The Stickler Story
I left a well-paid job in IT in 1996 primarily to look
after my two young children. I had become increasingly frustrated with my work
situation, leading to stress that was impacting my health and my family.
Fortunately my wife was able to secure a part-time contract with her old
employer that more than covered the financial hole left by my departure. At the
time I was writing one crossword a week for the Australian Financial
Review (AFR), and planned to expand this to bring in some extra
income. My wife and I cut a deal: if I hadn't made headway in 12 months, I would
return to the workforce.
There's a lot to learn in any business, and I knew very little about newspapers, magazines, editors, publishing, and how crosswords and puzzles fitted into the picture, despite already having a high-profile crossword in a national paper. Things didn't start well: a few months into my new life the AFR called to say that due to falling advertising revenues, the weekly crossword would be cut. I was now a full-time house-dad generating zero income. My daily (work) routine consisted of putting together samples for various magazines and newspapers (which turned out to be wasted effort as most crosswords are sourced from media agencies) and trying to think of ideas that involved crosswords. The kids kept me busy, but life was pretty easy until my agreed deadline of 12 months drew near.
For almost a year there was no paid work at all - I was involved heavily with the Australian Crossword Club (ACC) who provided me with a creative outlet and helped hone my skill. But a life as a professional crossword setter seemed just about impossible as no work was available and crosswords didn't pay well anyway. The best I could hope for was the occasional gig providing a little extra spending money.
A dear friend and mentor, Noel Jessop, claimed that most of his work came about through luck rather than his ability. He was being modest, but it's certainly true that in such a tight profession, the breaks don't come often and the number of people with pertinent comprehensive knowledge is few. When it comes to cryptics especially, most people in the publishing world don't have the technical ability to tell a good crossword from a poor one. This is good for the average setter, but bad for the proficient one as quality isn't the selling point that it should be.
It should have come as no surprise, then, when a ACC friend contacted me after he read about the unfortunate death of The Daily Telegraph's resident cryptic crossword setter. Taffy Davies, or TD to his fans, had taken over from the legendary LB (Lindsey Browne) and had been doing the job, 6 days a week, for a number of years. Now past my back-to-work deadline, I decided to contact the DT directly to see if they wanted a replacement setter. I promptly attended an interview of sorts, where I handed over a crossword resume that contained just three entries: my first ever cryptic published in a staff magazine, details of my contributions the the ACC's monthly magazine, Crozworld, and details of my relatively short stint with the AFR. I hadn't realised that TD had compiled 6 cryptics a week and tried to negotiate a subset of these, but was told it was all or nothing. This would give me much more than a foot in the door, it would allow me to walk right through, but I wasn't sure I was capable of creating over 300 cryptics a year. I accepted the challenge and awaited the official go-ahead which came a couple of months down the track.
Changing my routine to accommodate such an increase in output took some doing. It was a while before I became efficient, but within a couple of months I could produce 6 cryptics a week, and squeeze out an extra one every now and then to build up stock. The first Stickler, published 6th April, 1998, wasn't anything special. I've learnt a lot since then though, and many of the clues would be different if written in 2013. It's important to learn and grow and get better, don't you think?
Stickler No. 1 (Interactive, non-Java)
Stickler No. 1 (puzzle, PDF)
Stickler No. 1 (solution, PDF)
There have been a lot of changes to my style over the years as I've worked out what I like and don't like as a solver and applied this to my setting. Early on a setter tends to use every device they've seen others use, believing a crossword deemed good enough to be published must only use acceptable contents. It's difficult for a setter to give up cluing tools as it obviously gives them less to work with, and makes their job harder. Some don't bother, citing common usage or lack of complaints to justify doing the same old thing. I've been constantly subtracting - not necessarily a good thing either - but the result is consistent and explainable, allowing all to enjoy and newbies to get a start.
In 2011 I started a blog for solvers who wanted clue help for the current day's Stickler. Not all clues were listed, but optional help could be found for the clues I deemed harder. The process of writing the clue hints and updating the blog added about 40 minutes per crossword, well worth it if it helped solvers finish the crossword or obtain more insight.
The Stickler in The Daily Telegraph (and its offspring, The Boxer in The Courier Mail and the Saturday cryptic in The Tiser) were axed in July 2013, after 15 years and 4786 puzzles. This was purely to save money and to create the same puzzle page in all four metro papers. The reaction to The Stickler's demise is recorded on my blog:
Here is the last Stickler, published 20 July, 2013. Again it's nothing special.
Stickler No. 4786 (Interactive, non-Java)
Stickler No. 4786 (puzzle, PDF)
Stickler No. 4786 (solution, PDF)