It’s a funny thing to think about wanting to stay in the slush pile, but really your goal is to stay in the slush pile long enough to be published. This means you don’t want to do anything which would get you kicked out of that pile before your desired agent or editor even looks at you!
So, here’s the secret. The easiest way to stay in the slush pile? Do your research and FOLLOW the submission guidelines. Every agent or editor or publishing house or anyone who wants to see your work (from flash fiction to epic series) will have submission guidelines. Most of them will be associated with the business webpage and will be very easy to find. If you can’t find the guidelines you can also look on Query Tracker or Absolute Write or Manuscript Wish List or one of the many publications which go out with agent and editor information in them (This isn’t even CLOSE to a full list, there are lots of ways to find the information). This really and truly isn’t hard and publishing professionals WANT you to be able to find them. They won’t hide their submissions or otherwise try to trick you.
Now, I’ve heard the argument from various writers that they shouldn’t have to follow the guidelines because they don’t agree with them. Another argument is that if you follow the guidelines you won’t stand out from the crowd. The truth is that it doesn’t matter if you agree, it’s not your agency or publishing house, and you will stand out from the crowd, but not in a good way, in an auto reject way. Very very rarely do gimmicks and efforts to get around the rules to be special work, and for the once in a blue moon that an oddity does work there are thousands of similar attempts which didn’t.
Publishing folks have guidelines because they are busy and because they often hand over the first pass slush responsibilities to interns/juniors and to late nights. I know we all want to feel like a priority, but these folks have clients and businesses to run. Clients represent real money, a bird in hand. New authors represent only potential money, and may not even be a bird in a bush but an octopus. They must attend to the real money first, no matter how much they LOVE finding new talent. A lot of slush gets done on the weekends, vacations and late nights and they have to make the process as simple as possible for THEM, or they have to close to subs.
One of the other factors in submission guidelines is that publishing professionals aren’t only looking for an amazing story, but also amazing people to work with. The guidelines are also a test to see if you can follow instructions and are good to work with. If you can’t be bothered to create a double spaced format, or send in exactly what they ask for it’s a sign you may be a nightmare to work with and it’s better to boot you now.
Back in my college days I read slush as the Executive Secretary for The Leading Edge. One of my jobs was to open the mail, respond to non submission letters, log the submissions and break them into groups of thirty. Then myself and the Executive Editors would each take several piles and read every story looking for pieces which shouldn’t be passed on to the rest of the editorial team.
I had a stack of submission guidelines and form rejections at hand and in any stack I would reject 10-15 submission out of hand because they were: the wrong genre (we only published SF/F), too long or too short for what we could print (when the whole magazine has to be under 100 pages we cannot print your 300 page novel), too badly formatted to be read (I got one written in what looked remarkably like eyebrow pencil. It smudged.), or broke our content rules on language and sexual content (seriously do not send your erotica to a magazine run by a religious school. It’s a waste of everyone’s time, not that shocking, and will not get published). Each of those subs got a form rejection letter and a copy of the guidelines, usually with a note or a highlight of the guideline which had been broken. We encouraged folks to resubmit within the guidelines. It rarely happened.
Is it possible that in those stacks of rejections there was golden material missed? Sure. It’s possible. However, we got hundreds of submissions every week and the material which was passing the guidelines was amazing. We really had no need to go digging after the hard stuff in order to fill our magazine with fantastic material, and we had a lot to do besides slush reading to put out two issues a year.
This same process still happens everywhere that submissions are accepted, though now most houses have moved to electronic subs and rejections. Increase your odds of staying in those submission piles by making life easy for publishing professionals. Make sure you know what their specific submission guidelines are and then follow them to the letter. No pictures, no phone calls, no food, no scents, no weird paper, just no… Play within the rules and you’ll have a better chance of winning the game.