Mark McClain's crossword puzzles have been published across the country

Three letters across. First two are I and T.

The third letter … D or T?

Mark McClain studied the crossword puzzle on his computer screen. He wasn’t trying to solve it, at least not in the conventional sense. He needed a three-letter word because he was making the puzzle, letter by letter, word by word, row by row, clue by clue.

McClain spends a few hours each day creating crossword puzzles that are published in newspapers, magazines and on websites across the country. A 70-year-old retired corporate manager who has lived in Salem since 2003, McClain is a longtime puzzle solver who only started making his own puzzles in late 2013.

Ten months later, on Oct. 3, 2014, he had his first puzzle published in, of all places, the Los Angeles Times.

In less than two years, he’s had 41 puzzles published in publications that include the Wall Street Journal, Newsday, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Orange County Register and Crossword Clubs. He has 44 others slated for publication, including two scheduled to appear in that holy grail of crossword puzzles, The New York Times.

“That’s the gold standard,” he said.

Then again, there’s no topping this past July 3, when he had a crossword puzzle published in the Sunday edition of The Roanoke Times.

Relying on his Hewlett-Packard laptop, puzzle-making computer programs, the internet and a good, old-fashioned dictionary, McClain knocks out as many as five puzzles a week in the downstairs office of the south Salem home he shares with his longtime partner, Diana Christopulos. He earns anywhere from $20 to a couple of hundred bucks for a puzzle, depending on the publication and which day of the week it’s printed.

“I could make more money working at Walmart,” joked McClain, a father and grandfather whose gray beard and wire-rimmed glasses give him a professorial look, especially when he’s surrounded by computer screens and clipboards of puzzles. “This is a hobby that pays.”

Back to that puzzle he labored over recently, the one with the three-letter word that began with I-T. Initially, he filled the third space with a D, which created the word ITD. The only clue for that, he figured, would be “a contraction of ‘it would.’ ” Blah, he thought.

He switched the D to a T, creating the word ITT, which is the name of the New York-based technology company that used to have a plant in the Roanoke Valley.

“Or Cousin Itt from ‘The Addams Family,’ ” he said. Either way, the answer suited him to a T.

“At least it’s better than ‘It’d,’ ” he said.

Playing with words

McClain grew up in Alva, Oklahoma, and lived for years near Dallas, where he was a manager for the Zale Corporation, the diamond people. He was an avid puzzle-solver, working on up to 15 different puzzles a week in papers such as the Dallas Morning News and The New York Times.

“When I was young, I played tennis. Then, I got older and had to move on to crosswords,” said McClain, an outdoorsy guy who volunteers for the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club and has held leadership roles in the Sierra Club’s local chapter, the Roanoke Valley Greenway Commission and the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition.

Years later, after he and Christopulos moved to Salem, he saw the documentary film, “Wordplay,” which told the true stories of competitive crossword solvers and the people who make the toughest puzzles.

The movie also featured Will Shortz, the puzzle guy for The New York Times, the “puzzlemaster” on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” and a hero to puzzlers across the country.

The movie inspired McClain to make his own puzzles. “Real people do this,” he realized.

Of course, this being the 21st century, real people use the internet to make puzzles. McClain downloaded the puzzle-building program Crossword Compiler, and soon was building grids. Within a few months, he wrote to Rich Norris, the puzzles editor for the Los Angeles Times, and got published. The Tribune News Service syndicated that puzzle across the country. The Roanoke Times carries Tribune puzzles on Sunday, which is how his July 3 crossword showed up in his hometown.

Norris, who said that the Los Angeles Times receives about 150 puzzle submissions a month, described McClain as a quick study when it comes to knowing what puzzle editors want.

“It’s not that unusual for a new constructor to get accepted within a few months,” Norris wrote in an email to The Roanoke Times. “What is special, however, is Mark’s ability to continue to be accepted regularly. It usually takes new constructors longer to learn what editors are looking for, which is ultimately what leads to more acceptances.”

Stan Newman, puzzles editor for the Long Island, New York-based newspaper Newsday, has published more than a dozen of McClain’s puzzles. He also said that McClain has a sense for what individual editors look for in submissions.

“I’m the populist editor,” Newman said in a telephone interview. “I want current American English, not crossword jargon. I want a puzzle to connect to people who read the newspaper every day. I am very strict. Mark got that early on, to my delight. He made crosswords from the very beginning like he was reading my mind, which nobody can do!”

McClain has two puzzles in the hopper for The New York Times, but doesn’t know when they will run. One of his puzzle-building friends waited 18 months from the time a puzzle was accepted by the Times until publication.

McClain said that Shortz, the superstar of puzzle people, reads every submission — which must be mailed the old-fashioned way.

“Print out the puzzle, send an envelope with a stamp,” McClain said. All other publications accept emailed versions.

Crossword craftwork

For the three newspaper readers who have never seen a crossword, a brief explainer. The puzzle is a square that consists of rows of empty white boxes that the solver fills with letters and words suggested by clues. The words run left to right and top to bottom, and overlap with words in other rows, hence, the name crossword.

Most American crosswords that run in daily newspapers are 15-by-15 grids (15 rows across, 15 up and down), although McClain often makes 13-by-13 grids. The puzzle patterns look the same when turned 180 degrees, a feature called radial symmetry. Look at the crossword in today’s Extra section, then turn the page upside down. The pattern of the blocks is the same either way.

In the old days, a crossword constructor used pen, paper, a dictionary and brains to come up with words and clues. McClain uses those tools, too, but the internet is a massive resource for constructors. McClain can look up word lists for ideas, and he can research databases to see how other constructors worded their clues or how many times words have been used in other puzzles.

Even in this high-tech method of crossword construction, making a puzzle isn’t easy. A puzzle builder can literally back himself into a corner, where the letters and words simply don’t align, and the puzzle must be ripped apart.

“It’s like, ‘I don’t like where that door is,’ so you have to tear out the entire wall,” he said.

Creativity and originality are still possible, too. Most crosswords have themes, and McClain prides himself for clever wordplay in his crosswords. In a soon-to-be-published puzzle, the theme is “Wacky Wordplay.” One of the clues: “Admirer of certain Sistine Chapel frescoes?” The answer: CEILING FAN.

Another: “Item in the Transylvania baseball team’s gear bag?” Answer: VAMPIRE BAT.

“This is the kind of nonsense that crossword fans have to endure all the time,” he said.

He already self-published a crossword book, “Unplugged Crosswords,” that can be purchased on Amazon. Another is in the works. The book’s subtitle describes the puzzles as “medium to hard,” which gives him immediate comebacks to any complaint.

Puzzles too hard? “Well, says right there, ‘Hard!’ ” McClain said.

Puzzles too easy? “Says right there, ‘Medium!’ ”

“It’s all about the fun,” he said. “Making puzzles that are fun for solvers. It’s fun to make ’em, fun to solve ’em.”

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