Friday, March 31, 2017


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In Hot Ticket, Olivia deciphers four cryptic crossword clues in the four minutes Callum takes to make her latte;she is the only character in my novels whose crossword interest is even peripheral to the plot. In a couple of my other stories, newspapers open at the crossword page appear in characters' living rooms, but merely as detail adding to their lifestyle background.

Personally, however, I am seriously challenged by cryptics. As a writer, words are my tools. Why, therefore, can't I come anywhere near to solving these brainteasers? I'm confident I have a good vocabulary and general knowledge, and straight or quick crosswords don't usually cause me to metaphorically tear my hair. But my cryptic failure annoys and frustrates me. In an effort to overcome this, I attended a four-hour course for beginners on tackling the beasties. Seventeen hopefuls braved the outside 40 degree (Celsius) heat to welcome the inside airconditioned classroom, where only our brains began to fry.

I always thought 'wordplay' was what I did with my writing, playing with words, moving them around, adding, amending, deleting. This attempt to construct or reconstruct a sentence, paragraph, chapter, and the whole novel manuscript into sequences of words is intended to best convey the story line in my head, and to offer significant emotional experiences for readers. I learned that in the cryptic crossword world, 'wordplay' is in itself a kind of puzzle which presents assorted techniques useful as guides to the solutions. So that is a bit like how I work as a novelist.

Our excellent tutor in this class took us through these techniques, with comprehensive handouts including mini crosswords each exemplifying a different technique. Of course, in these, we knew which was required; in real crosswords, solvers may be able to make an educated (or more likely in my case, uneducated) guess as to which the compiler is utilising, but nothing can be said to be certain. Not terribly helpful!

During the ten-minute tea break, we discussed conundrums we had come across in cryptics,and all were relieved to know we are not stupid and not alone in our ineptitude at unscrambling clues which appear utterly meaningless.

After the class, I finished the small crosswords remaining in the handouts (with answers); instead of trepidation and bafflement at the sight of a cryptic, I am beginning to apply what I learned. I have a long way to go before I can make sense of clues like rotten egg - take it back which initially indicates to me that I should reverse the order of the letters, resulting in nonsense. In fairness, there was more to this clue concerning hens, who surely do not want any egg back.

I need to work on a different way of thinking, to suspend the habit of thinking like a 'quick' puzzle solver and to re-orient my brain into a lateral direction. But right now I'm going to return to my novel in progress, where the wordplay is in control!

Successful puzzling from solver-in-training Priscilla