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From The Top by Anax

A start-to-finish story of setting a cryptic crossword puzzle

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Foreword

Anax has kindly written an article to give a top to bottom explanation of how he composed a whole puzzle.   This is not a totally new puzzle – it had previously been available via a link from a now-defunct forum – but it is unlikely that you have seen it before.  It is, however, towards the top end of Toughie difficulty.

You may prefer to download and solve the puzzle before reading this article.  It is available in three different formats: Microsoft Word, Adobe Acrobat PDF and Crossword Compiler.

Preface

Just a quick note you before you start reading.

After the description of filling the crossword grid, the article gives an account of the clue-writing process. Please note this is in no way intended to be a guide to writing cryptic clues, so while some technical aspects are mentioned there is no attempt to explain how/why particular techniques succeed or fail. Instead, I’ve tried to give an insight into how I go about dissecting an answer to identify wordplay components – it’s all about the scribbled notes, rejected ideas and “a-ha!” moments that come with pleasing discoveries.

Whether or not all of the clues stand up to scrutiny isn’t of great importance. The article finishes at the point when a crossword such as this would be ready to send to an editor and – like any setter – I would just have to sit back and wait for the email asking me to make changes to certain clues; that’s what editors are for!

Introduction

This puzzle was set some time ago but I’ve selected it because my memory of writing it remains reasonably fresh. Some of the details are inevitably a little fuzzy but, hopefully, as we go along I’ll be able to cover these by approaching the description as if it were a fresh puzzle.

The chosen puzzle is based on a self-designed grid, since one of the primary intentions here is to describe how this design process unfolds.

The Early Stages

To help me get started I always have a small stock of pre-written clues. The clue-writing process is not restricted to an active crossword – inspiration for a clue can come at any time and I try to ensure I have some way of scribbling an idea for later use; and there’s no point in adding these ideas to a database if they’re going to stay there unused!

When checking what I have in the database I’ll look first for any long-answer (12+ letters) clues. It’s a good idea to get one of these placed as early as possible because it will quickly determine some aspects of the grid design and, of course, whether or not there are other database clues which can intersect it. This latter consideration is quite important; every time you manage to crosscheck a database answer you eliminate at least one letter that would otherwise have to contribute to another answer, thereby making the fill process just a tad easier.

The Blank

So we start with a blank grid (I’m just showing NW corner sections for now as it’ll be pretty obvious what the rest of the grid looks like):

FTT 1

It isn’t very interesting to look at, but it does have one significant feature. The lights (horizontal/vertical lines of white cells) are in what is sometimes called an O/O pattern – that is, they account for ODD numbered rows and columns. The opposite is E/E which looks like this:

FTT 2

There’s nothing wrong with this pattern, but it tends to favour the setter versus the solver – the answers will have more unchecked letters, making it easier to fill the grid and less helpful for the solver who needs some starting letters. It’s still a good grid to use when the setter wants to incorporate a theme or perhaps use the perimeter to spell out a message.

I tend to avoid it, though; if I want to use a theme (or just want a change from the O/O starting point) I’ll generally use the compromise O/E grid, as below or rotated through 90 degrees:

FTT 3

First Words

At the time of setting I’d been thinking about anagram indicators (anagrinds) which could fit in with both fodder (the letters of the anagram) and answer, and after some experimenting came up with a long-un that fitted:

DOUBLET AND HOSE

Pants, blouse, “No Dad”, the wear of Elizabethans (7,3,4)

The wordplay is an anagram (“pants”) of BLOUSE NO DAD THE.

It raised a smile, particularly because of the No Dad element which I think gained currency through John Virgo’s attire on the snooker game show Big Break. A No Dad is a waistcoat, especially a slightly garish one. The clue as a whole reads well, and the anagrind “pants” is a perfect fit for the fodder and definition.

Having 14 letters, it was important to get this placed quickly, since seven of its letters would intersect other lights. But before finding a spot for it, I checked my clue database for anything else which could exploit that placement.

There were a couple – it isn’t a big database! – but one of them placed me in a bit of a dilemma. It was FLAMEPROOF, an answer with 10 letters and quite a tasty clue:

FLAMEPROOF

With me inside, fold canopy so it won’t go up (10)

The wordplay is ME inside FLAP (fold), to make FLAMEP, plus ROOF (canopy). Something which is flameproof won’t “go up”, i.e. catch fire.

I’m a bit cautious about placing these too early, especially if there’s only one long answer in the grid. A 10-letter answer has five checkers, and if it runs parallel to a long answer in the next available light it can end up being problematic. To illustrate, let’s look at what we could have so far:

FTT 4

The highlighted cells show another potential placement, but I’ve always preferred to get the bottom row and right column filled at an early stage. These dictate a lot of last letters, which can be harder to fit answers to unless you cop out with easy letters – E, R, S, T etc. Some crossword editors will give you a stiff talking to if you do that!

However, this spot for FLAMEPROOF isn’t good. Supposing I find a nice 15-letter answer/clue combination for the horizontal using the O of HOSE? The F, A and O of FLAMEPROOF are going to seriously reduce the number of down answers possible for that corner.

I like FLAMEPROOF and won’t give up on it just yet; I’ll keep it in mind and see if it can find a spot later.

Anything else in the database? Well, yes, as it happens. One of my hobbies is photography; I’m the resident snapper for my local oval raceway and I’d toyed with the idea of writing a clue that had some connection with banger or stockcar racing, and eventually found:

BANGER RACING

Get mad drivers in scrap Granadas heading for this? (6,6)

The wordplay is pretty complicated. To “get mad” is to ANGER and “drivers” in crosswordland are either AA or RAC – in this case RAC, so we have ANGERRAC inside BIN (to “scrap”) to make BANGERRACIN. Finally add the initial letter or “heading” of Granadas, G, and we have BANGER RACING. This is not quite an &Lit or all-in-one clue – a clue of that type consists of wordplay only, but this clue needs “this?” at the end to suggest a definition. For that reason it’s called a Semi-&Lit clue, but we setters are always very happy to discover either.

There is an “issue” with 12-letter answers, though – they have a nasty habit of forcing into place 3-cell blocks unless they appear on the perimeter of the grid, thus having a big influence on the grid design:

FTT 5

BANGER RACING couldn’t sensibly be used as a down answer, since DOUBLET AND HOSE is already doing that “long-un” job. And, patently, it can’t use the top or bottom row. The only possibilities are those shown above, and at this point you need to employ a bit of “feel”.

I really wanted to use this clue, but had to decide whether the first down answer pattern ——B- would be more awkward than its symmetrical partner –G——. The former looked less appealing; not particularly because I felt there would be fewer possibilities, but because the nearby B of DOUBLET could make that crosschecking pattern a bit tricky and potentially introduce a wordplay problem.

Those two Bs would end up in answers probably requiring wordplay (unless I found a really good cryptic definition – CD) and there’s always a danger that if in both cases the B has to be clued as a single letter you might inadvertently give it the same treatment in both clues. OK, it’s pretty unlikely. What’s more likely, though, is that both clues could have been so much better if only one hadn’t had to avoid repeating an element of the other.

Instinct told me to go for the lower of the two spots, and with that placement done it was time to think about the other two long answers, as well as FLAMEPROOF if I was still determined to use that.

FTT 6

With just two answers in the grid there are only two possible spots now for FLAMEPROOF (highlighted green), and this sort of thing is typical. If this answer is going to be used it’s time to make a decision; do I create the awkward exposed letters in the bottom row, or dictate the first letter of the long down answer on the right?

That would be P; just as an early reference point I’ll check the Crossword Compiler wordlists and see if the pattern provides a reasonable choice, starting with its default dictionary:

FTT 7

Well, it’s not great, to be honest – there’s plenty of stuff in there I wouldn’t touch and not a huge choice to begin with, so I’ll also check the Compounds and Phrases dictionary (although I know before looking it will contain several non-dictionary entries which I can’t use anyway):

FTT 8

This looks far better. Even if only half of the entries are usable it’s still a pretty good selection. It’s time to be brave – commit my precious FLAMEPROOF and look for a good fit for the resulting P/A letters.

FTT 9

I started with the Default list and eventually homed in on PLEA BARGAINING. Legal references tend to sit quite well in crosswords as they avail themselves to puns based on “trying”, “hearing” etc, but this one also struck me as having wordplay potential – I spotted GAINING at the end, and a bit of letter shuffling revealed an anagram of PARABLE for the first seven letters; no specific clue ideas yet, but at least I know there will be something to play with.

This is such an important part of choosing which answers to put in the grid. Software wordlists can be generous to the point of confusing, but it’s of tremendous benefit to scroll through and try to spot something that can be exploited.

At this stage I know I should also be thinking about the highlighted 12-letter answer, but those letters E and R are among the easiest I could hope for and it’s extremely doubtful that PLEA BARGAINING is going to scupper any plans at this point. Yes, it has a B sharing the same row as the one in DOUBLET, but that row is going to be split between two answers so it’s not as if I’m going to have to find a pattern using both letters. There’s just a slight possibility I could have misgivings about the two exposed Ns of BARGAINING, but I’ve decided I’ll just try to ensure the two answers which use them share as few other common letters as possible. This should contribute to a good letter mix, thereby reducing the chances of finding myself trapped by common wordplay elements in close proximity. For now, I have the luxury of being able to think about a clue for PLEA BARGAINING.

So far the choice of this answer was based on seeing an anagram of PARABLE plus the word GAINING. There are a couple of things I need to think about, the first being the use of the anagram.

Most crossword editors – even those who don’t place a stated limit on the number of anagrams allowable in a puzzle – will notice if a set of clues is loaded with them. I’ve already got a full anagram for DOUBLET AND HOSE and I’m preparing to write only the fourth clue. Using another anagram so soon could prove restrictive later on, when perhaps another answer is begging for an anagram to make it work properly, or has a set of letters which can’t realistically be worked differently. At this early stage am I taking a risk?

For now, I’d rather see if my initial concept can create a good clue. If it works well, I’ll just have to keep a watchful eye on how I fill the rest of grid.

How am I going to define the answer PLEA BARGAINING – more to the point, can it be done reasonably succinctly? A plea bargain is a sort of deal that’s done before a trial, so “deal before trial” looks like a reasonable starting point. Could I also look at being more cryptic, by defining it as something (another word for “bargain”) “before opening case”? That could create a false image to do with opening luggage. At first it seems like a nice idea, but finding that word for “bargain” is a bit of a struggle – there are a couple of ideas but they feel a bit clumsy; plus I may be getting ahead of myself. The wordplay is going to give the greater scope for creating deception, so maybe it would be better to see how that develops before deciding what the overall definition is going to be.

“Parable about…” is hardly sophisticated use of an anagrind, but it has remarkably effective simplicity as a stock phrase. Even now I can see it linking very smoothly to GAINING, for which there must be plenty of synonyms. If my final definition is going to avoid the temptation to mislead and simply refer to the legal process, then I should choose a GAINING synonym that’s in keeping with legal jargon. “Getting” would be fine except it sounds rather too informal; how about “securing”? Let’s just fit that into a sentence:

Parable about securing deal before trial.

It sounds pretty good – certainly not clumsy or forced. And, I just noticed, that “securing” bit could be a teasing little addition to satisfy my inner devil. I’d like to bet several solvers are going to read it as a container indicator. A little bit naughty, but perfectly fair game in the deceptive world of cryptic crosswords.

OK, while there’s no self-congratulatory pat on the back for this rather straightforward clue, it has taken very little time to write and may well be a decent starting point for the solver.

We can now look at the 12-letter across answer with the E/R letter combo.

I’m keeping my eye on those two Bs in the third horizontal light. They aren’t a problem yet, but I want to be careful about the 12-letter answer because its checking letters are going to come into play very quickly as I tackle the top half of the grid. I need to be thinking about this area first because, while the exposed L, M, O and F of FLAMEPROOF aren’t especially difficult, they’re not the easiest in the world either. So I want to keep the checkers of my 12-letter answer fairly friendly.

After a lengthy trawl through the wordlist I find something:

FTT 10

A few things sprang to mind when choosing CLOSE TO TEARS. The letters are almost absurdly friendly. The 5,2,5 enumeration is likely to be very helpful to the solver. The answer has a pleasantly informal ring to it. Finally, the first six letters are CLOSET which can indicated as “private” or, perhaps even better, “inner”. Since the next letter is O it may just be possible to have “inner circle”, which would be great if there’s a way to use it.

Is it worth concentrating on the clue now, or should I make a note of initial ideas and look at completing the grid fill? There isn’t a Yes or No answer to this. So far there appear to be no difficult checking letters to sort out, so it’s unlikely that CLOSE TO TEARS will have to be ditched. On the other hand, taking something like that for granted can be a serious mistake.

Eventually I decide to tackle the clue, for no other reason than this; it’s generally encouraging to know that you’ve got all the long answer clues written, as these tend to be the most limiting in terms of wordplay. And it turns out there’s another reason.

Most of the self-designed grids I use have four long answers. With very few exceptions this results in a 28-answer grid. Every time a long answer is sacrificed and split into two short answers it’s two extra clues to write (remember, there’s a symmetrical partner). Also, I think filling a 28-answer grid is a little harder and, while solvers are unlikely to remark on it publicly, I suspect most appreciate a setter who is willing to accept challenges in creating the puzzle he’ll use to challenge his solvers.

The puzzle being constructed here conforms to this pattern – all of its longer answers have been placed, and just one remains unclued. Before tackling it, I want to remind myself of the other three.

The definitions in the two down answers are straightforward; the BANGER RACING clue doesn’t have a stated definition, but the wordplay serves as one. Maybe there would be some mileage in going for variety now, by trying to give CLOSE TO TEARS a definition that’s designed to mislead.

We have to start by noting a real definition, then see if certain words can be changed to paint an alternative picture. To define CLOSE TO TEARS as “nearly crying” seems fair enough, so do “nearly” and “crying” have substitutes which could suggest something else?

My tactic here is to put NEARLY and CRYING as the headwords of two columns, then list suitable definitions for each. I then choose the first one I wrote for NEARLY and go through the list under CRYING until I find one that creates a convincing pairing. There may be several such pairings, so I’ll write them all down. Some will be far better than others, but still I’ll write them down, and for good reason.

If I get extraordinarily lucky there will be a pairing so good it works as a CD in its own right, but it is far more likely I’ll need to create some wordplay to form a complete clue. At this stage I don’t know what the wordplay will be, but the letters of CLOSE TO TEARS may lead to something I’m really happy with but, also, can only sensibly link up to one of the NEARLY/CRYING pairings near the bottom of my “I’d like to use this” list.

As it turns out, NEARLY isn’t especially generous – I’ve highlighted “approaching” as the only one that might offer some deception. CRYING is a bit better, and I have “in bits” just shading it ahead of “waterworks”; but “approaching waterworks” would be great if I happen to find a good wordplay link-up, although I think adding a question mark to it would be a little fairer on the solver. Is there anything?

I had noted “private” for CLOSET and “inner circle” for CLOSET/O. The former leaves OTEARS – not inspiring; “road initially” inside OTEAS? Yuk. That’s awful. The latter leaves TEARS. As in “rips”? As in “goes very fast”?

Inner circle goes very fast approaching waterworks?

Crikey – is that the best I can do? Yes, it sort of reads as a sentence but it’s hardly a convincing image. Only now does it strike me that my choice of CLOSE TO TEARS may have been hasty, but removing it may be equally so.

I keep telling myself not to use another anagram, but for any long answer it’s always worth checking to see if a really good anagram is there to be discovered. After a bit of doodling SCATTER LOOSE emerges and, immediately apparent, is the fact that in this arrangement every letter is moved from its original position.

Bearing in mind that I’d prefer not to resort to an anagram, let’s go through the exercise anyway, just to see if a good clue emerges. So far I have what I believe will be the bare bones of the construction:

Scatter loose (ANAGRIND) approaching waterworks?

There’s real potential here. The right anagrind could turn this into a great image of somebody disturbing something as they approach some waterworks. ROCKS!!!

Scatter loose rocks approaching waterworks? (5,2,5)

It reads really well, and the opening verb is deceptive enough to make the part of speech required for the answer seem extremely unlikely. I like this clue a lot and I’m going to use it for now – in my clue list, though, I’ll put a little asterisk in front of it to remind me that I’ve resorted to another anagram and it’s still possible this clue will need changing.

Closing The Grid Shape

We’re now at the stage where the combination of exposed letters and placed blocks is going to have a big say in how the rest of the grid falls into place. The highlighted rows and columns below are all going to be split into two answers each to give us a 28-answer puzzle:

FTT 11

Of immediate concern are the two highlighted columns. What about splitting them into four 7-letter answers? Not good – the letter patterns are OK apart from L—–O, which offers very little. Apart from that, splitting them in that way will mean that PLEA BARGAINING and DOUBLET AND HOSE will form the only links between the upper and lower halves of the grid, making it much harder for the solver to get checking letters for either of those areas that may be causing problems.

Any other split means we’ll be looking for answers with O-G and E-R patterns, for which either the L or M of FLAMEPROOF are going to come into play as a starting letter.

If it’s the L, we could have LEAPFROGGED, but that would leave a 3-letter answer at the foot of the column. I don’t really have anything against 3-letter answers – it’s just that finding original clues for them can be time-consuming.

How about the M? Immediately I can see MUSKETEER or MUSKETEERS; MILLIMETRE(S) too, although I reckon finding a good definition for that would be pretty tough. Going for the 9-letter answer means I need something to fit O-G—— in the SW corner. There’s nothing wrong with the old favourite ORGANISED, but there’s little else of use; and there are far more options starting with –O-G. So, for now, I’ll place MUSKETEERS and take a look at the resulting grid pattern:

FTT 12

This looks fine for now, but I’m not going to try a clue for MUSKETEERS yet. A glance at the 8-letter pattern needing –E-B—- makes me fear there won’t be quite as many choices here as I’d like, so there’s still a chance MILLIMETRES will force its way in.

Actually, that 8-letter slot is nagging me slightly. What’s available?

FTT 13

Well, it’s not that bad. Maybe the MUSKETEERS can stick around. For now I’ll just think about where I’m going to split the two highlighted rows, and for this minor exercise I’m allowed the small luxury of checking my clue database to see if there’s anything that happens to fit the NE corner.

There isn’t; but, by chance, there is a clue I wrote at the same time as the BANGER RACING one – I’d put together a small handful of clues that had some kind of link to the raceway. The answer was SPA TOWN, and if that can be used to intersect the O of DOUBLET it would provide the 7-letter split. I’m tempted to just pencil this one in; dictating the shape of the NE corner (potentially the trickiest bit so far) just because I want to use a clue in the NW corner could see me come unstuck. Another asterisked clue goes in, but at least it’s not an anagram.

For now we have a finished grid, so for the purposes of reference we can include the numbers:

FTT 14

The Final Fill

Thankfully there’s no need to bore you with a step-by-step guide to filling the rest of the grid. The S-E—- pattern for the 11Ac was reassuring and I remember completing the grid with no hold-ups beyond the previously described process of carefully evaluating slot candidates based on what wordplay potential jumped out.

While there were plenty of candidates for 14Dn it took some time to choose the right one, as several made the choices at 26Ac very limited and/or rather ugly.

Similarly I knew 12Ac was going to be slightly restricted, but the letters already placed at 1Dn and 2Dn were friendly enough to offer at least some choices, and I always had the option of ditching SPA TOWN if necessary.

Writing The Clues

Firstly, here’s the finished grid:

FTT 15

Most of the answers went in and stayed in, apart from that NE corner where I made a few changes. After working the SW and SE corners based on notes for some good clue ideas, it became apparent that 23Dn could only be EMMA. This has been covered already in countless crosswords, so I wanted to find something different for it. The discarded MILLIMETRES candidate almost came into play again as we have MM in the middle of EMMA, but the resulting L-E—- pattern at 11Ac wasn’t nice. However, I noticed that 8Dn would accommodate FEMALE, so that could serve as the definition at 23Dn – and I could still get a bit naughty by joining 8(Dn) and MM to give 8mm.

This forced me into using the proprietary name NEMBUTAL at 13Ac, which was only a concern to the extent that I knew the clue would have to be as easy as possible. As any cryptic setter will tell you, writing easy clues is generally much tougher than writing hard ones – you have to set aside all of the tricksy devices. It’s a bit like riding a bicycle with one leg.

There’s the grid – let’s see what clues have been written so far:

FTT 16

Although the placing of SPA TOWN was mentioned the clue wasn’t.

SPA TOWN

Produce fences for Buxton e.g. (3,4)

“To produce” is to SPAWN, and this surrounds (“fences”) TO (“for”). Buxton is an example of a spa town.

In the process of filling the grid I had made some clueing notes on a piece of paper long since consigned to the waste basket, but it is possible to go through the list again and pinpoint anything that stands out.

ACROSS
1 BLAB The B-A- pattern will have led me to view several candidates, but BLAB is one of those interesting colloquialisms that can be attractive for that reason alone.
3 FLAMEPROOF Done!
10 SPA TOWN Done!
11 STERNUM I won’t have noted anything – nothing obvious in these letters.
12 INCUBI Ditto.
13 NEMBUTAL Just a note to keep it simple.
15 CLOSE TO TEARS Done, unless scuppered by the anagram count.
18 BANGER RACING Done!
21 LUCIDITY I’d noticed LUCY but unsure of what to do with IDIT.
22 ANSELM “Leans precariously” for the first five letters will have been apparent fairly early.
24 EPISODE I may have scribbled “piece of soap?” as a starting point for the definition.
25 MENTION Again, a note for the definition – “shout” looks good (think Radio 1 DJs, if you can bear to).
26 T-BONE STEAK The definition has to be based on “cut”, but wordplay will be tricky.
27 WHOA Yet again, a note for the definition – the apparently innocent “hold it”.
DOWN
1 BESMIRCH Horrible; hope to find inspiration from somewhere!
2 AT ANCHOR Homophone – “a tanker”; good seafaring link to the answer.
3 LINK Not sure what to do with this, but perhaps define it in its Internet sense?
5 MUSKETEERS Apart from “scent” for MUSK, can’t see much.
6 PLEA BARGAINING Done!
7 ORNATE No ideas yet.
8 FEMALE I’d spotted the reversal of LAM inside FEE, but probably because I couldn’t see anything else.
9 DOUBLET AND HOSE Done!
14 DOUGHTIEST One (I) in DOUGH TEST – must have potential!
16 VIPERISH Obvious PERISH; I may also have jotted down “evil heart” to give the VI component.
17 EGOMANIA The OMANI bit will have reminded me of its IN A MO (very shortly) reversal.
19 ALBERT Never liked clueing proper names; there’s B in ALERT, but not sure how to piece it together.
20 SCHIZO Very reluctantly placed in the grid thanks to –C—O. Possible homophone “skit so”.
23 EMMA That 8mm idea just has to be used.

If I’ve noted the seed of an idea for an answer with awkward letters I tend to tackle this as soon as possible. If I can get the idea to work as a clue it is going to use up part of the ration for at least one wordplay type, and I’d much rather run out of rations for an easier word.

I’ve got LUCIDITY, T-BONE STEAK, BESMIRCH and SCHIZO as clues needing most urgent attention, so let’s get cracking.

LUCIDITY

We may have the bones of something, or rather someone, in the shape of LUCY, but the IDIT part is less forgiving. There is ID (passport/papers) and IT could refer to computers or “the thing”, but they don’t look easy to string together. For now, let’s find some definitions; “clarity” seems OK but that “-ity” suffix is a bit of a give-away. How about “focus”? That could be good – it’s one of those useful words that serve as noun or verb so we may have the option of giving it the role of deceiver.

We’ve spotted LUCY as a container, and that could be good to exploit – LUCY could have “IDIT” (yet to be worked out) in focus. So let’s take another look at IDIT. One option is to see the word IDIOT and remove its O. O can be “love”, so we could describe IDIT as “loveless idiot”. OK, this arrangement seems to work:

Girl keeping unloved fool in focus (8)

I wouldn’t describe this as memorable, but I rather like the lift-and-separate required for the “in focus” component. Let’s go with it and move on to T-BONE STEAK.

T-BONE STEAK

This looks very awkward. We noted “cut” as a definition, and it might be wise to stick with this if only for its brevity – the wordplay could end up being quite involved.

I can see TEAK at the end, which opens the possibility of finishing the clue with “…wood being cut”, so is there anything that can be done with TBONES? Not much – perhaps “bets on” could be preceded with an anagrind such as “doctor”, “jockey” or “criminal”:

Doctor bets on wood being cut (1-4,5)

Hmm. Not too bad, but it’s another anagram out of our ration, and to be frank it doesn’t read all that well. Still, I like that wood/cut combo. Just a moment – TEAK also appears if we use the first letter and the last three, so it would contain BONEST. That might be much better – BO is the name of a sacred tree in Buddhism, a crossword stalwart that usually appears simply as “tree”, so now we have wood/tree/cut available as components, leaving just NEST. A nest is usually in a tree, of course, but I can’t really see a way of incorporating it smoothly. Let’s pause to take a look at the components we’re working with:

We want to put BO (tree) and NEST into TEAK (wood) to make “cut”.

In that order it doesn’t look easy, but we’ve been concentrating on the end-of-clue link-up “wood being cut”. A tree could be cut as well, so we could instead arrange the clue as “Cut tree (next to NEST) in wood”. We just need something for NEST; let’s check the thesaurus. As a verb, one possibility is “lodge”, and that’s a nice piece of misdirection as we can present it is a noun:

Cut tree next to lodge in wood (1-4,5)

That’s a big improvement, almost idyllic in fact!

BESMIRCH

This looks even worse – it doesn’t even offer a serviceable anagram. There’s no container available, which is probably just as well since we’ve used a few of those already, and the third of the “big three” (the charade) appears unpromising. I can only see BE, a reversal of RIMS, plus CH (church).

At times like this I prefer to persist with a clue. That’s not the case where I can see nothing at all. When that happens I resign myself to the fact that it’s going to be a struggle and move on to something else in an attempt to “warm up” – very often that’s what is needed to make me see something I’ve been missing.

BESMIRCH has offered up three charade components which don’t look too hard to deal with, so it’s worth spending some time with it.

Where you have a component that needs an indicator for its treatment – in this case we’ve identified the word RIMS which needs to be reversed – it’s wise to address this first. Potentially it’s the wordiest part of the clue and, while brevity is by no means a requirement, many solvers regard it as a plus point. A rim, in the sense of encompassing shape, can also be called a ring. With this being a down clue, the first reversal indicator that springs to mind is “up”, thus “ring up”. Definition and reversal indicator in six letters can’t be bad!

There may be several synonyms for BE, and CH is going to be “church”, so let’s not worry about these just yet. We should now be looking at a definition for the answer, and I’ve spotted a number of valid ones; soil, dirty, stain, damage – all look good. The next task is to link one of these, NEARLY/CRYING style, to BE.

Can BE be “lie”? Yes, I think so. Although it had existed for donkey’s years beforehand, it was the Reeves/Mortimer comedy quiz show Shooting Stars that turned “You wouldn’t let it lie” into a memorable catchphrase, and the sense of “lie” in that is “be”. Even so, it needs a bit of extended thought to make that connection, so I’d be inclined to give it a question mark. Unavoidably, that will mean splitting the clue into two parts, so I want to get “lie?” at the end of the first one – it will be followed by the “rings up” “church” parts, and it would make sense to have the answer’s definition at the beginning in front of “lie?” I’ll try it this way:

Dirty lie? Rings up church (8)

The image isn’t too bad – there’s a gentle tinge of humour in it which makes up for the clue not perhaps reading as totally smooth. You can’t have everything, and usually it’s better to accept a nothing special clue rather than overdo it and create something convoluted and unsolvable.

SCHIZO

Very unfriendly letters, but the “skit so” note makes that irrelevant. All we need to do is find good definitions for SKIT and SO, a homophone indicator, and a definition for the answer. We have to be careful about this last bit; wit and humour are all very good but it’s easy to be inadvertently insulting and we don’t want that.

For reasons unknown, the word “schizo” makes me think of American movies where the word is used to describe anyone who is mentally unstable. In that sense it’s a colloquialism – based, perhaps, on a touch of ignorance, but not quite straying into offensive territory. I think the definition “madman” could ruffle only the most easily ruffled of feathers. It’s only a crossword, so let’s not lose too much sleep over it just now, and instead think about those homophone components.

A skit is a short artistic performance, so that could also be a “turn”. We could leave SO as it is, provided we can marry it seamlessly to a homophone indicator. Two possible interpretations are:

Madman having a turn, so they say (6)

Madman having a turn, as they say (6)

One could toss a coin to decide, but on further consideration I think “as they say” works slightly better alongside “turn”, suggesting that the word “turn” is, like the answer, a colloquialism. We’ll go for that version.

There’s a reward for this early burst of hard work. Roughly one third of the clues are written, and we can now browse the unclued answers looking for inspiration. Some clues are going to come to us very quickly while others will put up a fight, but there is no longer a need to approach them in a particular order. Taking another look at our notes (I’ve removed the clues which have been written), the list seems less daunting:

ACROSS
1 BLAB The B-A- pattern will have led me to view several candidates, but BLAB is one of those interesting colloquialisms that can be attractive for that reason alone.
11 STERNUM I won’t have noted anything – nothing obvious in these letters.
12 INCUBI Ditto.
13 NEMBUTAL Just a note to keep it simple.
22 ANSELM “Leans precariously” for the first five letters will have been apparent fairly early.
24 EPISODE I may have scribbled “piece of soap?” as a starting point for the definition.
25 MENTION Again, a note for the definition – “shout” looks good (think Radio 1 DJs, if you can bear to).
27 WHOA Yet again, a note for the definition – the apparently innocent “hold it”.
DOWN
2 AT ANCHOR Homophone – “a tanker”; good seafaring link to the answer.
3 LINK Not sure what to do with this, but perhaps define it in its Internet sense?
5 MUSKETEERS Apart from “scent” for MUSK, can’t see much.
7 ORNATE No ideas yet.
8 FEMALE I’d spotted the reversal of LAM inside FEE, but probably because I couldn’t see anything else.
14 DOUGHTIEST One (I) in DOUGH TEST – must have potential!
16 VIPERISH Obvious PERISH; I may also have jotted down “evil heart” to give the VI component.
17 EGOMANIA The OMANI bit will have reminded me of its IN A MO (very shortly) reversal.
19 ALBERT Never liked clueing proper names; there’s B in ALERT, but not sure how to piece it together.
23 EMMA That 8mm idea just has to be used.

Those for which I’ve noted something along the lines of “no ideas spring to mind” are not yet in the category of problem areas. The letters look reasonably kind and it has simply been the case that on first glance I haven’t seen anything obvious, and that can easily change on a re-visit.

In any case, having worked hard to sort out that difficult early foursome I think it would only be fair to look for some easily accessible thrills – namely, trying to exploit the better ideas that appear in the notes.

EMMA

I’m immediately drawn to EMMA at 23Dn and that “8mm” idea. All it needs is a nice way to place “8mm” into EA and it could be a cracking clue. We need a good insertion indicator and a way of defining EA. As an abbreviation EA means “each”, but there doesn’t seem to be a way of using that convincingly. What about turning these letters into something which has to be deduced from something else? Another consideration is that “8mm” has to link up with something, and that will either be the EA suggestion or the insertion indicator, so “8mm…” what?

A popular inserticator is “lines”. “8mm lines…” must have potential. OK – “8mm lines EA”. What can be done?

After a number of experimental scribblings I notice EA as the centre of NEAR or “near centre” and that offers up a testing little clue:

8mm lines near centre (4)

It’s very testing, in fact. Excessively so? Probably not. In the grid, the solver will be offered the pattern –M-A and, barring any silly obscurities, only EMMA will fit. A post-solve look at the clue will probably point up the “mm” part, leading to suspicions about the role of “8” which can quickly be cleared up by referring to 8Dn. That should make parsing “near centre” and its container indicator fairly easy.

Should there be a gap between “8” and “mm”? Ximenean purists would say so, but there are some occasions when most solvers will forgive a liberty such as this when the result is an unexpectedly formatted clue which takes a novel approach to a well-worn answer.

AT ANCHOR

The homophone “a tanker” is a real bonus here, too good to be passed up. The only difficulty I can see is finding a good definition for the answer, which at first glance seems to resist anything concise.

When a ship is at anchor in port it isn’t moving, so it’s still. That’s quite a good starting point – the definition “still in port” is accurate but misleading. We just need to link it to the “a tanker” homophone, and there’s no real need to make the indicator complicated. Starting with “Still in port, a cargo ship…” gives us a good tie-in from the outset – no point in going for overkill:

Still in port, a cargo ship, say (2,6)

No problems with that. Let’s keep it.

MENTION

Moving on to this clue isn’t as random as it looks. The absurdly contemporary “shout” definition is irresistible and I’m keen to exploit it. The letters don’t look overly generous but MEN and “shout” are easily linked, leaving a choice of I in TON or O in TIN. The second of these may be better because of the simple (and simply incorporated) “can” for TIN. If I can get a format which describes O inside “men/people can shout” we could have a sweet little clue.

We’ve already used O as “love” in another clue, but it doesn’t crosscheck this one and we can still find an alternative meaning the same – nothing, nil, zip, nada etc – to use here. This clue fits the bill well enough:

With nothing to hide, people can shout (7)

There’s nothing outrageous here; a clue of moderate difficulty with a smooth surface. Let’s go for one more before taking a short break.

EPISODE

“Piece of soap?” This cryptic definition isn’t strong or precise enough to stand on its own as a CD. Some wordplay will be needed to justify the slightly loose definition, but it would be nice to carry the theme into it. Whatever happens, the question mark has to stay.

A piece of soap is most likely to be found by a sink or bath, but in use it could also be dropped into water – accidentally, perhaps! I mention it, though, because the letters of EPISODE include an arrangement of the letters in DEEP, which has watery connotations. We could even extend this to SO DEEP, leaving just the I to account for.

Following this thought means we’re straying into anagram territory again, but apart from an early blip we’ve been quite disciplined. If SO DEEP is going to be used we need an appropriate anagrind, one that fits in with the watery/soapy feel. “Slippery” has the soapy link but doesn’t fit with SO DEEP. Much better is “liquid” – I like the sound of “liquid so deep”, but we still need to fit I in there, and add our “piece of soap?” definition. Here’s one interpretation:

In liquid so deep, one piece of soap?

Not bad, but I feel I may be missing something. I like the clue, but the surface might be improved if I can find something to replace the ellipsis in the reading “In liquid so deep one … piece of soap?” Got it:

In liquid so deep one finds piece of soap? (7)

That gives a much more amusing surface, the image of rummaging around in the sink/bath for a piece of soap which has been dropped into it.

Now, how are we doing in terms of the overall clue-writing task?

FTT 17

Not bad at all – we’re half way through them. We should take a break now.

This is extremely important. It may have taken you around ten minutes to read this far, but what you’ve been reading is rather like those TV adverts for iPhone applications which are obliged to state “Sequence shortened”. Filling the grid and writing half of the clues is likely to have taken several hours and it is hard to remain mentally fresh, and thus creative, if you don’t get away from the puzzle for at least an hour and let the grey matter recharge.

So we have fourteen clues left to write, with no demands to address any clue before the others. That said, we still have “no ideas yet” alongside STERNUM, INCUBI, NEMBUTAL and ORNATE. My tactic now will be to look at these; not to write clues, but to look for and note any wordplay potential.

STERNUM isn’t great but I can see TERN inside SUM. SUM is one of those words which looks like it has a load of synonyms, but remarkably few lend themselves to smooth incorporation, and I have the additional need to indicate either that SUM is outside TERN or TERN is inside SUM; “In total”? That’s not bad – I’ll note it. For the container indicator, if I select “whole” as the definition for SUM it might be possible to use “whole skin” to suggest that wordplay.

INCUBI is friendlier, a straight charade of IN + CUB + I, and “young” for CUB could be effective. Another note.

NEMBUTAL must have an easy clue. An anagram of MUTABLE plus N is the first thing that springs to mind and, precisely for that reason, it’s what I’ll work with.

ORNATE Funny how six of the commonest letters in the English language can appear to be stubborn when it comes to cryptic clue treatment. N in ORATE is possible. I’ll note that, but I also spot ORIGINATE with the letters IGI (one soldier?) removed.

Let’s have a look at our updated notes:

ACROSS
1 BLAB The B-A- pattern will have led me to view several candidates, but BLAB is one of those interesting colloquialisms that can be attractive for that reason alone.
11 STERNUM S(TERN)UM. TERN in total. TERN with whole skin.
12 INCUBI IN/CUB/I – CUB = “young”.
13 NEMBUTAL N + MUTABLE*.
22 ANSELM “Leans precariously” for the first five letters will have been apparent fairly early.
27 WHOA Yet again, a note for the definition – the apparently innocent “hold it”.
DOWN
3 LINK Not sure what to do with this, but perhaps define it in its Internet sense?
5 MUSKETEERS Apart from “scent” for MUSK, can’t see much.
7 ORNATE OR(N)ATE. OR(igi)NATE (one soldier deserting?).
8 FEMALE I’d spotted the reversal of LAM inside FEE, but probably because I couldn’t see anything else.
14 DOUGHTIEST One (I) in DOUGH TEST – must have potential!
16 VIPERISH Obvious PERISH; I may also have jotted down “evil heart” to give the VI component.
17 EGOMANIA The OMANI bit will have reminded me of its IN A MO (very shortly) reversal.
19 ALBERT Never liked clueing proper names; there’s B in ALERT, but not sure how to piece it together.

ALBERT

For no reason I’ve just glanced at 19Dn and I’m glad I did. “Not sure how to piece it together” – well, if ALBERT is going to be defined as “Prince” we’ve also got B = “black”, and Black Prince will look good. ALERT gives plenty of scope, so we could go for:

Warning about Black Prince (6)

It’s OK, but it’s just an off-the-cuff idea that’s probably far from original. Perhaps ALERT can be given a better definition – “ready” is quite a good one, although “Ready about…” is nonsense. Here we go with a much better container indicator:

Ready to welcome Black Prince (6)

That’s nice, creating a convincing image of a faintly dark medieval palace ceremony.

BLAB

This one catches my eye because I’m still not absolutely convinced it’s the answer I’ll go with. I like it, but it doesn’t really break down with much variety. There’s B + LAB, but what else? LA in BB is there, but I don’t see much for BB. Before ditching it I’ll focus on my original note that it’s an attractive colloquialism. It’s a word meaning to (usually unintentionally) reveal confidential information, so it could be defined as “let out”, and I like that because LAB is the common short form of the dog LABRADOR, so there’s a suggestion of “dog being let out”; perhaps better, “small dog…”. There must be something we can do with B to complete that theme. What would cause a small dog to be let out by its owner? OK, apart from that. What if it had started barking?

We’re onto something here. To indicate the initial letter, we could describe B as “beginning to bark”:

Beginning to bark, small dog let out (4)

That makes perfect sense. Another clue falls into place.

FEMALE

The link to this from EMMA at 23Dn is pushing me towards easing off in terms of toughness here. I’d like solvers to enjoy the EMMA clue, which they can’t if they have no idea how it works. My notes had a reversal of LAM in FEE, by far the most obvious wordplay composition.

LAM means “hit”, and “hit back” satisfies the reversal. One of the numerous synonyms for FEE is “charge” and we can succinctly indicate the container by using “in charge” – so we’ve got something based on “hit back when in charge”:

She has to hit back when in charge (6)

A very ordinary clue, it is nevertheless uncomplicated and accurate, and I’m hoping the majority of solvers will see it straightaway.

We’re getting close to having a list of unwritten clues in single digits, which always feels like a significant breakthrough, so let’s try to leap that hurdle by tackling a couple of clues that look eminently writable.

LINK

This looks easy – lots of definitions and the letters suggest using IN as part of a hidden answer. An initial “sketch” is along the lines of:

Join (HIDDEN INDICATOR) ***L IN K***.

The possibilities seem endless and it will take a lot of scrap paper jottings before I notice “boarding school” to incorporate the hidden indicator and the word ending with L. The time taken to do this isn’t a problem. It would be much worse if I was struggling with a word that didn’t suggest wordplay – this one suggests plenty and I was only faced with the task of spotting the best ones to use. “Join boarding school in K***” only needs me to think of a place beginning with K, and I found one that could be associated with the sort of wealth one traditionally thinks of when imagining boarding school FEES:

Join boarding school in Kensington (4)

VIPERISH

I’ve already noted two wordplay elements so this should be a gimme. “Evil heart” could be “heart in evil” for VI, and the unexpected verb synonym “demise” for PERISH can be tagged onto the end. All we need now is a decent definition for the answer, so we could have:

Spiteful heart in evil demise (8)

An odd clue, this, because “evil demise” only stands out as not quite making sense when you read the clue closely; until then it all looks pretty natural.

Excellent – we have just nine clues left to write.

FTT 18

In real time, getting this far has probably accounted for a day and a half. My expectation is to have all but a small handful of unexpectedly awkward clues written by the end of day two. It always happens that way irrespective of how carefully I believe I’ve selected the answers. My notes may show some answers as having great clue potential, but when it comes to writing them they present stubborn obstacles; component A may be fantastic, but I just can’t see anything for the remainder B. I may need to scrap the original idea and start again.

I like to think of this final phase as the home straight, but equally I’m aware that I’m likely to encounter problems, so I’ll start by taking each unwritten clue in order and writing further notes; adding potential definitions for answers and wordplay elements, as well as remarks about difficulties that may lie ahead. The definitions I’ve listed are the remainder after others have been eliminated because I didn’t think they would sit well in the clue.

ACROSS
1 STERNUM S(TERN)UM. TERN in total or TERN with whole skin. The latter looks more feasible for smoothness. STERNUM = bone (no need to be too specific). Same for TERN – “bird” will do.
12 INCUBI = devils / nightmares / oppressive people or influences. IN = home / part of / trendy / at home / present / here. CUB = young / youngster. I = one / single. Easy components, just need to string together.
13 NEMBUTAL N + MUTABLE*. Anagrinds – preparation of / mixture of. N = new / name – initial or last letter of? NEMBUTAL = a barbiturate. Remember to keep it simple.
22 ANSELM = (historical) archbishop / old archbishop. Ties in with “leans precariously” – or try collapses / goes to pieces? M = Mass (as in religious service – great!).
27 WHOA “Hold it”. Breaks down to WHO + A but how to define WHO? Avoid acronym, too complicated. Looks difficult. Also inevitable “hold it” will be end of clue?
DOWN
5 MUSKETEERS = soldiers. MUSK = scent? Can be verb. E = no standard abbreviations seem viable, probably initial/last letter. TEERS = anagram TREES / RESET. “Trees in camouflage”? Not keen on E inside TREES* but may be needed.
7 ORNATE = fancy / involved / intricate (no – ATE ending) / complex. OR(N)ATE or OR(igi)NATE (one soldier deserting). ORIGINATE = make (“make one soldier desert…”?).
14 DOUGHTIEST DOUGH TEST = financial probe (!). “One in financial probe”. DOUGHTIEST = least likely to cave in / crack etc. Promising.
17 EGOMANIA IN A MO< in AGE<. IN A MO = shortly / any minute / soon. AGE = mature / years; something less obvious – “effect of growing”? EGOMANIA = self obsession / one obsession (!). For reversal, DEFINITION + AGE (insertion) effect of growing up.

Taking the plunge and now tackling these clues in order is slightly risky, but what I’ll do is give each a certain amount of time; if nothing happens in that time I’ll move on to the next clue.

STERNUM

This is beginning to look quite doable, although I’m not confident of creating a clue of fantastic smoothness. I’d briefly considered starting with “Bone doctor must…” to get the definition and an anagram of the outer letters ST/UM, but the remaining ERN isn’t nice. Furthermore, an exhaustive trawl through the container indicators revealed nothing that would read convincingly while fitting the syntax required by “doctor must”. “Bandage” looks good at first, but to fit the grammar it would have to be “bandages” and that doesn’t work. “To bandage” maybe – but ERN is no better served.

I’m going to concentrate on “bone”, consisting of “bird” with “whole skin”. The clue isn’t ideal, but it creates something of an image:

Bone of bird with whole skin (7)

INCUBI

There’s some potential here – it all relies on smoothly linking some uncomplicated charade elements. I keep being drawn towards using “here” for IN, but can I justify it?

When I have doubts like this I try to think of everyday sentences in which two words can mean the same thing. For IN/HERE we could think of someone in the pub saying “There aren’t many people in this evening”. “There aren’t many people here this evening” would mean exactly the same thing. I think it’s OK. So I can start the clue with “Here, young one…” which accounts for IN, CUB and I, so I just need to find a link between that and the definition. From the list, I fancy “nightmares” as it starts to paint a picture of a young child’s terrifying sleepless nights. Yeah, I’m wicked at times.

I can’t just plump for any old filler – it has to be something which says “wordplay A leads to answer B”. After some head-scratching I find:

Here, young one causes nightmares (6)

I haven’t been able to stick to my original theme. The story has changed but, thankfully, it remains a plausible one.

NEMBUTAL

Keep it simple. This is not a cop-out – I’m not going to attempt any kind of convoluted deception here. I want the clue to scream out its instruction:

New preparation of mutable barbiturate (8)

It could be argued that “mixture of” would be better. Maybe so, but on reading through that version I found the alliteration with “mutable” sounded a bit clumsy.

ANSELM

Further examination has revealed some good potential here, the wordplay elements combining to build a funny and compelling image of a doddery archbishop collapsing before Mass. All that’s holding me up is finding a good combination of anagram fodder (LEANS) and anagrind to make a smooth surface.

The more I stare at it the more awkward it seems to become, so perhaps the best thing is to sit back from it for while and allow my brain to unclutter itself.

Given a few minutes to cool off, I return to the realisation that it’s surprisingly easy to over-work a clue. I’d seen “leans precariously” as just an initial idea awaiting development, but in reality it’s perfectly good in that form and makes a very good contribution to a sound clue:

Old archbishop leans precariously before Mass (6)

Sometimes the best ideas are the earliest ones.

WHOA

This is starting to worry me because of the need to define WHO. I keep staring at it but to no avail. Sadly, I’m going to have to pass on this one for now and hope something comes to mind later.

MUSKETEERS

A few ideas have emerged for this, and I’m starting to see a description of soldiers getting the scent of something possibly camouflaged by trees. The clue formula is building up as “Soldiers scent E in(?) ANAGRIND trees”. What could E be? The back of something, or the front of something? “Front”! Of course; “front” is something we can associate with soldiers and battle. So I want a word starting with E to link with that. Oh, why didn’t I see it before? “Enemy front” works perfectly. So, “Soldiers scent enemy front…”. “In” or “alongside”? I’m not too keen on using the insertion because it can be either of two Es in TEERS. On the other hand, plenty of setters commit the same “sin” in published crosswords without complaint; maybe I’m just being over-fussy. All I need now, then is a good anagrind for “trees” – how about “bombed”? Let’s try:

Soldiers scent enemy front in bombed trees (10)

Nice. It has quite a convincing Great War storyline. Incidentally, I tried versions using “camouflaged” as the anagrind but they didn’t feel quite as smooth.

ORNATE

I’m still not sure which of the two wordplay treatments will work better for this clue. Eventually I reject the OR(N)ATE idea; ORATE isn’t too good for definition, and N has been used as “new” at 13Ac, restricting its possibilities here. Furthermore, if I can make the OR(igi)NATE subtraction work it will be the only clue of that type in the puzzle, and variety is good. The notes mentioned “make one soldier desert…” and that would just leave a definition of the answer. Of those listed, only “complex” is feasible, so let’s see how that works:

Make one soldier desert complex (6)

This is a pretty tough clue but I like it anyway. It isn’t absolutely smooth but there appears to be a little story in there.

DOUGHTIEST

I’m hoping to get something good out of this, because the “financial probe” element feels relevant to the corporate scandals which have made headlines over recent years. The very easy incorporation of the hidden I can give us “one in financial probe”, so there’s only the definition to think about. I noted “least likely to crack” as one possibility, and this is already starting to look very good indeed:

Least likely to crack, as one in financial probe? (10)

I really do like that; not a difficult solve, but hopefully one that will cause a titter.

EGOMANIA

This one doesn’t come across as being quite so straightforward even though the elements are good. Once again I need to express the ideas in the notes as a cryptic formula:

EGOMANIA = soon / shortly (INSERTION) effect of growing up.

It might not be an inspiring start but I’m hoping there’s a way to express those elements in such a way that they string together smoothly. I gave a mental thumbs up to “one obsession” as the definition, so I’ll put that in the mix:

One obsession very soon(? – yes, I think that’s more precise) (INSERTION – covered by / hidden by / masked by) effect of growing up.

This is looking better now. “Very soon” for IN A MO is better than just “soon”, and of the container indicators “masked by” feels best. So one option would be:

One obsession very soon masked by effect of growing up (8)

I can live with that. It creates the idea of perhaps a teenage whim that vanishes with maturity.

Wow! This has been tremendously productive. Notwithstanding the “compressed time” nature of this description, I’ve still reached the stage of having all but one clue written, when I’d been expecting at least three or four, maybe even half a dozen. I feel like celebrating, but I’ll keep the bottle on ice for now. There may only be one clue to write, but it’s starting to look like a bit of a monster. Time to give it one more go. Be brave.

WHOA

I refuse to give up on that “hold it” definition. As for WHO, the only definition that isn’t either wordy or a dead give-away appears to be THAT. On the face of it this looks like a perfect “innocent” addition, but I sense “hold it” is only going to work at the end of the clue, so “that” would have to be at the beginning. There is an alternative. I could clue A first, then indicate this as following THAT to make “hold it” – in other words, use the formula:

A (“after” INDICATOR) that hold it.

The syntax breaks down. I’d have to use a verb form such as “chases” or “chasing”, neither of which matches up with “that”.

Sadly – very reluctantly – I give up on “hold it”, resorting instead to the far more basic “stop!” To be fair I should include the exclamation mark because, well, it’s an exclamation. On the plus side, I can still create a neat little clue:

That must come to a stop! (4)

All Over

So we got there in the end – not an easy ride all the way but, apart from WHOA, we didn’t get held up too long. In all, I guess this puzzle took a little over two days to finish, and for me that’s astoundingly quick. In most cases I could easily double that.

Before putting the puzzle (and me) to bed, I glance over the clues to see where the easy/hard clue answers intersect. I don’t want any areas of the grid to be too soft or challenging, and on this occasion it seems the balance is about right. For other puzzles it’s likely I may have to tweak the odd clue just to restore that balance, but such changes are very rarely major. Usually it just means swapping an oblique definition for a simpler one, or the other way round of course.

This puzzle is OK, so let’s finish by having a look at the finished article:

Anax Puzzle - Final

ACROSS DOWN
1. Beginning to bark, small dog let out (4) 1. Dirty lie? Rings up church (8)
3. With me inside, fold canopy so it won’t go up (10) 2. Still in port, a cargo ship, say (2,6)
10. Produce fences for Buxton e.g. (3,4) 4. Join boarding school in Kensington (4)
11. Bone of bird with whole skin (7) 5. Soldiers scent enemy front in bombed trees (10)
12. Here, young one causes nightmares (6) 6. Parable about securing deal before trial (4,10)
13. New preparation of mutable barbiturate (8) 7. Make one soldier desert complex (6)
15. Scatter loose rocks approaching waterworks (5,2,5) 8. She has to hit back when in charge (6)
18. Get mad drivers in scrap Granadas heading for this? (6,6) 9. Pants, blouse, “No Dad”, the wear of Elizabethans (7,3,4)
21. Girl keeping unloved fool in focus (8) 14. Least likely to crack, as one in financial probe? (10)
22. Old archbishop leans precariously before Mass (6) 16. Spiteful heart in evil demise (8)
24. In liquid so deep one finds piece of soap (7) 17. One obsession very soon masked by effect of growing up (8)
25. With nothing to hide, people can shout (7) 19. Ready to welcome Black Prince (6)
26. Cut tree next to lodge in wood (1-4,5) 20. Madman having a turn, as they say (6)
27. That must come to a stop! (4) 23. 8mm lines near centre (4)

And the solution:

FTT 20

One obsession very soon masked by effect of growing up (8)