A Ghost of a Chance

In a contest dominated by otherworldly fiction, truck dispatcher Jake Marley takes home the Golden Pen Award with a supernatural ghost story.

Jake Marley is a hulk of a man, at about 6 foot 3 and over 250 pounds, with a scraggly beard. He has the look of a lonely trucker who could be dangerous.

If you were to run into him in a dark alley, the kind of place that his characters frequent, you could easily be unsettled, as he likes his readers to be: uncertain about what’s going to happen next, or flat-out scared.

That is, until you hear his infectious, surprisingly high-pitched giggle, full of undeniable joy.

That’s the sound heard when his name was called at the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Awards Gala as the 2017 winner of the Golden Pen Award, for his ghost story Acquisition. The giggle, then a full-on laugh, and then “Wow!” as he began his acceptance remarks.

The 38-year-old truck dispatcher from Garden Grove, California, kept giggling as he left the stage with the prestigious crystal award and a $5,000 check. “I must have looked at that trophy five or 10 times to be sure it was my name on there,” he recalled the following morning. “I couldn’t believe it!”

Marley has been writing since right out of high school, or about 20 years. “I wrote everything—from screenplays to comics, short stories, prose. I settled on prose because I don’t have to rely on anyone else. It’s all based on what I’m able to accomplish.”

Soon after, he married his wife Jaime. “My wife wrote stories, she was very good at structure, I was more interested in language,” Marley said. “I would write these stories with long beautiful character descriptions, tell everything about their world … but nothing happened,” he laughed. “The character would say ‘I wish we could have this’ and the next day they’d have it. There was no conflict, no struggle. When my wife writes, there was this happening and this happening and then this happening and then a struggle to earn what they wanted, but there was not a lot of character description.

“Us working together makes a pretty good team,” he said proudly. “Without her I wouldn’t be a writer at all. We brainstorm together. It’s taken a long time to admit I didn’t know how to get on track.”

An avid reader in high school—as much as three to six books a week—he was working as a driver and dispatcher, and had time to listen to books on tape, as well as author interviews in podcasts. “Those voices are incredibly important to me,” he said, comparing them to the mentoring he received in the workshops at Writers of the Future. “I absolutely wouldn’t be where I am without them. They keep telling you that if you’re good you can get published.”

But there was a rough patch where Marley was not writing a lot. He and his wife had been helping to care for his wife’s grandmother, who passed away. “We spent our whole marriage taking care of her, and then were like, ‘How do we be grownups?’” he recalled. “It was a whole different perspective.” They considered moving, opening a store, maybe even giving up writing.

His daughter, Molly James, wrote him a note that said, “I won’t stop believing in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself,” he recalled. “That might be my first tattoo.”

Marley and his wife worked on another story. It was, he said, the first time “I wrote for myself.” He had entered the contest 6 or 7 times before, he said, often drawing his inspiration by what he read in previous anthologies.

But he wrote this one based on what he wanted. The story was rejected initially, he said, because the reader didn’t like the ending. “And I thought, ‘Okay, I can fix that with one sentence.’ One five-word sentence changed the tone and the ending.” He resubmitted the story in the next contest. And was named a semifinalist, then a finalist, then a winner, and now, the Golden Pen Award winner.

In 2013, Marley’s father-in-law, James Eads was an Illustrator of the Year Award winner. That night, Marley told Contest Director Joni Labaqui that he’d be back to win the writer contest one day. Four years later, he has accomplished his dream.

“Submit, submit, submit,” Marley said at the Awards Gala. “There is no better contest for new writers in the world than L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future. This experience is unparalleled. Read, write, and finish what you write. Persistence is invaluable.

“I finally learned I can’t write 300 page stories with nothing happening.”

Marley said he’ll stick with mostly supernatural thrillers. “That’s the playground I like to play in. Horror and dark fantasy. I don’t like to write about other worlds. I like the modern world.

“Maybe our world is a little more interesting than we think,” he added. “Things coming out of the shadow, or wondering what’s coming out of that crack, what’s it going to do to me?”