On September 06, 2007, a recent member, NELLO, asked:
Being new to the NPL I had a bit of a question. Am I alone in finding the flats to be almost mindboggingly difficult or did others here find them to be similarly difficult when they first started? (I'm more if a crypt guy.)”
Then, MORBUS IFF chimed in:
Hey there. I'm five days new and facing the same thing. Ultimately, I think it just requires a different way of thinking, that my (our) brains hasn't gotten used to yet.
Replies poured in. Here are most of them in some kind of loose order.
I was a member for a year and a half before I even tried to crack the flats. Then I attended Con and spent a very useful hour and change in a flat-solving tutorial with Hot. I tried the next Enigma and solved 6 flats!
Now, I'm getting older, not younger, and I don't think I'm any more intelligent than I was three years ago, but I routinely solve half or more of the flats in each issue. Experience really does help. Also, if you're near other Krewe, it's very helpful to get together with more experienced solvers each month to solve the Enigma as a group. It's amazing how you start to get the hang of it and see things that wouldn't have occurred to you before.
Good luck, and have fun!
No, it's not unusual for newcomers to find flats difficult, since the solving technique (inference from verbal context) is not used in most other word puzzles one encounters nowadays. It's useful in reading a language in which you're semifluent, though. And taking cloze tests.
If you're having trouble, I recommend skipping the more opaque puzzle types (acrostical enigmas, rebuses) and composers (Ucaoimhu, Wrybosh) and sticking to straightforward stuff like deletions, anagrams, and homonyms.
Oh, and the easy list is your friend.
Make that the easy list CAN be your friend.
I remember paging through my first Enigma , getting totally flummoxed, and spying the easy list. Aha! thought I, and immediately started looking at the “easy” flats. My first reaction was that the easy list was some type of cruel joke perpetrated by established Krewe members on clueless newbies like me - sort of the NPL version of No Soap, Radio. I'd second the recommendation to find a solving partner. If there's nobody local enough to solve with in person, you can always get a long distance partner. I'm happy to help you out (having dragged you into this thing, I do feel kinda responsible), though I'm a middling solver at best.
Flat solving is kind of like lifting. Yeah, it's always hard, but once you get the rhythm & motion down, you have a real steep learning curve for a while - sail that, baby! But Wrybosh's rebi are like King Deadlifts or Hindu Pushups; they're NEVER going to be easy.
In addition to suggestions that have already been posted, I'll add what I did when I first joined – On the website you can find many past issues of the Enigma . I printed out a bunch of consecutive issues (the answers for each Enigma are found 2 issues later). I sat down with those printouts and the Guide, and went through the different flat types, trying to solve them and then looking at the answers until I felt that I had the hang of how they worked. I've been a member for a little over a year and I'm not proficient by any stretch, but just going through type by type really helped me get to where I could solve some and have fun with it.
I'd say the three main lessons you need to know to solve flats are:
1) Know your rules. When you're starting out, look up the kind of puzzle you're solving, know what the enumeration and tagging mean. Pay attention to the rule that says that words from the answer and forms of those words aren't allowed to appear in the puzzle. So if there's some word the author seems to be trying not to use, the more likely it is the word is in the solution.
An advanced form of this lesson is, know your dictionaries. These days, if a word is NI2, for example, it's either so obscure that you *need* NI2 to solve, or – much more likely these days – the word is a compound or weird coinage (like “self-inflatingly” or something, which I just made up) made up of pieces you probably already know.
2) Find the clues. A basic rule of flat cluing is, every concept in the answer appears twice (at least) in the puzzle: once (or more) in the words in the flat, and once where the cuewords are. Look at this one.
There are fewer LONGs around these days
Without the one they chose to retire.
To visit them, don't use a SHORT;
You'd have to go much higher.
The first concept is hidden by the cueword LONG, and also described: there are fewer of them because they (whoever “they” are) retired one. The second concept is hidden by SHORT, and described as something you can use to visit something else. On the surface, that's not much, but careful reading can suggest other possibilities. “These days” may mean that the retirement of a LONG was a recent one, and maybe this isn't a person – people choose to retire; others don't retire them. And the emphasis in the cluing for SHORT implies that SHORTs do go high, just not high enough.
In particular, look for anything the author seems to be bending over backwards to mention. The harder the author is working, the more likely you're looking at something clueful.
3) Pick your spot. In most cases, one of the words you're looking for is best clued, or has the fewest other possible words that might also fit into that slot. If a flat mentions two guys fighting, and the first guy BLANKs the other, in addition to the dozens and dozens of synonyms for “hit” out there, these two might be doing anything: tackles, forgives, avoids, insults, defeats, hates. Usually one cueword is the place to “break into” the puzzle.
In the example I gave above, the cluing of SHORT seems to depend on the meaning of LONG. Since we don't know how high LONGs are, we don't know what isn't high enough, you see? So it looks like the place to start is with LONG.
In particular, the trap is to focus on one part of the puzzle, and try to work it, when it's clued strangely or in a way that you don't expect. Keep your mind flexible, and consider all parts of the puzzle.
My actual solving percentage is not particularly high and I don't track it. If I actually was diligent at trying to solve every puzzle and tracking, I might be able to solve half on a good day. If I'm just not understanding one, or I just don't care for it, I move on. The number I skip now is a lot lower than in my first issue. And I actually got a 100% solve on the new Mini-sample
And don't forget that one way to guarantee that you can solve a few is to submit some.
There's a built-in problem with the Easy List, which is that it's based on the suggestions of proficient solvers whose idea of an easy flat may be far different from a newbie's. If you consider yourself a medium-level solver and would be willing to comb through the draft copy of The Enigma each month to identify the easy puzzles, I'd welcome your perspective, and I'd be happy to add you to the testsolving team.
Treesong used to compile helpful lists, such as a list of flats that he could solve without resorting to references. Obviously, his choices reflected his personal knowledge and solving ability. I'd prefer not to add to my workload and compile such a list myself, but if there's a volunteer who's willing to take on the task, I'll be happy to publish the results.
The list of new members which will appear in the October Enigma only came to my inbox yesterday for welcome letters to be sent. And, as others have already told you this morning, you ARE NOT ALONE. Please, know this is a very normal feeling when first receiving your initial packet.
Brute-force practice helps, if you can spare the time. I was, and still am, annoyed by obscurities. My personal preference is for clever wordplay that isn't obscure once I've figured out what's what. Obscure equals boring. There are better ways to waste time. Under the heading of “Know your enemy,” writing flats of different types will certainly help in the self-education process.
I wrote some and then tossed (deleted) them because I couldn't think of a way to find out if similar themes (bases?) had been used. It was a worthwhile exercise, though.
Don't worry very much about reusing bases if you're not sure what's been done before (even long-time members often forget). You can check with the editor if you want to be sure a base is acceptable before writing your verse. If a base was last used a few years ago, the editor may publish a reworking if the presentation is significantly different.
You know, I'll throw out a quick word in favor of “obscure”. There're some fascinating words that I've learned thanks to the NPL; my life would be poorer if I didn't know what a singerie was. (It's also useful in class: when students ask how many words English has, I can say, “Well, that depends. Is something a word if it's in the dictionary but you can't use it? Quick, what's a 'singerie'?”)
Additionally, an obscure word can still be fun and interesting with the right presentation–again, calling on zebraboy's lovely illustration of a monkey with a guitar for “singer, singerie” (which was a false, er, something or other).
Seconded :) If there's one thing more delightful than discovering the existence of, ohhhh, for example, “hippotigrine”, it's sharing it with folks who I think would be similarly charmed.
My 2 cents:
2. Watch for words that ought to be in the verse but aren't–they are almost certainly in the answer. If a verse talks about the navy, and goes to great length to refer to the people onboard the ship as “tars” and “marine military” or some such, it's a really safe bet that one of the answer words is going to be “sailor.”
3. Read the rules for the puzzle type before trying to solve. Lots of them have twists that are hard to keep straight, and there is nothing more frustrating that beating your head against a flat only to discover that what you were looking for is not what the puzzle is asking for at all.
5. Ask for hints on the npl-folk list if you don't have someone to solve with. Even a comment like “dude, you're way off in the weeds” can be a huge help and doesn't really spoil the puzzle much.
Another two cents:
All of the suggestions have great merit. I suffered too. For some reason, a couple of months after I joined there was a 'themed' issue - music - that made a lot of the flats clear to me right off. Pure luck. For a while Dart collected and shared lists of people looking for hints, and people who'd be willing to hint. And the preferences of the hintees for slight hints or Sledgies. I think the Wednesday chat session was intended to take that load off Dart. People do still work in private chats on Wednesdays, I think, but some of us descend into chat or games.
Bother all that. The best thing you can do as a newbie is relax!!! It's only a hobby. And as you keep at it, preferably with someone who'll nudge you in a better direction, enjoy! Puns may be a “low form of humor” (hiss, booo, I disagree!) but they make our puzzles great fun.
So have fun!
Three things were each a great help when I was new to solving flats:
What was an extraordinary help for me when I first joined was Nightowl's ”cheat sheet” of flat types, which she sent me shortly before she passed away. I remember scanning it in and it being posted to puzzlers.org before the website got wiki-fied; I just looked for it there unsuccessfully.
Also of great help was GotS (Graffiti on the Sphinx), which has (alas) suspended publication indefinitely. Being able to see why certain flats were considered good, and how they had been constructed, was a great education. Every once in a while the idea is floated of bringing it back as an online blog/forum, although there are technological and social difficulties with that idea.
Finally, hanging out in the NPL chat room on Monday and Wednesday nights is a great way to meet people and ask for hints. (The chatroom itself is a spoiler-free zone, but if you say “Can someone hint me on Oct 19?” you'll get a bunch of replies by private IM.)
And, post-finally, welcome!
Actually, the sheet that was posted on the site was one I prepared, not Nightowl's which I'd never seen. It's out of date since the guide has been updated and when I get time, I'll update it and get it reposted. I also should post the pdf version which prints better.
I'm also relatively new, so my thoughts:
1) I can only base this on my own experience, but having a history of doing many different sorts of word puzzles probably helps. For instance, I'm still not the deftest at transposals and anagrams, but all the Laddergrams I've solved in the past probably helped raise my competence level.
2) Reading the exact specifications of the various flat types in the Guide helped me out a bit–I read it online before I had even actually joined. Even a few months afterwards, though, I've checked up on the rules for a flat type to discover that I had forgotten some helpful wrinkle in the rules.
3) Practice, practice, practice. I've been working my way through the past issues that are posted on the NPL website, and simply immersing myself in those thousands of examples has helped me greatly.
4) Checking the answers for the flats I couldn't solve. In addition to building up the mental pathways for solving, I find it a relief to discover that a good handful of the flats I couldn't solve were flats I was NEVER going to solve, barring an extensive dictionary hunt. While I understand that those can lead to frustration when you're striving for a complete sol list, I currently view them as a mental uptick for how many of “my” puzzles I was able to solve.
5) This may be a crazy idea to throw in there, but I would hesitantly suggest that you try to *construct* a flat, if only for the personal challenge. I'm not yet at a point where I feel comfortable submitting one of my prototypes to the Enigma, but I feel that making a few of them has helped me spot the “tells” other flattists have. (Oh, and I managed to solve one particular September flat due to it being identical to an idea I had. No, I'm not bitter …)
Anyway, I hope some of that was helpful. I myself have already improved my flat sol percentage from 30% to about 60%. (How do you feel about forms and extras? I'm fair on forms and crypts, and I love extras to pieces.)
Oh, yeah, and welcome to the NPL!
Thanks for the suggestions. I've been playing with the forms a bit tentatively over the weekend and really haven't formed an opinion of them quite yet. The concept behind them is brilliant! Extra's are great, too. I've been having a blast with the various 'quote' puzzles and I'm eager to try out the Knight’s tour in the September Enigma.