The tragic loss of her young son, and a renewal of her faith, combined to launch Fran’s next act as the author of Christian inspirational books.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in a farming community in East Texas, where I attended grade school with two grades to the classroom. My dad, an auto mechanic, worked at his shop in Hawkins, Texas, and my mother was a homemaker. The oldest of three, my brother and sister were spaced out six years apart after me. I was fortunate to have Christian parents and grandparents who greatly influenced my life. At the tender age of six I wanted to become a nurse. After winning a scholarship after receiving the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow Award for the state of Texas my senior year, I had the privilege of obtaining a B.S. degree in nursing from Texas Woman’s University.
During my sophomore clinical studies at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, a tall, handsome, Swedish sophomore medical student introduced himself in the library and invited me to join him at the coffee shop. I did. We dated for two years, graduated, and then married and I became Mrs. James H. Sandin. We were both financially challenged. His dad had died in an auto accident when Jim was a high school senior, so a scholarship enabled him to finish his undergraduate studies at Yale University prior to attending University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. He worked his way through. I sewed my wedding dress and made the crown for my veil out of pipe cleaners and beads—all for less than $25.
We moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Jim completed a year of internship and I worked at the hospital on the medical-surgical unit. Jim then served as a medical officer with the rank of Captain in the Air Force for two years, with the first at Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam. I moved back to East Texas and worked at a hospital there until Jim returned and we finished his tour of duty in Oklahoma City, where he completed a four-year residency in Urology. During that time, our first two children, Steve and Angie, were born. I was a nurse at Midwest City Hospital in Oklahoma full time until the children were born, and then I worked part time.
We moved to Greenville, Texas, where Jim began his solo urology practice. I became a stay-at-home mom and worked occasionally as needed at Jim’s office. Our third child, Jeffrey, was born in Greenville. As a mother of three preschoolers, my days were filled with a variety of smiles, laughter, and sometimes tears. While attending an evangelistic service, the Lord prompted me to renew my commitment to Him. I suddenly realized that I had all of Him, but He did not have all of me. I came home, and, in my heart, I placed myself on an imaginary altar and said, “I am Yours, body, soul, and spirit. I want my life to honor You.” After that experience, I had a renewed joy and excitement about the Bible and my time alone with God. Sometime later, I had an impression that the Lord was telling me I would be going through a dark place but not to fear that He would be with me.
At the age of 17 months, our blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful toddler, Jeffrey, became ill on a Sunday morning with what we expected to be a short-term viral illness. Unfortunately, it was bacterial meningitis, a strain that attacked the brain and spinal cord. Before the days of the Hemophilus Influenzae vaccine, many children between the ages of 6 months and 2-3 years succumbed. Although everything medically possible was applied to our son, he died on Thursday of the same week. At that time, Steve was 5 and Angie, 3. I was in shock and totally devastated. We had a great church home and friends and family gathered, prayed with us and for us, and cared for us as the arms and feet of Jesus. The grief journey was something I had to go through alone. No one could do it for me. I experienced grief again when our son, Steve, died in 2012 of cystic fibrosis and kidney failure at the age of 43.
Currently, we are blessed that our daughter, Angie, has married Beau, and they have our three beautiful grandchildren, Emily, Julie, and Daniel, and live only about an hour away. We see them often and have a close relationship with them. We also enjoy our grand-dog puppies, Daisy and Lilly, dappled dachshunds.
What event precipitated a change?
I was 32 when Jeffrey died. Two years later, I felt the Lord prompting me to write a book to help other parents dealing with loss. I argued with God, “I’m not a writer.” In my spirit He replied, “I Am.” I responded, “But I don’t know how to write a book?” He said, “I do.” So, I felt He was calling me and with His help I could do what in my own strength I could not do.
I called my friend, Nancy, an English teacher, and told her I felt the Lord prompting me to write a book and I didn’t know where to begin. She said, “Come on over, bring your notes, and we’ll make an outline.” We talked about my journey through grief so far, the questions I had, my memories of Jeffrey, and some Bible verses that were important in my recovery. I took that visit as a starting point and began writing. One day a week, I took my typewriter to our lake cabin about 30 minutes from our home and spent the day writing and crying.
It took four years for me to develop a manuscript; when I finished, I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the public library, checked out a book on how to submit a manuscript, and followed the directions. When I began sending it out, I didn’t know how to evaluate the publishing houses, so I kept getting returns. Most of my relationships with editors were cordial and very helpful.
Now and then, an editor would include a sentence of encouragement. One male editor suggested I needed a ghostwriter when he wrote, “Your husband is a doctor, so you can afford to pay someone to write your book.”
I would put the manuscript away for months at a time because I didn’t know what to do next. But the burning in my spirit would not let me leave it there and I just kept sending it out.
What is your next act?
I am the author of See You Later, Jeffrey, a lovely hardback gift book, which was published in 1989, when I was 45. After 25 rejections over several years, a friend encouraged me to attend a Christian Writers’ Conference, where I met Virginia Muir of Tyndale House, who read my work and made some suggestions. I came home and rewrote the manuscript, took it back the following year, and 11 years after I began writing, on the 27th submission, Tyndale House, one of the top four Christian publishers, published my book. By this time, I could talk about our loss without crying. I was invited to speak on several occasions to church groups and had interviews on radio and television in the U.S. and Canada.
I am currently working on a new devotional book and continue to write a monthly devotional for my website. I submit devotionals for Arise Daily Devos sponsored by AWSA (Advanced Writers and Speakers’ Association). I’ve submitted two chapters for compilation books; one at Bethany House has been accepted for publication and another is pending with Guideposts. Both of my chapters deal with the death of our son, Steve. When I am writing and using God’s Word, I feel His pleasure and it energizes me. It refreshes me and gives me hope. My theme has become, “Redeem the time.” As long as I have breath, I will praise the Lord.
How supportive was your family?
While I worked part-time in Jim’s office, served as a church organist, and focused on Steve and Angie, I continued to attend conferences, read, and work toward improving my writing skills. Jim was very supportive through it all. For instance, he even attended a writer’s conference with me where we stayed in a college dormitory on the 4th floor. The elevators were not working, so he trudged up the stairs carrying suitcases in the July heat. We had to take sheets and towels, too. Although he was sweating and his 6’4” body did not fit the bunk bed in our doll-house-sized room, he never complained.
My children were great and encouraging. Friends prayed for me. I could not have accomplished anything without all their support. Learning about writing and the publishing industry was tacked onto an already busy schedule, but the Lord abundantly met my needs.
What challenges did you encounter?
At first, my big challenge was understanding that when a manuscript is returned, it either did not meet the needs of the publisher or it needed more work. It was not a rejection of me as a person or of my story. It took a while for me to understand the importance of a critique. Finding the right market for submissions was a problem until I studied the topic.
I also had to realize that different editors have various ways of communicating. If one happened to be particularly harsh, I had to accept it as his opinion, and not a death sentence for my writing. When I first began, I said I could never write a devotional because I had too much to say. Now I’ve learned to cut unnecessary words, so I can express thoughts with a smaller word count.
I never stop learning and always desire to become a better writer. I certainly don’t know it all. I am also technically challenged and sometimes struggle to keep up with the latest developments.
What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I learned the importance of self-discipline in order to meet deadlines.
I was normally sensitive and had to learn not to take returns and rejections personally. I realize it is a business, but my motivation is to share how my faith has been a lifesaver in every situation I’ve faced. My motto is, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?
My progression from a basic typewriter to a word processor, then to a computer was daunting, but I kept going and teaching myself how to use the new technology.
I took a class on how to build a website. What did I learn? That I didn’t want to spend my time doing it. Fortunately, I found a local efficient and reasonable webmaster in my community who takes care of my internet presence: Sue Hawkins McClure at email@example.com.
I’ve learned not to be so sensitive about what I write. It’s okay if an editor asks to have something changed or said a different way. I’ve gotten a thicker skin, so to speak. I learned to persevere and not give up. I’ve learned that to whom much is given, much is required. God has blessed me with many opportunities, and I want to share His blessings with others. He is teaching me to have a servant’s heart.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I see the step-by-step process involved and especially the divine encouragers God brought into my path. I really enjoyed meeting with other writing friends who helped me. Because of the way I began writing from the heart following our son’s death, I cannot think of anything I would change. Even if my book, See You Later, Jeffrey, had not been published, the process of writing was therapeutic for me. I could not see this turn of events in my life until it happened.
What advice do you have for someone seeking reinvention in midlife?
I was not unhappy with my work as a nurse or as a homemaker. However, it was the burning in my soul and the distinct calling from God that launched me into writing and sometimes speaking. So, my advice to someone would be to have a close daily walk with the Lord, listen to Him, and obey His leading, even if He calls you out of your comfort zone. If He whispers for you to do something, He will see you through step by step. Persevere and don’t give up. An author is a writer who did not give up. I remember as a student buying a book at the college bookstore called, How to Build a Better Vocabulary. Perhaps that was a glimpse of what I would need in my later years.
What advice would you give for would-be writers?
I got into writing and publishing through the back door! In other words, I didn’t know what I was doing; and if I had known then what I know now, I would have been too scared to even begin. So, I took the plunge step by step and prepared by being consistent in planning time to write and then later by attending conferences and reading books about writing. I learned how to write magazine articles and devotionals and realized at age 45 that I really enjoyed it.
Publishing has its challenges and frustrations. It took a long time for me to understand that different publishing houses have various missions and if your topic does not fit into their category, you may be rejected, but that does not mean that you are a bad writer. Also, editors are people. Some can be very nice and understanding, and others can be blunt and seem uncaring. The thing I learned is that an editor may express a negative opinion but that doesn’t mean that I should quit writing. Mainly I have learned to receive criticism as an opportunity to improve my work. For some reason it is not ready for prime time, so I let it rest awhile, then go back to it and try to make it better. Writing is mostly re-writing.
Many women want to write a book because they have a story to tell. I think one has to decide if they want to write as a way of documenting stories for their family or as a hobby, or if they are serious about pursuing publishing. For the publishing industry, writing is a business and the publisher wants to know that an author is willing to help market the book and has a platform ready to help it sell. They also want to know why you are the person to write the book, why you are qualified, and the intended audience. More and more publishers want to view book proposals presented by an agent because the agent has a good understanding of the business and where to shop the proposal.
It takes wisdom to avoid scams and vanity publishing houses. Digital publishing is now an option to be explored. At the writer’s conferences, most of the instructors say, “Don’t quit your day job,” meaning that it is difficult to make a living as a writer.
My work has been in nonfiction inspiration. For anyone interested in a similar track, many online websites are available to help. At Book Launch Mentor, you’ll find a list of various ones across the country and a way to contact them. At the major conferences, editors are looking for good material for their publishing house. You can sign up for an interview and critique of your work. Those who attend a conference and meet an editor face to face have a better chance of acceptance than those who send their work “over the transom”—where it lands in a pile of other submissions to be viewed by an overworked editor.
So, my suggestion would be that if you have a great idea, get books on how to write a query letter and how to write a book proposal. Both are necessary along with learning about the professional approach and the business of writing. Some people don’t want to go through the educational process, because it may take a few years. In other words, you can’t zip off a piece and send it to an editor with the sentence, “You must publish this because God told me to write it.” That manuscript will likely land in the “no” pile.
Also, learning to write involves an investment of time and money. Set aside time and some extra money for buying books and attending conferences. Being a published author is not something you decide to do one day and accomplish the next. Be willing to work at honing the craft and learn about the business and marketing. Much more is involved than just sitting at your desk and pounding out words on the computer. But when you have success, it is only the beginning. In other words, you build upon acceptances, but each project is considered independently. Holding your first book is like you have given birth and it is your baby. The experience is exhilarating.
American Christian Writers also has a magazine that you can order, The Christian Communicator, has articles to help writers and speakers.
Find a local writer’s support group, a place to go for critique and ideas. It helps to have others read your material and make suggestions. Sometimes we know what we want to communicate, but others may not understand. Having that input makes our writing clearer and more meaningful.
What writing resources do you recommend?
These books have been helpful for me:
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
An Introduction to Christian Writing by Ethel Herr
Writing a Book That Makes a Difference by Philip Gerard
Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life by Philip Gerard
Discovering the Writer Within by Bruce Ballenger & Barry Lane
How to Write Irresistible Query Letters by Lisa Collier Cool
How to Write a Book Proposal: The Insider’s Step-by-Step Guide to Proposals that Get You Published by Michael Larsen
This Business of Writing by Gregg Levoy
This is a comprehensive list of Christian Writers Conferences along with other helpful information. Jerry Jenkins has great information for beginning writers, both fiction and nonfiction.
Connect with Fran Caffey Sandin
See You Later, Jeffrey
Touching the Clouds: True Stories to Strengthen Your Faith
Other books that I have contributed to are listed on my website. Also, articles for free download are available on the first page of my website.