"Star Turns" — The Breast Cancer Benefit Puzzle Write-Up

Thursday, November 26, 2009

First of all, if you haven't yet done the puzzle I wrote to support Christina Applegate's breast cancer foundation, please go here and get it. Do not read past this point. Spoiler alert, spoiler alert, etc. Here's a picture of a pretty kitten. Do not read past the kitten unless you have completed the puzzle...

So I'll let you all critique it, and I'll just explain how it came together. I was inspired a few months back to do a benefit puzzle. I follow Christina on Twitter and knew she was involved in Lee Denim Day, a big breast cancer fundraiser that took place in October. So I was kicking around theme ideas involving "Lee" or "Denim" and getting nowhere. Then I thought ... well, Christina does puzzles, and she has a Foundation of her own, so what can I do with that? RIGHT ACTION FOR WOMEN appealed to me right away because I could break it down into symmetrically arrangeable parts (5, 8, 5) — too long for a traditional 15x15 grid, but I could stagger them. Now, I could still have made the puzzle 15x15, but I decided to give myself a little room so I could have a better chance to fill the grid cleanly (I am still new to grid design, and I know my limitations).

So then I needed a concept. Something to do with "RIGHT" ... "RIGHT" is conventionally symbolized by letter "R," so ... "RIGHT ACTION ..." I guess adding an "R" would be a kind of "ACTION." Yeah, OK. So ... why add the "R"? What should that do? What could answers have in common? Well, Christina's an actress, so ... what about playing with actress names? Add a letter to get an actress name and thus a wacky phrase. STREEP was the first name that came to mind, but I didn't get further very easily. I really, really didn't want the actress already to have an "R" in her name. . . so rather than pore over lists of actress names, I just asked my Twitter followers to throw me actress names wherein removing the "R" gets you a real word (i.e. STREEP - "R" = STEEP). I was stunned by the quick and varied responses. But I was also stunned at how few names would actually work well here, where the "R"-less actress name would be a word that could also start a familiar phrase. Each time I got a new, viable name, I'd throw down some base phrases, but honestly, the ones I ended up going with were the first that came to me. And they were 2 13-letter answers and 2 14-letter answers. Serendipity.

I built the grid in an afternoon and had (I think) Amy Reynaldo and Angela Halsted test it. Worked out some kinks and sent it Christina, who approved the whole endeavor. Then I decided that I should hold it til a suitable occasion, which I decided would be Nov. 25, her birthday. Then on Nov. 24 I got the bright idea to show it to anyone who wanted to test it. First responders were a couple accomplished constructors and a champion solver: Eric Berlin, Caleb Madison, and Dan Feyer, respectively. All were approving, but it was clear that there were parts of the grid they weren't thrilled with (rightly), and so I decided to tear down about half the puzzle and then rebuild it. Second draft was deemed a "lateral move" by Eric, and so I went back at it until I had eliminated the iffiest, most grating stuff (there wasn't a ton, but what there was was definitely marginal-to-ugly).

First biggest challenge was 45D. Started with -RW--T, and let me tell you, that's not a very kind letter combo. Could've gone with "OR WHAT!?", but boo! Then thought about DR or MR for the first part. I have listened to Kanye West's "Late Registration" enough that MR. WEST came to mind quickly. Knew many wouldn't know it, but also knew I could clue it, and cross it, in a way that would make it gettable. After that, by FAR the biggest trouble I had was in the NE center (around POESY) and in the SW center (around CHIEF). O+M+G. Originally I had NOD OFF where NO LEFT now stands. Obviously NOD OFF is better, and that's what my first draft had. But it also had WGN crossing SANDH (yes, that's SANDH, as in "shipping & handling"). WGN is common to Chicagoans and crossworders, but I did not like it with the SANDH crossing at all. Tear down resulted in changes that affected the entire NW corner, from XTRA to BBQ and over to TWERPS — everything changed.

Then there was the opposite section in the central SW. Had CALIF and STRATI where CHIEF and STEFFI now stand, but the real killer here, the one tiny answer that made me tear the whole section out, was SAR. That's short for SARdinia. It's a valid abbrev., but when Eric solved it and still didn't know what SAR. stood for, I knew it had to go. You would not think a stupid little three-letter word would cause so much trouble, but it did. Tear out, rebuild, tear out, rebuild. Finally got it to the point where everything felt clean. All readers (incl. Eric, my most thorough critic) agreed it was better, and so it stood. Done and done.

Ran it by a ton of people at the last minute for proofreading purposes, and caught many tiny things I either didn't notice or didn't think were relevant at first. The little cluing details are maddening when you are both writer *and* editor. Punctuation, phrasing, accuracy, spelling, etc. You've got to watch it all, and even when you're watching, stuff gets by. No wonder Will has a small army of people proofing his puzzles. There are Lots of small things to keep track of.

So, there you go. I really hope you enjoyed it, and also that you were moved to donate to the cause. In addition to MR. WEST, I'm quite fond of the crime fiction / film noir subtheme I've got going there with FEDORA crossing THE MOB and then FBI close by. I have a history of being kind of in love with Teri GARR, so even though she's crosswordese, I'm happy. R. CRUMB is a genius and I'm teaching his adaptation of Genesis next semester. "REHAB" is a guilty pleasure. Etc. Parts that still make me wince a little — IGORS, AMANAS, WPA/POESY (legit, and redeemed some by Keats, but I'd say what I have there is a narrow escape, at best). But that's enough from me. Have at it, and thank you for you attention / indulgence. And thanks especially to the dozen or so people who affected the final outcome of this thing. And to Christina for inadvertently inspiring it.



pednsg 2:33 PM  

Loved the puzzle, and I hope all will consider a donation, at a time of year when there are so many worthy causes which need help. One in eight or nine women will develop breast cancer, and there are no readers who don't know someone well who has been affected.

I love hearing about the work involved in construction - I wish all of the builders would comment more on their processes in the blog.

Thanks again, to Rex, Ms. Applegate, and this community!

obertb 3:31 PM  

Nice puzzle, Rex, and a very worthy cause. I, too, am a Christina Applegate fan--loved her as the dimwitted Kelly in "Married--With Children." Glad she was not typecast by that role, as she is a highly intelligent, thoughtful person.

@Anonymous 3:01: Did you stumble into the wrong blog?

Elaine2 4:13 PM  

loved the puzzle, and appreciate the work for a great cause!

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

PhillySolver 4:50 PM  

anonymous may have overloaded on turkey.

I am happy to donate to the foundation and appreciate Ms. Applegate's work and hope she returns to prime time soon.

shrub5 5:29 PM  

Rex, the puzzle was very clever and challenging. Thank you on behalf of women (and some men) who may have breast cancer in their futures and for whom the technology that Christina Applegate is sponsoring may help. If everyone who worked this puzzle just sends even a small donation, it could make a big difference to several people.

Even though you said you didn't want to make your puzzle "too boob-specific", I see you did manage to sneak in some boob references at 1D, 64A and maybe 9D.

I made several copies of the puzzle and will distribute them at work on Monday. Two of my coworkers got breast cancer in their 40's -- both are doing well a few years after grueling ordeals of chemotherapy and radiation. Congratulations on a fine puzzle. Happy Birthday to Christina (a day late) and to Rex today.

Elaine 6:31 PM  

Does this make me Elaine1?

Rex, it was an enjoyable puzzle. I admire that you persisted even after reaching (no doubt) the "Why did I start this?" stage. Must be turning 40 that did it--yer gittin' tougher!

I had molten chocolate cakes with vanilla ice cream in honor of your birthday! (any excuse, eh?)

Stan 7:49 PM  

What, nobody is going to actually criticize this puzzle?

First off, let me say that I followed the links and made a (pathetically small) contribution. Please do the same (or if you can handle it, make a larger contribution!)

Okay, so I thought the theme worked and would have been fine for a Thursday or Sunday. But Mischa BARTON (from "The O.C."), is kinda borderline in terms of fame. Which made the bottom section much, much harder than the top sections. All okay in the end because of crosses. Also, the "R = Right" connection is tenuous at best.

Vocab: Very fresh and non-standard. OOXTERPLENON was not happy today.

Extra points for:

Over-the-top female attractiveness factor. From the dedicatee to Terri Garr, it would take too long to name them all.

Cluing WARRANT, an awful hair-metal band from the '80s. Next time around I hope for RATT.

Knowing that Talking Heads do not have a 'The'.

GARR crossing IGORS ("Young Frankenstein").

SHE and HIM.

"Sheep-eating parrot of New Zealand" -- I almost fell off my chair laughing.

Rex Parker 8:30 PM  


Thanks for paying attention to the specifics of the puzzle, and for noticing the GARR / IGORS intersection, which was coincidence (IGORS was last-ditch down there, but that coincidence really helped me come to terms with it). Thanks also to whoever noticed BUST and CASABAS. I can tell you that one draft of this puzzle actually had TIT in it (again, coincidence!).

As for Ms Barton's fame, I hear you. You're the first of all my readers so far to mention it, but you won't be alone in feeling that she's more marginal than the others. But she worked, and I love the answer I got off her, and I actually watched "The O.C." for a season or two, so I can't disown her.

KEA! What, did you all think I was kidding? KEA is the new black.


mac 10:26 PM  

I too had to laugh when I saw the Kea! I also thought it was very big of you to put in a "Yankee". The clue to 61A Fedora was just great.

I guess I go to the hairdresser/dental hygienist/manicurist often enough to know Ms. Barton, actually even better than Fay Wray. Ubo Roi must be a hole in my literary knowledge, but it fell because of the crosses. For the ploy I of course started out with Var.!

I really appreciate your taking us step by step through the construction process - there is so much more to it than meets the eye.

On to find the link to make a donation. This very practical cause is essential in the current state of the medical insurance. I know of several gynecologists who insist on MRI's whether you can afford them or not, and I also know women whose insurance doesn't cover mammography or any preventitive diagnostic procedures.

mac 10:32 PM  

And, Rex, when "actress Laura" showed up in a clue, I thought Linney.

PuzzleGirl 9:18 AM  

It's funny. When I solved this final version, I thought to myself "That seemed a lot smoother than the last time I saw this puzzle." Amazing what a ton of advice and hours and hours (and hours) of work can accomplish, right?

I think it's cool that the puzzle has RIGHT ACTION for FOUR WOMEN.

Aviatrix 11:59 AM  

I haven't done the puzzle yet -- need to not be on iPod-- but just want to say that SAR very acceptibly represents search and rescue action or units, to the extent that UNSAR refers to an unnecessary SAR deployment (e.g. balloon boy).

hazel 1:19 PM  

Very nice gesture, Rex - anything that helps bring awareness to any form of cancer - its prevention, its early detection, its cure, whatever - is a worthy endeavor.

Ed Gurowitz 1:07 PM  


Good puzzle - NYT quality - probably a Thursday. I don't always like your criticism of the NYT puzzles - some of us who do them are over 40 and get a lot of the 70's and even '60's references, but there was no snarkiness in this - just a nice clean solve with lots of good cluing. Thanks and thanks for your tying it to Ms Applegate's foundation. As I drive through Applegate today on my way back to Tahoe from the Bay Area, I'll think of you and her.

Aaron Riccio 12:09 PM  

I feel like taking your class oh so long ago helped me out, from 31D and 37D to 34A, and it's good that you're going with what you know. (Which, as some have observed above, is why you critique older NYT references.)

It was the lower-left of this puzzle that killed me; at one point I thought DROSS was the word (and perhaps ONO for the producer, though I know that ENO is *always* the three-letter producer). And though I suspected ol' CID, I thought maybe it was spelled SID--danged if I've heard of 85A.

As for the difficulty, while RWR and RMN and other three-letter words were sticky, I think the crosses acquitted them rather nicely. Wednesday/Thursday indeed.

Other traps: I put in EBON for 25D, since it was crossing a poetry section. I should've known better.

Bullet-points: 15D, 29D (appropriate for a puzzle about "right" action), all four theme entries, and 87A.

Fun one, thanks!

Anonymous 8:58 PM  

Thanks for giving Brian Eno credit for something other than inventing the Windows start-up sound. (Though I hope he made a lot of money off that!)

the redanman 4:27 PM  

I'd call it a HARD NYT Thursday, that's for sure, it's not constructed to be past that I suppose (I am learning). I struggled royally. Not a particularly talented puzzle solver, I worked pretty hard to get my meagre fill before helping myself to some help.

Lots of very oblique cluing and even though I knew virtually all the actresses cold, I had to resort to help via revealing a letter and eventually a word or ten.

Very clever, but not a puzzle that showed much but (missing) skill on my part. Good puzzlers loved it so congrats.

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