Rackenfracker #9: Stereograms

Regular readers — including those who tackled our 1200-word post from earlier this week, or who had an oeuf of the preamble to the last Rackenfracker — know that we are not word-shy; today’s post will be short.

Regular solvers know that brevity is not always the watchword in our cryptic constructions; today’s clues will be … well, let’s hope the header image is your only headache.

The inimitable (if you don’t count her evil clone) kaybartplays returns as editor for this puzzle, making her the first to repeat in the role — Kaye, we’re having that honor carved onto a pedestal in an antique land for you, so keep an eye out for that. Thanks to Andy and John for the test solves, and to hagabaka, Kelsey Dixon and totcho from the Crossweird community for helping us fly right.

In-browser solving

We had a vision for this puzzle, but it is a little out of focus. To wit, the clues for corresponding entries of the two grids are presented together as one clue with no connecting words. This happens in one of two ways:

Seeing double: The clues are presented in sequence. Either grid’s clue could be first or second.

Crossed eyes: The clues are nested one inside the other. Either grid’s clue could be outside or inside.

Note that no square contains the same letter in both grids. If an element of the enumeration only applies to one of the two entries, that element will be italicized. 

1-Across will tell you which grid is which, but no clue has been given.

Tap The Sign: How to Write Good in Cryptics

(Warning: Spoilers for Rackenfracker #1: Academy Awardle in this post. Also, apologies to Michael O’Donoghue.)

Cryptic crossword clues, of the kind we write and have been discussing, are written in English. A constructor’s brass ring for every clue is the aha moment, and one of the most reliable ways to stimulate that is to invert parts of speech or misdirect the reader with an ambiguous word. But like any other magic trick, those sleights of hand work because everything else is normal, which is to say, a clue has to have valid grammar. This, more than any other Tap the Sign topic, is the difference between clues that sparkle and those that fall short (or fall apart).

Most cryptic writers understand that their surfaces — the superficial reading of their clues — must be grammatical: They should sound like English as it is written or spoken. Indeed, at a certain level of clueing competence, the most prevalent shortcoming is that the setter has gone so far to create a workable surface that they have drifted into unfairness in their cryptic grammar.

So what’s cryptic grammar? A clue has a surface sense that must strike the solver as both grammatically reasonable and sufficiently evocative, but that same clue as written is also a set of explicit wordplay instructions with no changes other than, within reason, some repunctuation. (At Rackenfracker HQ we shorthand cryptic grammar as c.g. and have been known to use the regrettable four-syllable adjective cgical, as in, “Is it …?”) In our clue:

Unfortunate slacker denied a donut (5)

the surface sense reads like a story of a layabout not getting a pastry. The cryptic sense, however, reads as follows: “[A synonym of] Unfortunate [can be constructed when] [a synonym of] slacker [is] denied a [letter that is the shape of a] donut.”

All of those bracketed phrases are the sort of things that are implied in every cryptic clue — we know from general crossword principles that clues are synonyms, and from basic cryptic principles that there is an equivalence between the definition and wordplay portions (“can be constructed from” in this case—note that not every such phrase is bivalent; you can’t have the wordplay constructed from the definition). The elision of the “is” is where crossword clues intersect with headlinese — a familiar but slightly unnatural voice that clues, cryptic and otherwise, have historically adopted from their parent publications. Finally, not every cryptic constructor uses rebuses (“letter that is in the shape of a”), but many do. If the question is grammatical coherence, any of those implied phrases could be made explicit in a given clue, but they’re almost always absent.

The clue above requires part-of-speech play. Slacker, a noun in the story told by the clue’s surface, has to become an adjective in the c.g.: LOOSER, as in “make the rope slacker.” (In cryptic parlance, the letters to be manipulated are the fodder — slacker is not fodder but looser is.) LOOSER, denied an O, is LOSER, a synonym for unfortunate, which was an adjective in the clue’s surface but is a noun when it comes time for synonym play. (Because every-word-counts concision is coin of the realm, it’s worth pointing out here that the a in the clue serves a purpose — it’s saying to deny LOOSER exactly one O. A surface of, for instance, Unfortunate slacker is donutless would be wordplay for LSER.)

A 1:1 translation of the clue might look like this:

[Unfortunate] [slacker] [denied] [a] [donut] : [Definition] [fodder*] [loses] [one] [O]

An even more dramatic translation would be:

X = Y – O.

Each of these tools (rewriting, def/wordplay breakdown, XY subsitution) are checks that let us measure whether we are being grammatical. But it’s a squishy art: How do you know if you’re using those tools legitimately? Alas, only practice. (*Note that technically this word, slacker, isn’t fodder, but is a synonym of the word that is fodder, looser. We could have labeled this box [synonym for fodder], but because synonyms have 1:1 equivalence, we know that piece serves as fodder in the c.g. reading — there’s no value to further diagramming, in the same way that we directly substituted [O] for [donut].)

Another Academy Awardle clue that helps us see the evolution of grammar is the clue for STROP, a leather strap used for sharpening a blade. Here’s an earlier draft:

Backup software that’s been recoded as a barber’s tool (5)

A PORT is software that’s been recoded (like porting a Super Nintendo game to the Switch), and because software can be plural, it can also be PORTS. Backup software is an interesting misdirect, but backup is an adjective, and not one that means “turned around.” Since that’s what we want, we need the verb, which is actually a phrase: back up. (Smudging that space is a trick we’re willing to play, but we’ll give you a ? when we do.) And because it needs to be a verb, this indicator is working as an imperative: [Hey you,] back up [PORTS] as [STROP], and when you read it that way, it’s clear that as is not behaving grammatically in the c.g.

Next, we tried a more opaque definition:

Something that makes a cutter work better when the left sides of ships are brought about (5)

This is playing a cryptics 101 trick — a cutter is a kind of ship but a cutter is also a razor — though definitions that include elements like something that or it’s a, where in the cryptic grammar something and it are pronouns for “the answer,” are not embraced by all constructors. But some issues jumped out at us. First, it’s gobbledygook—what could the left sides of ships have to do with how well a cutter works? Second, while the left sides of ships is a plural in the surface reading, it’s the letter string P-O-R-T-S in the cryptic reading, and a letter string is singular, not plural. So the left sides of shifts are brought about, but P-O-R-T-S is brought about. Saying are when you mean is is a feint too far for fairness. Finally, no one uses the phrase “the left sides of ships” — it draws attention to itself as cryptic mischief and breaks the surface illusion.

It makes a cutter work at peak performance, having left sides of ships in retreat (5)

This is the final clue. The surface suggests a trade secret for optimizing the speed of a ship that’s running away from other ships, importantly hiding the true nature of the word left. Cgically, it’s clear: [DEFINITION] having [FODDER] in retreat. (Verbs in present tenses — has, having, to have — are preferred for cryptic grammar, and, keeping in mind our earlier comment about bivalence, it’s reasonable to say that a word is possessing the elements of its wordplay. Constructors that eschew such connector words also get to bow out of these “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” arguments about them — a wise move, but alas we’re foolish.)

Like most things, you know you have correct cryptic grammar when you know you have correct cryptic grammar. You have to train your ear, and the more you do, the more you will be able to hear it. There are lots of little Tap the Sign rules that are really grammar rules, but you have to have your grammar glasses on to see them that way. (We know we’re mixing metaphors but “grammar ear trumpet” sounded unsavory.) We’ll get to a big grammar pitfall that plagues anagram clues next time.

Rackenfracker #8: In One Basket

Eggs” by John Loo is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Fee fife ovum, I smell the arrival of a freshly deviled Rackenfracker for you to brood over. Solvers will not be shell-shocked to hear that today’s puzzle is a jigsaw, where answers’ given order dozen’t correspond to their scrambled positions in the grid, so caviar emptor.

Veteran Rackenfrackists might deem a mere jigsaw, once it’s over, easy to crack. We’ve therefore added a twist that will make it a slightly tougher row to hoe, so please be shirr to read the roe how-to.

What’s more, this is our first full-on collaboration with a respondent to our Help Wanted post — we were fortunate to poach George Ho from his own excellent puzzle blog, Loplop Crosswords. Here’s George with a nested origin story:

It’s been a huge privilege to have been the (in my view, junior) partner to The Rackenfracker in this puzzle — our first collaboration, whether with each other or anyone else! Toiling alongside them down in the word mines has been eye-opening: If there’s still any doubt that this website is a serious outlet for quality cryptics, let me disabuse you of that notion!

Incidentally, this puzzle was partially inspired by the backstory behind my handle. Once you’re done solving, you may want to look up “Loplop [VARIETY THEME]” and see what you find.

Happy solving!

Thanks again to George for yolking himself to us for this one. We consider having landed his first collaboration to be a co-op coup, and are glad the word mines didn’t scare him off — others might have died of fried. We again availed ourselves of test solvers Andy, John, and a Crossweird crew of hagabaka, Kate Chin Park, Kelsey Dixon, meat, and Will Eisenberg — many thanks for coming through in the clutch.

If you are exclusively an online solver of cryptics, you might think you’re ready to declare your favorite working constructors, and omelet you finish, but you are almost certainly missing out on the work of Bob Stigger. During the cryptic drought of the previous decade — pre-Browser, pre-AVCX, pre-return-of-The-New Yorker — GAMES Magazine (print/PDF-only) was an oasis, and Bob has long been their most stalwart cryptic contributor, including an ongoing six-year streak of variety cryptics in just about every issue. For those who can’t make it to a newsstand, Bob edited (and contributed puzzles to) Cryptic All-Stars vol. 1, available via Puzzazz, where you will also find Bob’s free-but-pay-it-forward collection, Staycation Cryptics. (All four volumes of Cryptic All-Stars are available in print, each including Bob’s puzzles which are always 😘👌chef’s quiche.)

When Bob agreed to consult on this puzzle, our sunny sides were definitely up. We’ve written previously about how the ‘00s NYT Crossword Forums were our cruciverbal crucible, which is where we met Bob. While his cryptic rigor is hard-boiled, his manner never is, and he’s always fulsome in his praise for a clue that is as devious as it is scrupulously fair. Thus he’s both the angel and devil on our shoulder when we construct, and has been for 20 years. Thanks, Bob.

[dadgumituh: Is it pronounced like ‘Jessica Alba’?]

[jmsr525: No, the second syllable is stressed.]

[dadgumituh: ‘al-BUH’?]

[jmsr525: More like ‘BYU’.]

[dadgumituh: Seriously? (mumbles to self) (continues mumbling) Nothing has that meter. I think we’re going to have to skip that one.]

[jmsr525: I’m sure it’ll be all white.]

We hope the puzzle meets your expeggtations.

In-browser solving

In this puzzle’s grid, we found 10 eggs, which was very fortunate since we did not find any clue numbers. The only help we have in arranging these answers (presented alphabetically, sorted by across and down) is that the letter O, when it appears in clue answers, is placed in a square with an egg.

Rackenfracker #7: Rock Bands

In the preambles to previous puzzles, we acknowledge that we’ve remarked “oh, how few clues” or “oh, what short words” in a way that might give the prospective solver false confidence in how easy the task before them is.

But this one has to be easy — just look at those instructions!

Our editor this time is Will Eisenberg, fresh off his second-place photo finish in St. Louis’ inaugural Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Will makes delightful cryptics, but is better known in the indie crossworld for his conventional puzzles (however unconventional they might be), including work for Universal, AVCX and Spyscape and a bevy of collaborations with other setters on his blog and elsewhere. His Twitch stream usually finds him hosting a dinner party’s worth of great cruciverbalists while knocking out solve after solve. It was a pleasure to have him on this puzzle, all the more so because he hails from our ancestral stomping grounds, the Twin Cities.

Ambiguity is a puzzle maker’s stock-in-trade, but in order to be ambiguous you must first be precise. It’s easy to get so carried away with a feint — a jokey definition, a verb masquerading as a noun — that you misjudge whether the fundamental pieces are fair. For instance, in one published puzzle, we defined the word OUGHT as obliged, when really it should have been is obliged. Cryptics are an endeavor where every jot counts, so we’re trying to grow as constructors by interrogating those substitutions and definitions, and no one has as sharp an ear for that as our neighbors who make conventional crosswords. So for this puzzle (and, we think, for our future puzzles), we’re expanding our test solver pool to pull in indie constructors from the Crossweird community to help us kick tires and kill darlings. For this puzzle we appreciated working with hagabaka, Kelsey, norah, howard_b_xw, and meat — thanks again for your help, and thanks as always to Andy and John for the test solves.

In-browser solving

This puzzle was published in June 2022.

Rackenfracker #6: The Hard Way

308/365” by Mykl Roventine is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Between the first two Rackenfrackers, 90 percent of the answers were five-letter words. As a solver, you not only want a little variety, but you want some longer words to sink your teeth into, which our subsequent puzzles have provided.

This one is 18 four-letter words. #sorrynotsorry

None of them are those four-letter words, but we make no warranty about what you might say while solving it.

Our editor this week is Aaron Riccio, video game critic at Slant Magazine and blogger at The Crossword Scholar, which assesses newly published straight and cryptic crosswords on a timely basis. We hung out our Help Wanted sign and Aaron responded. He’s been very kind to The Rackenfracker in his weekly Cryptic Roundups, and it was a pleasure to give him a peek behind the curtain to see how the sausage is anagrammed.* Those write-ups are indispensable for those interested in the North American cryptic scene (although they also sometimes cross the pond), with Aaron addressing clues at a very fine level of analysis. There’s always a lot of talk about how to introduce new people to cryptics — we’ve been trying our hand at some new ways ourselves — but we can see his thoughtful and reflective parses serving as a gateway for threshold-dwellers intrigued by his examples and compelled by his enthusiasm. If you’re reading this, we imagine you also want to be reading that.

In Roundup #15, Aaron introduced a new metric, the +1, to indicate how many times in a puzzle he came across “new-to-me stuff I love.” Part of our purpose in insisting on editors is to see what happens when they push the puzzle closer to their tastes; Aaron had us take a clue where we were compromising on the difficulty and nudge it deeper into +1 territory, and he also recommended changes to another clue that gave the puzzle its fifth &lit (those clues that end in ! that are simultaneously all-wordplay and all-definition). So, if you would, please spare some of those four-letter words for him.

Thanks to Andy, John and Kaye for the test solves. As the entry of answers into the grid is once again fraught, don’t forget your ✏️ (for in-browser solving) and 💡 (for Puzzazz app solving) icons to record note and answers as needed.

In-browser solving

We have four cubes, with each face containing a unique letter (no J and no Q). We rolled them 18 times and came up with dictionary words each time — lucky us. They are clued alphabetically by answer. Each column represents one cube, so there can only be six distinct letters per column. Consequently, answers for all but the starred rows will need to be rearranged before being entered. Each clue shows the alphabetic relationship between adjacent letters in the answer, e.g. [–+–] for GAME because A is before G, M is after A, and E is before M. (Our thanks to Joel Nanni, whose puzzles inspired this.)

* A huge asset, if you ask us.

Tap the Sign: Anagrams (Part 1)

While they aren’t the most common clue type — that’s charades — anagrams are common enough that we’ll have to detour through two tangents before a fourth and final post in the series.

The pen lathe in the room is of course the third rail of cryptics: No Indirect anagrams. This is so critical that it rises from a don’t to a true can’t … notwithstanding the gray areas covered below.

What do we mean when we say indirect anagrams? The letters for your anagrams should be provided in the puzzle, preferably in a single group. So if you want to clue TIMES as an anagram of MITES, you need to say “Measures scattered mites” and not “Measures scattered arachnids.” Why? OK, sure, mites are arachnids — but so are a lot of other things, including 100,000 species of spiders, and you are making us anagram all of them to find a word that could mean measures. Even a simple word like MITES has 120 different anagrams — sure, some of them are nonsense like TSMIE, but there’s EMITS, ITEMS, SMITE …. Now take 120 and multiply it by all of the five-letter arachnids and it’s just too much to ask of a solver. Using synonyms in charades, reversals and containers is a cornerstone of cryptic wordplay, because there it’s only the permutations of words, not the nested permutation of words and then their letters. In anagrams and hiddens, the letters need to just be there.

Indirect-anagram thinking has some pernicious offshoots. One you’ll frequently see in UK puzzles: including a common figure of speech alongside the rest of the anagram’s fodder. For instance: God spreading Red Sea (4) for ARES (R SEA*, R being a common abbreviation for red.) The temptation here is that solvers who sniff out an anagram indicator will look for a contiguous string of letters adjacent to the indicator that matches the clue’s enumeration — but in the above clue, there are no four-letter strings to “spread,” delaying your ability to arrive at the intended solution. To our eye, however, this practice is no different and no less unfair than any other indirect anagram and ought to be avoided. Others feel differently, and we’ve seen the UK influence spread into North American indie puzzles, so even if we are unable to say can’t about this usage, we still say don’t.

But … there is one kind of indirect anagram we don’t mind. Namely, the one that tells you exactly how to remix it. This commonly comes in the form of a cycling clue (where you know the letters retain their order but start at a different point in the word). Lowest part of octave leaps to uppermost part (6) turns EIGHTH into HEIGHT. Or, it can be an anagram that is exactly explained, such as a clue that tells you to swap the first and last letters: Shower once case of depilatory is exchanged (4) flips the case, or outer letters, of NAIR to get RAIN. These exceptions are rare and can be tricky to make explicit, but they’re all good.

Part of what makes cycling and swapping clues work so well is that they tend to appear at a rate of less than one per puzzle — the scarcity makes them precious. Another viable anagram approach that should also be restricted to that same frequency is separating your anagram fodder. Almost all anagram clues should have an indicator adjacent to a string of the answer’s length. When might it not? Deceptive punctuation is one case. We would tap the sign at It serves shots of blended ryes and gin (7) for SYRINGE because gin is estranged from the indicator with other potential fodder in-between, but we could let … blended ryes & gin slide, albeit just once per puzzle. Additionally, you might have fodder in two places in the clue, combined with two indicators. Unlicensed traders loosened reins circumscribing petrol at sea (11) clues INTERLOPERS — which is to say, IN(TERLOP*)ERS*, which is to say, loosened REINS — INERS — circumscribing PETROL at sea — TERLOP. The level of execution of a good cryptic clue is always high, but clues like this really bring into focus how high that must be — there are lots of ways to take that same parse and get lost in the cryptic grammar in a way that will frustrate a solver. But even when you can do it well — once, maybe twice per puzzle is enough.

Like all forms of writing, cryptic clue writing is a kill your darlings business. There is no surface so good that it cannot be reexamined to ensure that fairness to the solver is made paramount. By going to that well too often, you run afoul of your solvers’ expectations for anagrams. It’s by only occasionally subverting them that your shenanigans have power — a fireworks display that’s all finale is exhausting. Anagrams are extremely flexible — there’s never a “need” to overrely on edge cases. Deploy them with maximum thoughtfulness.

Finally, don’t make all of your longest words in the puzzle anagrams. Anagrams are very useful for long words, but when the solver clocks that all the spanners are anagrams, it has that stale auto-solving flavor, like when double definitions are always exactly two words — where’s the cleverness?

When we wrap this up in four posts, we’ll discuss that deathless piece of cryptic snark: “Everything is an anagram indicator.”

Rackenfracker #5: Song of the Summer

Summerfest 2019 by Ryan Dickey is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We’re toasting our home state with this puzzle: It celebrates Summerfest, the annual Milwaukee music festival. If you’re new to The Rackenfracker and perhaps to cryptic crosswords, welcome! A cryptic crossword works a lot like a traditional crossword, except the clues have two parts: a definition, but also wordplay. This special PDF version of today’s puzzle also includes our new one-page guide to introduce you to solving, and we recommend all kinds of further reading here.

Because it’s a variety puzzle, it goes a step further: The puzzle has five secret answers you’ll only be able to get by completing the rest of the puzzle, and those secret answers lead you to one final answer.

Our editor this week is Steve Mossberg, who runs parallel puzzle blogs: crosswords and cryptic crosswords at Square Pursuit, and variety cryptic puzzles at Square Chase. No one today is doing more to make cryptics accessible to new solvers than Steve, and his help here is deeply appreciated. Ditto for Andy, John, joeadultman (whose Cryptics 101 course is also highly recommended for new solvers), kaybartplays and Kelsey Dixon for their test solves of the puzzle, the solving guide, or both.

The first link lets you play in-browser, on your desktop or phone. The downloadable .ipuz file has been tested for the Puzzazz app for mobile devices. For those that prefer solving on paper, there’s the PDF version.

The solution explains every clue as well as how all of its secrets work. It’s also available as a PDF, and the explanations will show up in the electronic versions of the puzzles once fully solved. To enter the final answer when solving in-browser, go to the last square and hit [ESC] or 🔠 and just type it in; in Puzzazz, hit the Rebus button on the keyboard and type it in.

Solve in-browser

The return of Summerfest, the “world’s largest music festival” held in Milwaukee, got us thinking about music fans’ annual debate about the song of the summer. We think there’s a tune from one of 2022’s Summerfest acts that is uniquely qualified to be the all-time titleholder: That’s the shaded entry at 24-Across. The entry must be deduced by crossing letters, as must five other theme entries in the puzzle. Once you’ve determined our pick (and its qualifications), you’ll know how transform those five entries into a final answer. The final answer won’t tell you the name of the act, but it will give you their opening number. The five theme entries include a hyphenated word, a person’s name, and two two-word phrases.

UPDATE: Friend of the blog Jeff H. fact-checked a clue, which is now updated as of 5/16 at 2 pm CT.

The Rackenfaction: Andy Stilp, solveur suprême

With each puzzle, we highlight the individuals that make each puzzle possible. Some of that personnel changes from puzzles to puzzle … and some of it doesn’t. 

Only Andy Stilp has test-solved 100 percent of Rackenfracker puzzles past, present and future. Avocationally, he’s an erstwhile film critic and an ersatz contributor to UK media tentpoles such as BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio Five Live, Scala Radio, Greatest Hits Radio, and The Guardian, despite living in Wisconsin near Rackenfracker HQ.

Of our cohort, Andy is the one who most prefers one four-hour puzzle to eight 30-minute ones, dipping his quill for a scorcher from The Enigma, The Listener, or Ucaoimhu. He’s always a great audience for determining whether our gimmicks are going far enough or too far; by the same token, as our frequent first solver, he also sees a lot of unexpurgated rackenfracking — so much that he had a commemorative portrait commissioned:

It’s always a delight to send a puzzle his way, to be met with his enthusiasm and thoughtful commentary. Cheers, Andy, with our sincere thanks.

Rackenfracker #4: Calculating Route

Lots of things affect the difficulty of a puzzle—the clues; the grid size; the words chosen for the answers; and, in a variety cryptic, the gimmick—and we are still learning to be good estimators of how tough a particular crossword is going to be.

So on the one hand, we’d like to say this one’s on the easier side — it’s only a 7×7 grid! it’s only got 15 clues! — but such affirmations only remind us of our friend John …

… so maybe we shouldn’t make promises.

(“Wait, if it’s a 7×7 grid with no black squares, then how can it have 15 clues?”)

Our editor for this outing is Juff, a constructor who’s been solving for 30 years and has their own puzzle blog with lively ideas and clever themes. We were also invaluably helped by VraieAmy, who stans the Maryland flag and apprenticed on this puzzle. Many thanks to them both. (We posted a note about our approach to editors and apprentices last week.)

This puzzle isn’t a jigsaw—we’d call it a “golfalike,” similar to Cox and Rathvon’s Cryptic Golf or Traffic Lights puzzles—but you might still solve clues before you place them, so don’t forget the ✏️ after each clue when solving in-browser, or the Clue Options button in the 💡 menu when solving in the Puzzazz app on mobile. Thanks to (our other friend) John and Andy for the test solves — more about Andy in our next post.

Solve in-browser

In this puzzle, each entry begins in its numbered square and ends in the sequentially next numbered square, except for the last entry, which, if it is the last answer entered, will end in the only remaining empty square. Each entry begins by proceeding in one of eight directions, including diagonals. Divergences are consistently indicated. Enumerations are not provided per clue but include one (3), five (4)s, three (6)s, two (5)s, three (7)s and one (9). Answers include three proper nouns.

Help Wanted

A foundational experience for us as cryptic puzzle makers was back in the early 2000s when Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon (and later Will Johnston) moderated the “Cryptic Clue Workshop” (a.k.a. “The Cru”) on the New York Times reader forums. There, we would meet up with similarly minded novices, along with published experts such as Bob Stigger and Henry Hook. It was a trial by fire where outsider ideas could meet the cold light of fairness. We learned much, and though we didn’t put it into practice right away, it gave us an ear for both syntax and fair play — things we prioritize in our Rackenfracker puzzles.

Puzzlecraft is a joint exercise first, foremost, and always, because puzzles are meant to be solved. They’re a space for a solver to engage in a back-and-forth with a setter — will they pick up what we’re laying down, and will there be a flare of eureka when they do? At one extreme, an editor once didn’t solve a clue of ours until they were retyping it into an email to complain to us about it — perhaps the ultimate compliment, but such flummoxry can only exist in a puzzle where it is leavened with other clues solvers can readily engage with.

That joint exercise can go beyond the one-on-one. Solvers will find that most cryptic crossword guides encourage you to grab a friend when you are learning, because the synergistic quality of more than one mind at work can make exponential progress. Group solves of tricky puzzles on live streaming services such as Twitch can be especially delightful, whether you’re part of the chat hive mind or, as we’ve been fortunate enough to be, the ones who have set a challenge before them.

For setters, too, we believe that collaboration is the key to growth. The Rackenfracker is jointly authored because the collaborative dynamic means we have the net stamina, patience, creativity, good taste, etc., to create polished work for public consumption. But we’ve known each other for 30 years; we often are guilty of knowing each others’ minds better than the potential solver.

Which is all to say: It is good for us to draw in other perspectives, and also our good for us to share what we’ve learned from The Cru and elsewhere with emerging cryptic enthusiasts. We see three roles through which to bring more collaborators to the table. If these roles spark something in you, let us know.

1. Clue Apprentice: This is for people who are very new to clue construction but are curious what it is all about. Ideally, you would have a solid understanding of how clues function at a high level and be able to solve some clues on your own. You don’t need to know any cryptic lingo or philosophy, or be a solving whiz … just a desire to learn and contribute. Note that this work will be carried out using the Discord app.

2. Editor: Every puzzle at The Rackenfracker is test solved at least in triplicate, but every puzzle is also edited. (By contrast, Kosman and Picciotto’s self-published Out of Left Field cryptics strike a different balance: no editor per se, but a dozen test solvers.) We believe one of the core precepts of good puzzlemaking is that it be tested and edited to maximize solver enjoyment and clue quality. This may sound like lip service, but it’s a big part of why we started this blog. People who would like to be editors should have some published (including self-published) work that we can check out, or a history of test solving others’ cryptics, or something comparable on their c.v. We have used a different editor on each puzzle so far, and all have brought excellent notes and measurable improvements to the puzzles.

3. Collaborator: We haven’t done this yet but we very much would like to. You should have done some significant clueing if not outright puzzle-making, and you’d like to try your hand at variety cryptic construction alongside us. We don’t quite know what this will look like, but are certainly game to figure it out with the right persons. Final products could be published on your site, here on The Rackenfracker, or both.

If any of those feel like you, drop us a line at hello at therackenfracker dot you can figure out the rest. We’ll get back to everyone, even if the time for us to work together isn’t right away. We think this kind of collaboration will up everyone’s game, and result in puzzles that reflect the vibrancy of our English language in the 21st century. (As our apprentice for Monday’s puzzle put it, “u just need a zoomer in the green room.”)