A reader emailed me today:
I am writing fan fiction online and one of the people who edits my posts told me that books are written in the past tense. Based on what is happening in the story, I believe you should be able to use both...albeit carefully. Is what they say true?
It's perfectly OK to write in present tense. In Charles Dickens's wonderful novel Bleak House (published 150 years ago), half the story is told in first person past tense by the heroine, Esther Summerson. The other half is told in third person present tense by a nameless narrator.
Present tense can give a kind of urgency to a narrative: We don't know what's going to happen next, everything is contingent, so it's very suspenseful. However...
I wrote my first novel, The Empire of Time, in present tense for just those reasons—and because I thought it sounded cool. The manuscript languished at Del Rey Books for months, and the editor finally wrote to tell me it was publishable except for the present-tense narrative. Apparently readers of genre fiction don't like present tense all that much.
Well, I converted the ms. to past tense very quickly indeed (and this was in the medieval era of typewriters and carbon copies). What was more, I realized as I was revising that the story really did sound better in past tense. The moral I drew from this: Listen to your editor!
Since those ancient days I've read some SF and fantasy that uses present tense, in whole or in part, so perhaps tastes are changing (or some authors don't have editors as smart as mine were). But it's still a sharp departure from conventional storytelling, so the author should have a good reason for choosing present tense.