Given the clue "Puzzle editor," you would probably answer, WILL SHORTZ. The New York Times crossword czar and star of the movie Wordplay has made his name nearly a household word. But hundreds of unsung wordsmiths also toil to feed the public's appetite for mental entertainment. One of them is 30-year-old Maria Valiente, who edits crosswords, acrostics, cryptograms, logic problems and other brain benders for Dell Magazines from her Burling- ton apartment. For Valiente, it's a dream job.
Born in Argentina, she came to the States with her family when she was in elementary school. After college, where Valiente majored in English and communications, she looked for an editing job. Her first two positions - working on a reference book about grants and a medical journal - were "boring," she says. Valiente had always liked puzzles, so when she spotted an opening for a crossword editor at Dell, she jumped at the chance. Five years later, she still enjoys it - especially since 2003, when she traded in her daily commute from Westchester County to Manhattan for a telecommute from Vermont.
Valiente works the same hours as her coworkers - 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. - and keeps in touch with them via iChat. As the editor of the monthly Dell Crossword Puzzles Plus Variety!, she selects puzzles, answers fan mail, lays out pages, and revises clues to conform with Dell's style rules - a multipage list that gets updated periodically. Keeping track of several issues that are at different stages of production is a challenge. "I'm scared of missing a step," Valiente admits. "That's why I keep such detailed lists."
Meticulous to-do notes are posted in her dining room/workspace, along with family photos and a Phish poster. A filing cabinet contains one-of-a-kind brainteasers catalogued according to type and difficulty. Twice a year Valiente returns to New York to replenish the supply from the stream that pours in from freelance "constructors" around the country.
Today, proof pages from the March 2007 issue await inspection on the dining table. To one side sits a dictionary, and to the other a sharpened pencil. It's decorated with flowers and Valiente's name: MARIA.
SEVEN DAYS: Have you ever constructed crossword puzzles?
MARIA VALIENTE: I have not. It's a whole different skill from editing. And that goes both ways. Some of our constructors are good at writing clues, but we have a very specific style in Dell. We don't like any words repeated.
SD: You mean you don't like any answers repeated?
MV: Oh, no. Answers repeated is completely out of the question. We won't even have anything that's the same root in the puzzle. If we have NEED, we're not going to have the word NECESSARY in the puzzle. It's not going to happen. We'll change an entire diagram if we have to.
SD: And you follow the same standards for the clues?
MV: We don't like to use the same kind of clue more than once. So if we have a clue that says, "Cashew, for one" for NUT, we're not going to have "Neptune, for one" for PLANET in the same puzzle.
SD: What are some of your other rules?
MV: We don't want to use any words that could offend anybody. We also try to stay away from pop culture in the crosswords, just because it's not fair to all of our solvers.
SD: Who are your solvers?
MV: It really ranges, but we do get a lot of older people.
SD: So you could refer to Lawrence Welk but not to Phish?
MV: We tend to stick more with Mae West. Some things we do use after a time. For example, EVA comes up a lot in crosswords. EVA always went to Eva Peron. I remember trying about a year ago to do Eva Longoria from "Desperate Housewives." They said, "Not yet." But now we use her.
SD: Do your puzzles always have a theme?
MV: Our "Expert" and "Challengers" often have themes. We also have special crosswords that follow special rules, and they can be a lot of fun. We have one called a Misprint Crossword, and every clue has one letter that's misprinted. Like in the clue for SENTRY, instead of "He might scream halt," we might say, "He might scream salt."
SD: Do you have any advice for how to solve a crossword puzzle?
MV: There's just a lot of things that come up a lot in crosswords. A lot of three-letter words: EMU, AVA, EVA. ASP all the time. And some clues that, if you'll look in any crossword, you'll see them over and over - "Cleopatra's downfall: ASP." "Sturdy tree: OAK."
SD: Do you try to avoid those clichés? Or do you put them in to make the puzzle easier?
MV: I would never use "Sturdy tree" for OAK in a "Hard"-level crossword. Our "Hards" are hard. Editing an "Expert" crossword, I've spent, like, two and a half hours just to come up with clever clues.
SD: Which do you prefer, editing the easy ones or the hard ones?
MV: I like the "Specials." Those are definitely my favorite. I'm about to start working on an alliteration crossword, and those are really fun. The clue has to have every word start with the same letter, and each clue has to be at least four words. And we try to use the really difficult letters, like X. That's a hard letter to use. But if you're lucky enough to have the entry NAME, then you can just say four names that start with the letter X: "This, this, this and that."
SD: Did you do crossword puzzles when you were a kid?
MV: Yes. I've always been a fan of puzzles in general. I used to buy Dell. I love "Jeopardy," I love trivia, I love Trivial Pursuit.
SD: Did you do spelling bees?
MV: I never did, but in my junior high everybody took a spelling test and I did get the best score in the school - by a female. I've always been really good at spelling and grammar, and I don't know if that was because English was my second language, but maybe it's because I learned it when I was 7 and learned it in kind of a book way.
SD: Are there idols of the puzzle world?
MV: I think it's all about Will Shortz, really. And he actually lived in the town that I went to college in, and sometimes he'd be on the train. But I never talked to him.
SD: Do you see people in dentists' offices or on trains doing your puzzles?
MV: I do. All the time. It's kind of fun. And it's fun because they're always at the grocery stores and Barnes & Noble. That's kind of neat.
MV: Do you ever hear heart-warming stories from solvers?
SD: Tons. We hear tons of heart-warming stories, and some of them are really sad. We got this one letter from a woman and she'd lost her son to cancer. And she said how she'd sit with him in the hospital and they'd do the crosswords.
SD: Do you dream in across and down?
MV: [Laughs.] No, I don't. I do dream about editing sometimes. But I think that's normal. I used to work at Friendly's, and I was constantly dreaming about scooping ice cream.
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