the cryptic wordplay is OK but the surface is drivel. We’ve all seen them – and, on a bad day, I’ve certainly written them! I was given the fantastic advice “If you can’t drop it into normal conversation down the pub unnoticed, it’s not good enough.” I use this test every day.
Which other setters do you admire?
In the blocked style of puzzles, both Nutmeg and Serpent have a superb mix of precision and misdirection and Kea’s and Elgar’s combination of inventiveness and trickiness are excellent. In the tougher thematics there are many to pick from but I love it when Sabre or Shark’s names appear, as I know I am in for a challenge!
You certainly are. How did you choose your pseudonym?
My favourite rock band, Porcupine Tree, released an album called Octane Twisted. I simply had to treat that as wordplay. The anagram I chose was ENCOTA as it sounds a little like “encoder”.
Here and there it will help, but no, that wouldn’t be fair. Just like cluing a lesser-known word in a national daily puzzle, the wordplay is almost always easier, to compensate. For example:
Softly ticking watches resynchronising Internet communications, for example (6,9)
The solver will most likely know that “softly” can be replaced with P for piano, and is likely to spot that the other 14 letters come from an anagram of TICKINGWATCHES. With a little help from crossing entries and the word lengths they’ll be able to find PACKET SWITCHING, even if they haven’t really heard of it.
And what sorts of things do people tend to enjoy in your personalised puzzles?
From the feedback I receive, it’s seeing things about themselves in print, combined with a challenging but solvable puzzle. Nicknames, children and grandchildren’s names – even favourite wines – often feature.
How do you imagine a solver of your crosswords?
I hope with a thematic puzzle that the solver will be someone who gets a real buzz from that penny-dropping moment (PDM), when an additional hidden part of the puzzle is revealed.
Soon after I’d written a puzzle to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Monty Python, which featured the Funniest Joke in the World sketch, someone introduced themselves at a crossword event saying it was the best PDM and most enjoyable puzzle they’d ever solved. It’s hard not to be pleasantly flattered by comments like that.
You set a lot for the tricky end of the crossword spectrum. What would you say to solvers who are intrigued but intimidated by barred puzzles?
My advice is to look out for one by the excellent setter Chalicea. And you’ll need a copy of the Chambers Dictionary to hand, as the high density of intersecting words in a barred puzzle means that a good few of them will be pretty obscure. Then check the answers once they are published and repeat!
You will be pleasantly surprised how quickly you will solve more clues and get faster at doing so.
Agreed. And our Q&A with Chalicea is also recommended. Many thanks to Encota.