The Rackenfracker's origin story … and yours?
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.”)