When I wrote Project Sparkle, I automatically wrote in present tense. I guess I had been reading a lot of present tense (it was becoming the hot thing in children's fiction). Later, I found it suited my character's impulsive, forthright nature, and the thriller genre. That's the magic of present tense. It's immediate, intense, and the reader doesn't know the future anymore than the main character, even whether or not the main character survives.
Check out this opening from White Cat by Holly Black (which I'm currently listening to as an audiobook and LOVING all over again):
"I wake up barefoot, standing on cold slate tiles. Looking dizzily down. I suck in a breath of icy air."
If you keep reading, you discover Cassel has sleepwalked onto his dorm's roof. But even before you know that, you can feel the tension, the height, the precariousness.
When I drafted Project Demo, I intentionally wanted to distance myself from Project Sparkle, with a quieter, more thought-provoking character and style. So I went with past tense. It suits Project Demo perfectly, as most of the novel involves the character debating whether she made the right decision. Not only is past tense more traditional, and more storyteller-like (Once upon a time...), it allows for more reflection than is usually possible in present tense. But that definitely doesn't mean boring.
Check out this opening for Ally Carter's Heist Society (one of the books on my to-read pile):
"No one knew for certain when the trouble started at the Colgan School. Some members of its alumni association blamed the decision to admit girls. Others cited newfangled liberal ideas and a general decline in the respect for elders worldwide. But whatever the theory, no on could deny that, recently, life at the Colgan School was different."
A great set-up for whatever's about to happen, no?
And that's the heart of the present / past debate. Either, done well, is practically invisible. Most writers seem to prefer one or the other. Others say the project suggests the tense. But what if I really don't know which to use?
How do you decide what tense to write in?
*By the way, I've been playing with the design of Critically Yours. Hopefully it won't look too weird or different over the next few weeks, but you've been warned.*