22 April 2009

The Big Puzzle Party Wrap-Up!

Welcome to the last day of Winston Breen's Puzzle Party, observing the publication of Eric Berlin's The Potato Chip Puzzles! The first mystery to address is whether I'll be so cruel as to make visitors read (or at least scroll) all the way down to the end of this posting to find the link for the final puzzle challenge.

And that answer's easy. Of course I will.

Here's my interview with Eric Berlin about creating puzzles, creating stories, and creating the Puzzling World of Winston Breen (bonus bit of interview back here):

Which came first for you--creating puzzles or writing stories? What's your usual starting-point for a Winston Breen novel?

I’ve always been a writer, though it took me a long time to figure out what I should be writing. I spent a few years after college believing myself to be a playwright, and I’ve written a lot of magazine articles for tech-oriented magazines. The Puzzling World of Winston Breen was my first novel.

I don’t think I gave any thought to creating puzzles (as opposed to solving them, which I’ve always done religiously) until 1996 or so, and even then it was just, “Well, I have this single decent idea, let’s put it down on paper and then get some ice cream.” I started constructing crosswords as a hobby maybe five years later, and around that same time I had the idea for the first Winston book. Or rather: I had the idea for a novel that would center around a 12-year-old puzzle nut, and it would have puzzles all through it for the reader to solve. What that book was going to be about I still wouldn’t know for another six months.

Now that I’ve written two Winston Breen books, the pattern is clear: In each book, Winston needs to get involved in some sort of grand, high-stakes puzzle event, and there also needs to be an underlying mystery for him to solve. I’m not sure how many variations on these very particular circumstances I can come up with--the last thing I want is for these books to feel forced. But I do have both the puzzle idea and the mystery for a third story, so it’s likely that the series will continue for at least one more book. I’ll worry about book four some other day. Or I’ll move on to a whole other thing!

The Winston Breen stories involve some elaborate public puzzles, which we don't usually see in real life. How do you draw on your own life or childhood to add verisimilitude to your plots?

Oh, I see elaborate public puzzles all the time! Let’s see...every year I go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the “Mystery Hunt,” a weekend-long team puzzle competition. I’ve got a team of forty people or so, and we barricade ourselves somewhere on campus and pit our increasingly exhausted brains against 150 or more insanely difficult puzzles.

I also go to two events hosted every year by the humorist Dave Barry. He and his friends create the Miami Herald Hunt and, more recently, the Washington Post Hunt [coming up next month]. These events attract thousands of people, and feature puzzles every bit as theatrical as any you’d find in a Winston Breen novel.

I attend these events every year, and a couple of others to boot, and the experience is always the same: I feel massive frustration when I can’t immediately see through a puzzle to its solution. I banter with my equally confused friends as we brainstorm different ideas. And then suddenly one of us--and sometimes it’s even me--gets the euphoric satisfaction of having all the lights in his brain turned on simultaneously. Aha! The answer! Hooray! Then there is much high-fiving, and then a mad dash to the next puzzle.

In short: Except for the mysteries Winston has to solve, the Winston Breen books are biographical.

Hmmm. I guess when I wrote that “we don't usually see” elaborate puzzles in real life, I just hadn't looked hard enough. Puzzle fests might be no rarer than the murder victims or bank robbers or real-estate speculators in sheets that the heroes of other series keep stumbling over.

A lot of writers aiming for broad popular readerships give their protagonists friends or siblings of the opposite sex, so the central group contains both boys and girls.
The Potato Chip Puzzles starts with a completely masculine cast: Winston, his two best pals, his principal, the teacher who becomes team advisor, and the chip magnate who's invented the puzzles. But this is also the story in which Winston and his friends discover GIRLS. How did you go about planning that?

It wasn’t so much a plan. It was more me realizing that if there are thirty kids attending this event, some of them really ought to be girls. And, furthermore, there would be a nice symmetry if Winston’s all-boy team allied itself with an all-girl team. And further furthermore, I really liked Bethany Seymour, the most outgoing member of the girl’s team--her character took shape right away. So, boom, suddenly I had a bunch of girls in my book.

But I really like to keep the plot chugging along, and I didn’t want to get bogged down in a lot of does-he-like-me?/does-she-like-me? pre-teen angst. Winston and his friends are the right age for that, but it’s not really what these books are about. There’s definitely some boy/girl tension and awkwardness in there, but I was careful to keep all that stuff on a low boil.

What's the hardest part of coming up with new puzzles? How do you tailor them to audiences who are probably younger than your favorite pants?

That’s the hard part, all right--making them solvable for young audiences. The average classroom of twelve-year-olds is so diverse. You’ve got kids reading adult novels and you’ve got kids who get no mental exercise at all, all sitting in one room. Even the kids who are interested in Winston Breen--they cover a wide variety of solving levels. As a puzzle creator, I want to come up with original, clever, never-before-seen puzzles...but brilliant puzzles don’t mean anything if the audience can’t solve them. A brilliant puzzle that no one can solve is called a “failure.”

(One of the puzzles in this week’s Puzzle Party, in fact, was very pretty and original and I was very happy with how it came out. Except none of my testsolvers could solve it. I tweaked it to make it easier...and still nobody could figure it out. What could I do? I had to toss it. That’s the way it goes.)

In the Winston books, I cope with this problem by showing a puzzle multiple times. First you see a puzzle just as Winston sees it, without any instructions and with no clear idea what you’re supposed to do. If you want, you can stop reading and try to figure it out. If you can’t, that’s okay: As you keep reading, you’ll learn a great deal of information about how the puzzle works. A couple of pages later, you’ll get another opportunity to solve it, and hopefully this time it will be a little easier. And if you still can’t solve it--well, that’s okay, too. Another puzzle is coming up in just a little while. I think only the most gifted readers will solve every puzzle in the books, but almost everybody can solve at least a few of them.

A lot of your puzzles are specific to American English, or American culture. Has your publisher's foreign-rights department talked to you about that?

Weirdly, back in 2007 at the publishing industry’s big foreign-rights convention, the first Winston book received more inquiries than any other book in my publisher’s line-up. (Or so my editor informed me.) I predicted confidently to my wife that not a single one of those inquiries would result in a foreign edition. Because how could it? Many of the puzzles are untranslatable--they have to be in English. A really determined foreign publisher could probably figure something out, but that seems like an awful lot of work. I know if I was running a publishing house in Spain, I’d just as soon buy a different book and simply plonk the translated text onto the page.

So, yeah, no foreign editions for me. My publisher doesn’t seem to mind.

The big new thing in puzzles now seems to be logic puzzles that are pumped out on a computer: sudoku and Kenken. They're not culturally specific, they always have an answer, and they start with software. Are they changing the culture of puzzles?

Well, they’re bringing in a new group of solvers, and that’s always nice. I am thrilled that a bunch of logic puzzles have gone so wildly mainstream. If you told me back in 2004 this was going to happen, I’d have laughed myself sick. Logic puzzles are supposed to be this itty-bitty niche product, not a New York Times bestseller!
Thanks, Eric, for that look at the making of the Winston Breen books!

Now was there something else I was going to do? Hmm hmm hmm. Oh, yes! Here's the link to the final Puzzle Party challenge. Good luck, folks!


Quicks?lver said...

Good interview!

Reading about the author Eric Berlin's journey towards finding his book makes me want to seek out the 2 Winston Breen novels. (I'm not in the U.S.)

I've been into puzzles for as long as I can remember, but sadly have found only a handful of people hereabouts (if 2 can already count as a 'handful') who share the passion. I think Winston Breen would make great summer reading for my young niece, who is smart but favors TV and video games pver reading. And I'd love to read it myself as well, natch.

Thanks for this!

--Mark, in Manila

Randall Stross said...

Great interview! Thanks!