Date: July 1, 2005
Byline: Doug Moe
Madison man a prime puzzler
IF YOU happen to know an 11-letter word for "hot dog connoisseur," then you are likely in the orbit of Bruce Venzke, a 60-year-old Madison man who in the past several years has successfully immersed himself in the somewhat arcane world of crossword puzzles.
Venzke, whose day job is with Modern Specialty Co., does not just work out the puzzles, though he usually solves three a day. "That's my homework," Venzke was saying Thursday.
What Venzke does is create the puzzles, and his creations have been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and syndicated in papers around the country.
In March Venzke, who began seriously constructing crosswords in 2002, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., in part to meet editors but also to meet, for the first time face to face, the young woman who has been his collaborator in constructing puzzles for the past three years.
Stella Daily is a 27-year-old medical copywriter from New York City whom Venzke met by e-mail after reading a posting by Daily on a crossword puzzle Web site. The young woman was expressing her excitement over having had her first puzzle accepted by the Los Angeles Times. As it happened, Venzke had just sold his first puzzle to the same newspaper. They swapped congratulatory e-mails, with Venzke noting at one point, "I hate doing the clues." Daily responded: "I love doing the clues. Maybe we should collaborate."
The result, three years later, is 130 published puzzles, with another 100 or so finished and somewhere in the submission process. Venzke constructs a grid, fills in the answers and e-mails it to Daily, who supplies the clues, and they send it off.
What began as something of a lark has become enormously satisfying, if not overly remunerative, for Venzke, who lives with his wife, Jeanne, in the Orchard Ridge neighborhood. They have two grown daughters. Nobody gets rich constructing crosswords. But, take it from Venzke, it's a great kick to be sitting in a coffee shop and seeing someone in the next booth thoroughly engaged in solving one of your puzzles.
Venzke, who grew up in the Waukesha area, came to crosswords through another passion, billiards. Bruce and Jeanne came to Madison in the late 1970s to open a downtown pool room. It was about that time that Venzke began contributing a monthly column to a billiards magazine. Many years later, one month when the column well was dry, Venzke recalled seeing a word search puzzle with a famous billiards player theme. Not wanting to copy it directly, he did a billiards-themed crossword puzzle and his readers loved it. Next came a personal crossword puzzle on the occasion of his daughter's wedding and almost before he knew it, Venzke was hooked.
The first few times he submitted puzzles to newspapers and magazines, they were sent back without comment. Then a puzzle Venzke sent to the Los Angeles Times came back with a note from the paper's crossword editor, Rich Norris, saying he liked the puzzle but had a suggestion to make it better. Venzke tweaked his puzzle, sent it back, Norris published it and Venzke was on his way.
He was not on his way to great wealth. Newspapers have never been overly generous to freelancers and the crossword is no exception. Papers pay between $50-$100 for daily puzzles and a bit more for the more intricate weekend variety. The New York Times – the Holy Grail for puzzle constructors – is raising its rates later this month to $150 daily and $600 weekend. Venzke and his collaborator, Daily, have cracked the New York Times four times. Considering that the Times gets up to 70 puzzles a week from the best constructors in the business, that's pretty good. There are a few people who make a living freelancing puzzles, but not many. "If there are two dozen across the country," Venzke said, "I'd be amazed."
Venzke, like anyone, appreciates the extra cash his creations bring, but he's in it because he enjoys it. Every puzzle is a fresh challenge. Venzke has a software program that now has 141,000 words and phrases in it, but the computer can only do so much. It takes a human to know the nuances and hard and soft rules of crossword editors. Obscenities and drug references are bad, lively and evocative words (think "sparkle" or "kerplunk") are good. Names are OK but not in abundance, and you shouldn't use too many short words or black squares, either.
It's an ongoing learning experience for Venzke, who continues to enjoy the search for that perfect mix of words, phrases and theme that "make a puzzle come alive."
As for that 11-letter word for "hot dog connoisseur," the answer, at the national tournament in March, was "frankophile." But you knew that. Didn't you?