Quizzing the Puzzler

Okay, full disclosure, I’m going to sell you on two of our 2018 Page-A-Day calendars. But as a full blown planner/agenda/calendar addict, I need to share with you why a printed calendar is so much better than the calendar on your phone: Big. Red. Circles. Drawn hugely around your birthday and your vacation because those are the only days that really matter.

What's more, Mensa's Page-A-Day Calendars challenge your mind and help keep you sharp every day of the year. We spoke with with the author of all 365 puzzles in this year's Mensa calendars, Fraser Simpson, to learn more about what makes a good brain teaser and how one becomes a creator of conundrums.

Victoria Liguez: How long have you been creating brain teasers?

Fraser Simpson: I’ve been solving and creating puzzles since I was a child. My specialties are writing cryptic crosswords and creating IQ-style puzzles.

VL: How many Mensa Calendars have you contributed to?

FS: I have made contributions since 2009, when Dr. Abbie F. Salny, the originator of the calendar, decided to retire. She wrote the majority of the 2009 calendar, and I helped write a small portion.

From 2010 through 2016 I created the calendar puzzles with my good friend Mark Danna. Mark chose to retire from the project after the 2016 calendar and I have been writing it myself since then.

VL: About how long does it take to create/write the brain puzzlers used for one Brain Puzzler Calendar?

FS: It takes a long time! I usually write the calendar over the summer. I create all 365 puzzles, write instructions, and lay them out in the manuscript, and then test-solve (and make corrections to) the manuscript before sending it to the publisher, Workman Publishing.

After the calendar gets laid out in proof form, it goes through several editors and test-solvers at various stages and it all comes back to me for tweaks, corrections, and rewrites. This proofing process often goes through until January. Because of the timeline, each calendar is written a couple of years in advance so that it will be ready in time.

For example, in 2017 I was writing the 2019 calendar, because it needs to be in stores by midsummer of 2018. The rest of the year, if I get an idea for a calendar puzzle, I put it in my “puzzle ideas” list for a future calendar.

Mark and I decided when we first started doing the calendar that we did not want to have any puzzle type appear more than three times per calendar. Every year I’ve been trying to introduce a couple of new puzzle types to add to the regular mix. This way regular solvers can enjoy their favorite puzzle types from before while developing some new favorites.

VL: What makes a really good brain teaser question?

FS: I always imagine my solvers sitting down each day with their morning cup of coffee to solve the daily puzzle. The ideal brain teaser is one that will last through most or all of that morning cup. Many of the calendar word puzzles have five or six small puzzles on a theme with a mixed range of difficulty. The logic and number puzzles are often a single puzzle that takes a number of steps to complete. I make the puzzles that I would enjoy solving if I had five to 15 minutes to spare.

Some solvers tell me that if they’re stumped on a puzzle, they come back to it later in the day and are amazed to find they see it with fresh eyes and can finish, so the puzzles may not always be solved in one sitting.

VL: Do you have super fans that contact you with alternate answers or ideas for how to make a brain puzzler harder?

FS: There are definitely super fans of the Mensa Brain Puzzlers calendar! Sometimes I’ll get a letter from a solver who wants to know how to start solving a certain puzzle that they don’t know how to do. To help with this, I’ve been including more starting hints in the calendar with some of the multi-step puzzles so that if solvers are stumped, there is a suggestion on how to begin. I also hear from solvers who tell me how much they look forward to tearing off the previous day’s page to see what new challenge they’ll be facing today.

VL: How does one get into creating brain teasers?

FS: Start by solving a lot of other people’s puzzles to see what types of puzzles you like.

Creating a puzzle is a different experience from solving a puzzle, and being a seasoned solver makes it easier to understand how to create a puzzle. Then make some puzzles and try out your creations on friends and family and listen to their feedback. Watching someone solve your puzzle can help to understand what assumptions people might make, and how to word your instructions better. Your friends can tell you what they most enjoyed about your puzzles, so you can work toward doing more of that.

VL: If I wanted to start writing and publishing my own brain teasers, what are your suggestions to break into this very niche industry?

FS: The best way is to start by creating puzzles for a free publication to get a sense of all parts of the process from creation through to printing. Listen closely to the feedback you get from solvers. If people like your work, they’ll want more of it.

VL: What's the most difficult brain teaser you have ever written? The hardest you've ever seen?

FS: I once wrote a math puzzle for the calendar based on two escalators and it was a real toughie to solve. That puzzle certainly would break the “morning cup of coffee” time limit for most solvers. Since that puzzle, I’ve tried to keep the puzzles at more of a midrange difficulty. I still vary the types of puzzles throughout the calendar. Some days the challenge is a little easier, and others it involves a bit more pencil-chewing. I think it’s a good balance. As for really tough puzzles, I belong to the National Puzzlers’ League, a group that likes tough word puzzles. Most of the puzzles in their monthly magazine are very fun but quite challenging!