STEP 1 I review my notebook of ideas-that-may-lead-to-themes-one-day. Some of them have been there for ten years, waiting for an interesting collision of images or wordplay.
STEP 2 Meanwhile, a word or phrase I’ve heard or read somewhere may suggest a clue, and parts of that clue suggest other clues, so we’re off.
STEP 3 On to the laptop to type up ideas so far and to copy synonym lists from WordWeb’s excellent implementation of Chambers Thesaurus. Now the game is to find more words that fit the theme with the potential for clues that appeal to me. At the same time, I work in the opposite direction by taking phrases that sound as if they ought to be clues and seeing if I can solve them.
STEP 4 Now I have an A-list of a dozen or so words, which I sort by length and colour-code for variety. Oh yes, it’s organised!
STEP 5 The hard bit: finding a Guardian grid that’ll take as many of my A-list words as possible without forgetting that this is meant to be fun. I keep a spreadsheet of all the grids in the Guardian library, so that I can quickly get a shortlist with the right combination of word lengths.
STEP 6 It’s time to write some clues (I’ll have a pretty good idea of how the A-listers will work already). With a bit of luck, I’ll have come across some lucky bonus connections between words at the grid-filling stage. By now, I’ll have at least one CrosswordCompiler file to organise the grid and clues – usually, I’ll also leave behind a trail of four or five false-start files containing alternative grids or rejected fills.
STEP 7 A quick check of spellings and citations, then must leave well alone for a few days to see how the clues read with a fresh brain.
STEP 8 I export all the clues in approximately the Guardian format, check the line count and prune without mercy. Always works better with fewer words.
STEP 9 A .pdf file containing the grid, draft clues, solution and explanations goes to PeeDee, who has been checking my work for fun & fairness since the launch of The First 50.
STEP 10 Another round of editing, then …
STEP 11 The entire CrosswordCompiler file goes to Hugh by e-mail. How did the great old setters do all this without computers?
STEP 12 Just Hugh’s Qs to answer. A few final edits, and we’re there. At this time, I’ll know the publication date, so I can write a teasing tweet to announce it.
STEP 13 A little admin – I’ll update the spreadsheet that lists my Guardian puzzles, with key details such as the publication dates and themes, and perhaps make a note of ideas that didn’t make it into this puzzle but which might form the basis of future themes. Finally, I mustn’t forget to add the clues from the latest puzzle to my CrosswordCompiler database.