Spotlight on Indies: Tim Croce—”Don’t Mess Around with Tim”- Jim Q’s write-up
If you’re anything like me, then sometimes you come to regret Saturdays because the hardest mainstream puzzles of the week have come and gone, and it may be half a work week until you get to solve another that really works out your mental muscle. This is one reason why A) You should definitely seek out all Indie puzzles and B) You should stop by Club 72 on the way (no I.D. required at the door).
Tim Croce’s Club 72 puzzles have the challenge of Newsday’s Saturday Stumper with the wit of… well… with the wit we’ve come to expect of all of our Indie constructors. And I must say, Tim has helped me avoid much of the tedium that comes with an average week. I’ll explain:
I’m a piano player, and I accompany a lot of musicals in my area. Which means a lot of rehearsals. Which means a lot of down time. But I can’t exactly sit there and feverishly pencil in a grid. This is where Tim comes into play. His puzzles have helped me through about three different mediocre productions of Into the Woods this year alone. In that down time (and- not gonna lie- during performance) I have time to think and occasionally pencil in an answer or two.
I’m also a middle school teacher, and Tim’s a faculty meeting savior for the same reasons…
Constructor: Tim Croce
Website: Club 72 (New releases every Tuesday and Friday). Live since 2014.
From: Pittsfield, MA
Hobbies: Golf and Sports (especially teams associated with New England)
Career: Civil Engineer
Favorite Color: Yellow (I- Jim Q- just made that up… and seriously, I never understood why anyone would care about someone else’s favorite color outside of the context of a painting class).
Favorite type of grid: Themeless (“Freestyle” as he calls it). “My original intention was to have one freestyle crossword per week and one variety puzzle per week, but I’ve gotten on an extreme roll and a well-oiled rhythm with freestyles, so it’s freestyles, by and large. I haven’t completely forgotten about variety puzzles, so I will, if a good idea crops up, post one of those very occasionally. I’ve included a themed grid every now and again, too.”
Goal: “Fun and freshness; difficulty through wordplay and ambiguity, not obscurity.”
Filling it in: “I have a crossword-constructing app, but I don’t use autofill – still, if I really focus and things go really well, I can have a grid constructed in two hours. Three to four hours, more typically. It’s hard to estimate the total time on cluing, because I work on them in spurts. But, since I have a rule that I never work on cluing more than one grid at one time, it never takes me more than three days, start to finish, to write the clues for a whole grid.”
Originality: “I make every effort to write original clues for every one of my entries. I work from a database of previously used clues to make sure of that. The only times that I don’t write an original clue are if I didn’t know that it isn’t original, if I can repeat a clue in two or three consecutive or close-by answers, or if it’s for an entry that can only be clued in one way (this also happens pretty rarely, because I try to avoid at all costs using entries like that in the first place). The reason I don’t repeat clues is that I’m thinking from the perspective of an experienced solver, which I’d like to think I am. When I solve, I like to see a clue and think about it before I fill in the entry. If I see a clue I’ve seen before, I often just fill it in because it comes from rote memory – that’s not too fun.”
The Process: “[Cluing is where] the fun is. I can’t get cute with cluing every one of my answers, because constant trickery gets tiring to solvers (not to mention clue writers!), but I can’t stay stale either. I’ll sometimes have single-word clues, but that’s only a couple to a few times per grid, because of my non-repeating rule. My approach with entries I want to clue trickily is to play the old game of word association. I think of a word related to the entry that can be interpreted in different ways and/or (my favorite way to go) as more than one part of speech. I then try to phrase the clue around that word. For example, in a fairly recent grid [SPOILER ALERT], I was looking at the entry MENTAL ERRORS. A synonym for “errors” that’s very malleable is “slips”, which can be used in multiple parts of speech and means many different things. So I fashioned the clue around “slips” in such a way that it wasn’t clear whether it was a noun or a verb – “Slips from one’s mind” [END SPOILER].”
The Challenge: “…I actually never used to like writing clues at all before I had a website. I enjoy it very much now, though. I don’t know what turned me around – maybe it’s that I have my own editorial control, and I know that what I write is what the solver will see, so I take more care. It’s a fun challenge (a puzzle within a puzzle, I guess you could say) to write clues for every entry that haven’t been done before – it keeps the process fresh so I don’t mentally “check out” when writing the clues.”
Backstory (worth the read just to hear about a recent NYT acceptance):
“The inspiration [for constructing] began my junior year of high school. I’d been solving crosswords ever since I could sit at the table with my mom to help her do the daily crossword in the paper. But it was when my junior-year English teacher (thanks, Mrs. Doyle!) started actually running off the New York Times crossword puzzle to hand out to her class (to do for homework credit!) that I noticed something that I hadn’t noticed before. There were names on these things! These grids weren’t turned out by some computer in a publisher’s office somewhere. They were made by actual people, who thought of the themes and came up with the entries and clues themselves…
I then decided to see how well I could make one of these things and, as a pretty cool side benefit, see if I could get my name in the New York Times. I’d made a few daily-size grids for my high school newspaper, but I decided to step up a level and sent my first one in to the Times my senior year of high school. I didn’t hear back about it, so I pretty much forgot about it. I kept constructing them for fun, never really taking them seriously, until, I’d say, six years later, when I decided on a whim to send another one into the Times. It was accepted! I was re-hooked…
Oh, and, by the way – that one I sent in my senior year of high school and didn’t hear back on? A few years ago, I got an email from Will Shortz that one of my puzzles had been accepted. I replied that I didn’t recognize that grid (it was a freestyle), and I couldn’t find it on my computer, and he gave me a few more answers in that grid. Then it clicked with me – this was the grid I sent out in high school! It must have gotten lost in the mail, or whatever, because I’d sent in that grid over ten years prior! (It hasn’t run as of yet.) I’ll probably be the only constructor who will actually have to solve their own puzzle when it runs in order to remember it.”
Quick Plug from a Solver:
Before I sign off, I must say that Tim’s puzzles have (without a doubt) made me a better solver. My batting average for perfect solves with his puzzles is about .500—but revealing/examining my mistakes is worth the price of admission. There’s always an “AHA” and an appreciation for cleverness, even when I’ve needed a nudge. Tim tries to avoid the mundane crosswordese at all costs, but if push comes to shove, he’ll at least give you a clue you haven’t seen. Loved the clue for AJAR recently: [Not quite in the frame?].
Price of admission to get a VIP Pass to club 72, by the way, is nothing.
It’s hard to grasp how some of the best crossword puzzles available today are provided by Indie constructors for free (or extremely cheap) while the quality of mainstream offerings often pales in comparison at a steep(er) cost. But that’s what it is. Take advantage while that’s still a thing.
And make sure you stop by Tim’s club on the way. All rounds are on him.