July 29, 2010

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Mt. Airy student can claim 2 N.Y. Times crosswords

The crossword kid: Joel Fagliano. (Photo by Pete Mazzaccaro)

Most crossword puzzle creators spend years trying to get published in The New York Times. But Joel Fagliano isn’t your average puzzle-maker.

For starters, Fagliano hasn’t had just one puzzle published, but two (he’s also had two published in the Los Angeles Times). And at 18, he holds the designation as the ninth youngest person to complete the feat, making his Times crossword debut in 2009 at 17 (the youngest to date was 15).

The Mt. Airy resident said he started solving The New York Times crossword puzzle shortly before starting high school. He’d watched his father, Jerald, wrestle with the puzzle for years and figured he’d give it a try. It wasn’t long before the two were working out clues together.

But it wasn’t until his sophomore year, at J.R. Masterman High School, that Fagliano said he made the transition from puzzle solver to puzzle creator. He said it was during chemistry class that he constructed his first crossword corner, a 5x5 area of squares.

The following year, he began submitting full-size crossword creations – 15x15’s – to Will Shortz, the famed crossword editor for the Times. But Fagliano admitted that his first attempts didn’t quite meet the paper’s high standards.

“They were bad,” Fagliano recalled. “They used a lot of bad abbreviations, and the themes weren’t very exciting.”

Undeterred, he continued to send Shortz crossword puzzles. In October 2009, he received the e-mail message he’d been waiting for: one of his puzzles had been accepted and would appear in the paper toward the end of the month.

“I was really happy because it’s so crazy to see your name in print in The New York Times,” Fagliano said.

Constructing a crossword puzzle from scratch is hard work, he said. It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. He noted that it typically takes him two or three days worth of work to get a puzzle ready for submission.

 Often, Fagliano said, he has to set aside a puzzle he’s working on and return to it later.

“Sometimes there’s just too much crossing of various things, and I can’t get all of it to work out cleanly because each answer has to be a legit word,” he said. “And all the answers have to be three letters or longer.”

Submitting crossword puzzles to the Times, Fagliano added, takes a thick skin. He said for every one of his puzzles that’s been accepted, three have been rejected.

Fagliano pointed out that there’s also a fair amount of give and take with Shortz before a puzzle takes its final form. While Shortz will never change the puzzle’s design, he will occasionally change a clue to create a clearer path to the answer.

Fagliano gave an example from his most recent puzzle, published June 22, to illustrate the point.

“For the word ‘road’ I clued it as ‘The Road,’ the book that just became the movie,” he explained. “And he went back and changed it to ‘Abby blank,’ like the Beatles number-one hit.”

Fagliano said it’s somewhat disappointing when a clue is edited because it takes away some of the deception – the key, he said, to a good clue and a good puzzle overall.

But so early in his crossword career, Fagliano said he’s not in a position to complain much and still has a lot to learn when it comes to creating crosswords.

“When you make a crossword puzzle it’s almost like a piece of art,” Fagliano said. “You can really put your own print there. And everyone has a different style when they’re making a crossword.”

Fagliano, who graduated from Masterman in June, is planning to enter Pomona College in the fall. He attended the Henry Houston Elementary School and Project Learn before entering Masterman.

His ultimate goal is to have one of his puzzles published in the Sunday edition of the Times, reserved for the most challenging puzzle of the week.

“It’s $1,000 and a chance for a broader audience,” said Fagliano, who received $200 for his two puzzles published Tuesday and Thursday respectively.

He said he’s already got a few Sunday puzzles in the works.



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