TOPSHAM, Maine — Mike Doran was two weeks into his freshman year at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., when he realized the first few words of The New York Times crossword puzzle he was solving came too easily.
Doran, now 29, looked at the author’s name, and discovered his own. Since then, the “cruciverbalist,” or crossword constructor, as they are known, has authored puzzles for puzzle books, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.
A 2003 graduate of Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, Doran lives in Portland and is director of player development and tournament administration for the Maine State Golf Association.
When he’s not absorbed in golf — he’s got a zero handicap — he’s “a nerd who likes playing with words.”
And his mind just works differently, his mother, Lauren Doran, said Thursday.
“I can drive to a ‘Stop’ sign and see the word ‘stop,’” he said Thursday from his family’s home in Topsham. “Then I see ‘op,’ then ‘top,’ and then ‘pots,’ and you’ve got the seeds of a puzzle right there. I’m anagram-ing a lot in my head.”
Doran began solving crossword puzzles at 7 or 8 when his mother began bringing them home from work, she said. Before long, he solved them in record time.
As a student at Mt. Ararat, he created some “pretty basic” puzzles for the school newspaper, and some for the local paper.
Then he submitted a puzzle to The New York Times — and puzzle editor Will Shortz, generally considered the modern master of crosswords, wrote him back with some tips. After a series of rejections, his first puzzle appeared in the Times in September 2003. A copy hangs on the wall in his parents’ sitting room.
New York Times puzzles get progressively more challenging as the week goes on, culminating in bigger, notoriously difficult Sunday puzzles.
For puzzle constructor, restrictions limit the number of black squares, the word counts and the number of partial phrases authors can include.
And puzzle constructors add their own guidelines: For example, “Unless you’re really stuck, you don’t want to use too many vowel-heavy words. Like ‘etui,’ or pincushion,” he said. “But if the rest of the puzzle is really good and that gets you out of a corner, it’s OK.”
A few years ago, the Times ran what Doran said was his favorite puzzle, titled “To Thine Own Self Be True,” based on the quote from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” In the puzzle, the clues were words that begin with the letter ‘i’ and the second part of the word is a verb. For example, the clue “icon” led to the entry “Ponzi schemer,” and the clue “irate” prompted the entry “film critic.”
Even Doran gets stuck sometimes. One puzzle he constructed last month contained two-word entries in which both words begin with the letter ‘D’ — such as “Double Dutch,” or “Doctor Dolittle.” But as he finished constructing the puzzle and wrote the list of clues, he realized he had spelled Dolittle incorrectly, and after hours of work, “had to scrap the whole thing.”
For Christmas, Doran constructed a puzzle for his parents that in a way tells the story of their family.
“I had no idea,” Lauren Doran said. “It was very moving. Very emotional.”
In addition to seeing his puzzles in print, Doran reaps some financial gain from his “word nerd” handiwork. He earns $200 for each New York Times puzzle, except for Sundays, which draw $1,000.
Doran said he can “crank out” an easier Monday puzzle in six to eight hours. More complex puzzles take longer.
“They’re a labor of love,” Doran said. “Only a few people in the country can pay their mortgage constructing crossword puzzles. But it’s the pleasure of thinking that someone commuting into New York City is doing it to kill some time, and to take them away from their daily life.”